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What keeps you in your boat when you are upside down? The thigh grips? The hip pads? Surprisingly there are some folk who think that the piece of material that is attached by some thoroughly flexible bungee cord, otherwise known as a backband, is the thing that keeping us in the boat. I’m not sure when bungee cord became strong enough to support human weight through a friction pad, but there you go…

Of course that idea is silly. That’s not what a backband is for. The backband can give some support to the back, and the best theory for its purpose that I can ascertain is that it stops you sliding off the back of the seat, particularly when you push against the foot blocks. And the reason why you slide off the seat if there isn’t a backband is because most manufacturer supplied seats are not very deep.

This doesn’t stop some people sticking to long passed down dogma however, and refusing to accept such a suggestion. Each to their own. Personally I like to examine things and test the theory rather than listening to old wives tales.

With this in mind, and the fact that the backband in the Jitsu weighs over half a kg, I have removed it. My new seat is deep/bucketed enough that I cannot slide off the back. As such I went ahead and tested it. And it worked. No matter how much I threw the boat around, going vertical on both ends, and upside down a lot, I didn’t fall out. So much for the idea of a backband being the thing that keeps you in. And now I have been using it for going on a year in this configuration I have yet to fall out. In addition a certain freestyle coach had a go in inlet gate at HPP and confirmed there was indeed no need for a back band in it.

Flat Earth Society

The first time I ever tested this config I did lift off the seat a bit when I was upside down. But there were two reasons for this. And none of them were to do with the lack of a backband!

The main one is that the existing Dagger thigh braces can’t be set far enough back along my leg. There is a very slight gap that allows my leg, and hence my backside, to lift very slightly. I could modify them easily to account for this, but my intention is to replace them completely with foam constructions. It is these that mostly keep you falling out of your seat when upside down, not the backband. If you think it’s the backband that does this, I expect you believe that the earth is flat as well?

The second reason was that my hip pads needed some extra shims, since once I started throwing the boat around the play in the deficiencies in the fit were highlighted. It only needed slight tuning, but it does need to be snug to be effective.

One thing that became clear was that paddling a playboat with a cagdeck and no backband, once I got used to the weird feeling of nothing behind me, was blissful freedom! You don’t realise just how much a backband restricts your movement and mobility until it isn’t there. It is a liberating feeling.

Now obligatory bow stall photo

One of the things that most kayakers dislike is the need to wear lots of gear all the time, and the feeling of restriction this brings. It is something not present in most other highly active adventure sports, particularly most watersports, where all you usually need is a wetsuit at most, or maybe at a push a very lightweight PFD. And so the loss of that restrictive backband was a rather good feeling to say the least.

Did it feel weird? Yes, of course. We are used to the backband being there so the sensation is a new one. But that’s just something to get used to. I don’t believe in the idea of having something there just because it feels more secure. Feeling more secure is a whole different thing to actually being more secure.

A small comparison is when we start to do freestyle. When we start play boating it feels wrong to edge the “wrong” way. If we went with our natural kayaking instincts we could never learn to play boat. So you need to let go of your precognitive feelings and open your mind, and instead of only trying it for 5 minutes and deciding it feels wrong, try it for a few weeks, regularly.

Would I remove it from a creek boat? No. It can have some protective purposes in a boat that goes off a lot of drops. And that is the downside I have found during the more extreme movements, that my back is more exposed to clunk against the rear cockpit rim. But having said that, I have been in playboats where the backband itself has worked its way into a weird position after a movement, requiring a removal of the deck to correct.

Hip pad modification

After my first test I brought the boat back into Q lab, err, I mean the garage, for some modification. This simply involved marking out where the pads were for future reference, untaping the temporary hip pad fixing, adding a new thin piece of foam cut and sanded to shape, and then refitting.

I was sure that I had enough of a snug fit this time. So I went ahead and Gorilla glued the newly modified pads back into place (testing the fit first of course).

Thigh braces

Making new thigh braces is a bit more involved than the hip pads, and indeed the seat. The shaping of these is pretty crucial, and unlike the other fittings these will have to be bolted in somehow. Not something that closed cell foam readily lends itself to. But it’s not impossible. And as such I have yet to tackle this.

The plan was to make the thigh grips up in layers before sanding and filing to shape. To allow them to be bolted in using the existing Dagger bolting system holes would need to be drilled through and a solid plastic sleeve glued inside. This will give the bolts a solid object to clamp against when done up tightly. But I need to look at this more closely, possibly in the summer.

Was it worth all the effort?

Yes, it was. An absolutely resounding yes. It might only be 3kg or so shaved off the weight of the boat, but for a freestyle boat that’s a lot. It is very noticeable indeed when carrying the boat, and it is noticeable on the water.

The boat obviously moves a bit more easily, and is much nicer when making ferrying moves. Previously the nose was pearling a fair amount during such moves. Now though, the lighter version of the boat doesn’t do this as easily. Not only that but I am finding that it is responding much faster to subtler shifts of body weight. The boat simply feels much more snappy, if that’s a word to use.

During flat water freestyle practice it is less effort to throw around. This isn’t just down to the fact that the boat has less weight to manoeuvre, but also that it floats slightly higher in the water. So moves seem faster. One side effect I wasn’t expecting is that I am finding that it is much more balanced and stable in a bow stall. Normally being deeper in the water should help this. But in this case I find it easier. It might be down to the boat responding much more to small balance shifts.

Would I do the same to a creek boat?

No. Well, not to the same degree. I think that Zet have it right since those boats have a foam seat. But in general creek boats need to be more robust and structurally sound. A fun river boat on the other hand for up to Grade 3 water could be a lot of fun if lightened a lot. I’m thinking boats such as the Loki and Ripper.

Boats in general are pretty heavy these days. And after this exercise, although it is a lot of work to do, I would be happy if boat manufacturers offered hulls as basic shells with just front and rear pillars and a central track, with an option of making your own seat, padding etc, or purchasing them. For example there could be an option of a plastic, foam, or carbon ready made seat made for that boat. I’m not sure of the economics, but I know that a foam seat would be far less effort for an established manufacturer to make than a rotomoulded or vacuum formed one, which would require expensive mould and tool making. A carbon seat is more tricky, but they can be made to order and priced accordingly. The same goes for thigh grips.

Paddling a Waka Gangsta not so long back brought this home to me. Despite being a lot of fun to paddle on the water, it was heavy to carry, as are most river runners and creek boats. The manufacturers are in a bit of a quandary because they are fully aware of the need for lighter outfitting, but at the same time there is a demand for professionally designed seats and pads to come with the boat. This is understandable when you compare kayaks to mountain bikes, with their complex engineering and nice, shiny parts.

But I think we need to be seeing this from another perspective. Outfitting a white water boat should be a tailor made exercise. It is more effort, but the results are worth it. We’d have lighter boats in general, and maybe even less expensive ones because R&D won’t have to be expended on designing complex new outfitting, along with all the mould creation and tooling that goes with that process.

We should be focussed on the hull performance, and tailoring the fit of the boat to us as individuals. As Corran Addison recently wrote, you wouldn’t just buy off the shelf ski boots and go out skiing. You have to have them outfitted for you by an expert. Kayaks are nicer to paddle when they are lighter.

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