Thursday, March 20, 2014

Jackson Kayak Karma RG

I don't often do reviews of gear on my blog. There are a few exceptions, sometimes because something new and exciting came across my path, but mostly I talk about gear when it lets me talk about something more general. I don't really feel that one person's opinion of what works for them is particularly enlightening to the consumer. It also gets tricky when you work in the business and half your paddling buddies are sponsored by someone (or work full time for a company/shop). I try to keep the focus on kayaking and not what's used to do it.

Recently I've had the chance to try out a prototype and then the production version of a new boat. It's the Jackson Kayak Karma RG. To me, the interesting thing is not this boat in particular but what it represents. The easiest way to talk about that is to talk about the boat itself, so that's what I'll do.

The Karma RG is meant to be a rock gardening boat. It's based on the Karma Unlimited which was built as a class V whitewater racing boat. The RG version (stand for Rock Garden or River Guide) adds a stern bulkhead/hatch, a retractable skeg, and perimeter deck lines. The mold (and thus basic shape of the boat) is the same for each version.

The idea of using whitewater boats to play in the ocean has been around for quite a while - probably since whitewater boats first were designed by taking sea kayaks to the river. If you combine water and rocks you get the same basic outcome - whitewater. Doesn't matter if there's salt involved or not. So it makes sense that a boat that performs well in one place performs well in the other. Let's look at what makes a good rock garden boat.

Maneuverability. You need to be able to dodge those rocks. This means a boat that handles well: turns quickly, accelerates fast, stops on a dime. What does it take to have that control? Rocker, good secondary stability, not too much width, solid outfitting. That's what creek boats have. The rocker allows for quick turns but it also allows the boat to ride up and over rocks. It allows a boat to boof. The flared and raised sidewall on the Karma also keeps the edge out of the water unless you lean to engage it. This makes it remarkably stable when you need to edge it to turn. Acceleration comes from a planing hull that rises over the water on a wave. And having solid thigh braces, adjustable hip pads, and a easily adaptable foot-brace pillar system makes getting a secure fit easy.

All these things describe the regular Karma (which I reviewed here). But what makes a rock garden boat different? Should it be different?

One of the main differences between the river and the ocean is where you start. On the river, you start on the river and just keep going. You have current to move you towards your destination. On the ocean, the play spots can be a long ways from your access point. You might even have to launch through the surf to get out where you want to go. You do a lot more flat water paddling on the ocean. That's where a skeg comes in handy.

A skeg is a little fin that sticks out from the bottom of the boat. It helps the boat go straight. The problem with creating a maneuverable boat with lots of rocker is that it likes to turn. Paddling a whitewater kayak in a straight line over flat water takes some effort. The skeg reduces the amount of effort required, allowing you to save your energy for the fun stuff. Having a retractable skeg allows you to pull it up out of the way when you do start playing. The best of both worlds.

Another thing that helps with all that flat water paddling is length. Length equals speed. It helps you race on the river, but it helps you get through the surf on the ocean. It also helps you catch less steep waves - the kind you commonly find when playing around rocks on the sea. A normal creek boat is going to be under nine feet long, a rock garden boat will be closer to twelve.

The hatch that's on the Karma RG is also not just about convenience. If the event of an out of boat experience on the ocean, you can't always just swim to shore and drain your boat before climbing in. Any sea kayaker will tell you the quickest rescue (after the roll, of course) is the T rescue. In order for it to work, you need a bulkhead behind the seat that allows the water to drain out when your buddy picks up the front. That makes a ocean worthy boat that is much safer for users at all levels.

The deck rigging is also a convenience/safety twofer. Sure, it's nice to be able to stick some snacks or a chart of the area under the bungies. But in the out of boat experience you also need to be able to hold onto your boat. And so does your rescuer. The Karma RG comes with solid deck lines [ON THE STERN] with piping that make it easy to grab. It's also easy to rig up more lines in front if you want them (I suggest you do) [EDIT: The boat comes with stern deck lines installed and space to rig bow deck lines if you want them - I reversed it in my original post.]. It's these little changes and details that turn a whitewater boat into an ocean going vessel that not only performs well but is designed for the environment.

That's what makes the Karma RG a rock garden boat. But what do I think of it, you ask? I like it. The prototype was too heavy - an unfortunate necessity when prototyping a plastic boat. The production version is much lighter and more responsive. I think it shines when playing around the rocks - catching waves on the corner, running pourovers, charging through tunnels. In pure surf is has great speed and the edges allow for some control, but it still has quite a bit of volume and won't handle like a surfing boat will (check out the Jive to see what I mean). I really like the rigging on the production model, but the hatch leaves a little to be desired in the security department. It would be easy enough to add a strap holding the cover down, and you probably want that if you're going to be playing hard. For most folks it won't be an issue.

I also like the idea of taking the RG on the river, using it as a River Guide boat. I could definitely teach whitewater classes in it since it has the same features, but the speed would help with attainments to get back up to students and the hatch would be great for storing lots of stuff with easy access. It would also make a great boat for multi-day trips, with way more room than a typical whitewater kayak. Bringing the luxury of sea kayak camping to something like a self-support Grand Canyon trip would be heaven.

There area couple other similar boats out there: the Pyranha Fusion, Liquid Logix Remix XP and Stinger, even the Dagger Green Boat. Each started as whitewater boats that were adapted to something else. What stands out most about the Karma RG is that they outfitted it expressly for rock gardening. It's not just a boat you can make do what you want, it's actually designed for it. Let's hope that's a trend that continues.

Here's a video of the brand new production version of the Jackson Kayak Karma RG being put through it's paces on the Mendocino Coast. Sean Morley, legendary sea kayaker and now Jackson Sales Manager, led the charge. Jeff Laxier and Cate Hawthorne of Liquid Fusion Kayaking also lent their expertise. You'll get a taste of what this boat is capable of in the right hands.


  1. Check out the Blue Sky Rockhopper series in the UK.....these were not drawn up on white water hulls (and have been around for a few years)....also Valley produced a glass rockhopping hull called the Cliff Hanger in the 90s...also not based on white water hulls...
    Glad to see that more emphasis is being put on this style of paddling....there have been a few of us who have been pushing this fun for years now!

  2. Yeah, the Rockhopper gets mentioned every once in a while when rock gardening comes up. But they've never really made it to the west coast - I don't think I know anyone who has actually seen one, much less paddled it. Seems like it could be a nice design but it takes more than that to get a boat out into the paddling world.

  3. Your Review is incorrect the production boat does not ship with deck lines it has some bungee fore and aft but the deck lines are absent. The grab handles featured with this video and mentioned in the review are also not supplied. The rear hatch seal is certainly not up to a Grand Canyon trip and is removed all to easily. It is obvious you have a vested interest in this Kayak and your review is therefore ill considered lacks credibility and not impartial.

    The boat has been rushed to market the moulding of the rear hatch lip needs improvement.


    1. The quality of the hatch is not up to Jacksons usual standards. Its a fishing Kayak hatch at best. Not designed for the Colorado for sure.

    2. See, this is why I don't like doing reviews - everyone has their own opinion and likes to judge. I do work in the industry but have no interest in the company - if anyone in the industry can't review anything than a lot of knowledge will not be getting out there. The truth is that professionals are generally in the best position to see a wide variety of gear and have the experience to make good judgments.

      In regards to specific points:
      - All the production boats I've seen have stern deck lines with piping. They also have rigging up front for more lines if you want. I mistakenly reversed it in the review, saying you could rig rear lines if needed (I've corrected that now). To be clear: it comes with rear lines (all you need for standard ocean rescues) and it takes about $5 of cord and five minutes to rig up bow lines if you want them.
      - I said the stern hatch is not secure enough for some applications; your Grand Canyon trip would be a perfect example.
      - As for grab handles, the boat does come with standard solid whitewater handles at the front and the back. Yes, some of the folks in the video added a rope to the stern handle to make it easier to grab - a common practice on whitewater boats.

      I'm sorry if you feel the review is inaccurate. I still stand by everything I said and I've heard from a number of people who have production boats and are really happy with them. But no one has to believe me or trust me or even listen to me. If you want to buy a boat, go take a look at it, demo it, and think for yourself.