The team at the finish

More Heart Than Scars

Paddling rivers is fun. It’s exhilarating to put on a whitewater river and know that you are going to travel several miles with nothing but a paddle and a purpose built boat. It’s also easy to take it for granted. Getting in and out of a boat and using our arms to propel it forward may seem simple, but can be incredible challenging to others – adaptive athletes. Through the evolution of the bellyak however, we’ve discovered a way to open up the same exhilaration to the differently-abled too.

From Toy to Tool for Transforming Lives

Bellyaks started out as an awesome way to play on the river in a high performance toy designed to navigate whitewater. In the process of using them, we realized that eliminating the sprayskirt and shortening the learning curve of traditional kayaking doesn’t just offer an insanely fun way to experience nature and get a workout. It also offers a solution for adaptive athletes no other product does. Swimming (or kayaking) isn’t always that easy, or even possible. But, through an intuitive and easy to use package, bellyaks allow these athletes to experience mobility, balance and exercise in a new way. As a result, the bellyak has become a tool that helps people transcend their scars and focus on the experience of NOW and who they want to become. As a business owner, seeing the experiences of people like William Blakely and Kyle Morgan have made me realize how important this is. Far more than just having a fun way to go down rivers.

More Heart Than Scars

We’ve recently been actively looking for more ways to get involved with adaptive athletes and those who would benefit from our innovative designs. With this in mind, we set up a booth at our local MS Walk to support their cause and to introduce people to the bellyak. The first person we met was a big, friendly, bearded guy named Zackary Paben, or Nubs as his friends call him. Zack, it turned out, is the founder of an amazing non-profit: More Heart Than Scars. Their mission:

For people with More Heart Than Scars
& their loved ones.
From trauma to disease,
together we transcend
our visible and invisible scars!

How They Help Adaptive Athletes

Among other things, Zack helps differently-abled people compete in Spartan Races – innovative obstacle courses held around the world. In the past, Zack would rig up all manner of sled-like contraptions to get his competitors through the mud pits, under the barbed wire, and as a means of transport. A lifelong paddler, he had been dreaming of something that was light, tough, durable, versatile and stable for mud, water and snow that kept the person using it safe. When he saw the bellyak, he knew immediately it was the piece of gear he was looking for. And I knew he was the person and organization I was looking for.

More Heart than Scars and Bellyak pose for a picture

Our Partnership

Bellyak is the first official corporate sponsor of More Heart Than Scars. Our missions align perfectly. They will be using the bellyak as a lightweight adventure sled for their upcoming season of Spartan Races. In fact, they’ve already taken the bellyak out for a spin in the Charlotte Spartan Race, and had a great time:

“Bellyak made it possible for Jesi Stracham, Miss Wheelchair NC 2017, to surf the mud pits with more stability, independence and fun than any of our other spinal cord injured MHTS athletes ever have before. A new world of adventure possibilities has oped with this amazing versatile craft called the Bellyak!”

Using the bellyak for a mud obstacle

 

 

 

Using the bellyak for a mud obstacle

The team at the finish The cutest team mascot

The Future

Through our collaboration, we are going to help get many more people to experience the freedom and mobility of bellyak specifically within Spartan Races. Together we will make a difference in the world, helping show what’s possible and reinforcing that we can better transcend our scars inside and out, together.

For more information on More Heart Than Scars, check out their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/MoreHeartThanScars/

5 Things to Expect Your First Time on a Bellyak

You’ve seen the Instagram pics, watched a video, and are ready to get on a bellyak for the first time! But what should you expect? Here’s a five of the most common things to expect when you pop your bellyak cherry:

Bellyaking on the Ocoee River

1. It’s easier…and harder than you may expect

Since there are no straps or a sprayskirt, a bellyak is much more accessible than a traditional kayak. In this sense, it’s much easier to get started. Most people master the bellyak roll within the first 15 minutes, and if you do come off self-rescue is very easy. However, it’s much more physically demanding than you would expect…the bellyak requires driving as opposed to just hanging on and riding. On whitewater, it’s as physically demanding as jogging or swimming. The key is to work with the water, and not against it. The bellyak is designed to glide efficiently across the water, and will teach you how to work with the subtleties of the current.

Having fun on a bellyak

2. You’ll never get bored

Bellyaking is fun to do because laying down and “swimming” is intuitive for almost everyone. There is also a long life of  skill progression because there are so many variations and subtleties to paddling the boat, from just getting down the river, to surfing waves, to performing more advanced freestyle tricks. Since your hands are in the water while paddling prone, you are able to feel the nuances of the river in a way unmatched by any other watercraft. Your paddling will become incredibly precise as you find the most efficient ways to move downstream. Since you are not attached to the boat or stuck in one position, variety is the name of the game.

Bellyaking on Lake Jocassee

3. Your first time doesn’t have to be long

The ideal length of time for someone’s first trip is approximately 1-1.5 hours. This equates to 2-3 miles, or approximately 5km if you are moving downstream (and European). Steady moving water with a little flatwater is best since it allows the user to experience flowing with the river and experiencing edge control in a safe environment. Small water seems big because you are at face level. If you are trying it on flatwater, you will soon master the skill of going straight and you can paddle it as long as you want.

Dressed to stay warm on the water

4. Dress for Success

You must dress for the water temperature when paddling a bellyak. You will get wet! If it’s chilly outside, make sure you dress appropriately with a good drysuit. In the summer time, bike tights work great for reducing the dreaded ‘calf burn.’ Another great option in warmer months is a 3/2 wetsuit for surfing, which will give you give you options for a wide variety of water/air temperatures.

Bellyaks make you smile the first time, and every time!

5. Don’t Underestimate the Bellyak

If you already kayak, keep in mind the bellyak will add one degree of difficulty and challenge to a familiar run. Before your first time, make sure you eat a breakfast of pancakes and sausages and get a good nights sleep. You will be wet and tired. But most likely wet, tired and smiling, which is the goal!

Think you want to try one out for yourself now? Check out our bellyak sale page for some sweet, dollar saving deals!

 

Sitting and kneeling on a bellyak

High Performance Bellyak Training: Volume II

In High Performance Bellyak Training: Volume I, we focused on lower lumbar stability and how it enhances the prone position while paddling. Also life. But what comes first, flexibility or stability? The egg. In other words, if the body cannot stabilize itself correctly – no matter how flexible you are it will find another (read incorrect) way. Ultimately, this will lead to stiff joints and uncomfortable exercise.

Now that we are all confused, let’s get in there and get mobile! In this volume, we’re aiming for functional posture and optimal performance on the water.

Stabilizing the Lower Back

Let’s start out with another key Foundation Training exercise: “Prone Decompression”. A perfect tool for all you prone paddlers! This is a great continuation from last week, as it teaches you how to stabilize the pelvis and elongate your torso.

Moving to the bellyak

Now your lower back is balling, let’s step it up a notch. Transitions on the bellyak are not necessary but important to learn if you want to get into more advanced pellyaking. Being able to transition quickly from prone to kneeling is helpful when surfing a wave or if you just want to change up your paddle position.

Sitting and kneeling on a bellyak

Using Training Accessories

What better way to work on stability, than finding a stability ball and bringing back the ol’ knee tuck (below). When you first do this one work on stabilizing your core muscle groups and doing it slowly and with proper form. To break it down, place your hands shoulder width apart and place your feet onto the ball. Make sure your pelvis isn’t sagging. Use your core activating muscle technique we learned last time by gently squeezing your thighs together to protect and strengthen your lower spine and go ahead and imagine sinking your belly button back into your spine. This should activate the majority of the muscles that connect to your pelvis, aka your core muscles. Take a big inhale and as you exhale tuck your knees into your chest. Do this nice and slow as you might be wobbly at first, in 3 or more sets of 5-10. Make sure you continue to support your stabilizing core muscles. As time passes, try doing it quicker while still maintaining proper form and you will be on your way to becoming an elite bellyak trickster. 

Mastered the knee to chest? There are loads of great stability ball exercises to get your core rockin’!

So why all the exercises?

Let me explain with a story. Grab some tea and a loved one and settle in for this one. Once upon a time on the Ocoee river in Eastern Tennessee, I was getting my surf trick on. Really feeling confident and nervous all at the same time as the eddies were full of Mambas watching me in between spotted roll practices and hand of God rescues. I went to go for what seemed to be the easiest surf transition; Prone to kneeling. Only to find out I had one type of muscle group, slow and not reactionary. It wasn’t going to cut it. I may have been strong at that point in my bellyak career, but quick I was not. The time that elapsed from my prone to kneeling position was enough to kick me off the wave every time. Horrified and ashamed, I paddled the rest of the way down the river, belly down to go on with my quest for faster muscles.

High Performance Bellyak Training: Volume 1

Bellyaking may be a new sport, but you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to train for it. It’s accessible to everyone – from 8 to 80 – but as with any paddle/water sport, there are a few things you can do in training that will better prepare yourself for time on the water. Read on for answers to commonly asked questions, and tips and tricks to help take your bellyak skills to the next level.

Q1: Doesn’t that hurt your back?

Only if you want it to. Back pain from sports is more commonly related to sitting and standing incorrectly as well as poor posture and core strength, not the sport itself. According to Eric Goodman of Foundation Training, many of us have adopted a movement program that doesn’t allow us to use the strongest muscles in our body properly. Ready to change that? Grab your bellyak and let’s go!

First, it’s important to note the bellyak has an ergonomic design which supports the prone position while paddling. This eases tension in the lower spine. It also allows the paddler more contact with the water so you can dig deeper and paddle stronger. If you are ready to beef up your game and become a more aggressive paddler, full-functioning muscle groups combined with flexibility are a must. I guess this is the part in the article where I am supposed to say if you have any pre-existing back conditions, consult your doctor and don’t take my word for it.

Q2: Where do I start?

Keep it simple. Your pelvis and lower spine are the most mobile areas of your body and so need the most stability and flexibility training to increase muscle control. Working on these areas will allow you to go from version 1 athlete, to a higher functioning version 2 athlete. You’ll be like a baby discovering it’s neck muscle! Proud moments!

Bellyaking with a stiff lower back

Version 1 – a less flexible lower back

Bellyaking with a more flexible back

Version 2 – a more flexible back

How to begin functional training

Let’s break down a couple of basic moves. My favorite is the classic yoga pose Sanskrit calls Salabhasana. Say it with me: SAL-AB-HASANA. If you are unable to pronounce the word you can also call it by its street name – Locust Post. Let’s try it!

Start with just the upper body. The majority of us can put ourselves into this position no problem, but remember we are retraining muscle groups to be full-functioning, so before you pop up as high as you can possibly go consider strength first. When we activate the muscles in our lower spine it adds stability versus just recklessly stretching and bending muscles, tendons and ligaments.

While lying face down, place an  object you dare not lose in between your thighs (see below). To hold the object in place you will need to squeeze your inner thighs together, which in turn activates the muscles and ligaments around your lower spine. From there, gently raise yourself a few inches off the ground, pressing the tops of your feet into the ground and lengthening your spine. Take 5 or so deep breathes, rest, and repeat 4-5 times. Wrap it up with a counter pose like child’s pose. Once you feel under control with this move you can add legs. I recommend giving it a few days before you add legs. Remember to keep it simple so you can retrain your body to function more effectively.

The first half of Locust Pose

Cobra pose with extended arms

Extend Arms for More of a Challenge!

Finish with Child's Pose

Finish with Child’s Pose

That’s enough yoga for today!

The next step of functional training

Now let’s add in some core strength! We are a big fans of Foundation Training, developed to facilitate the body’s natural healing ability and quickly improve degenerative movement patterns. The next exercise – The Founder – could be a game changer for everyone, whether you bellyak or not! Here’s a quick tutorial to get you going:

 

***No banjos were harmed in the making of this blog post and author, Jamie MacLeod, makes no promise to the results you may see.***

Bellyaks and Summer Camp: Fun With A Purpose

Why Summer Camp?

Developing Life Habits

The worst part about summer camp is that it often creates a lifelong obsession with the outdoors. I have always loved to swim and after learning to kayak at a summer camp in Vermont, I’ve based most of my major life decisions around access to lakes and rivers. From playing kayak games on the lake to running rivers around the country, summer camp planted the seed. Who knows how my life could have turned out had it not of been for summer camp!

Read more

All my old boats turned bellyaks.

HISTORY OF BELLYAK: EVOLUTION PART 2

***This is the second installment of the History of Bellyak. To catch up, read part 1 HERE.***

Second Evolution of the History of Bellyak: The Meat Locker

Flirting With Hypothermia

Neither wind nor rain nor freezing temps were going to keep me from paddling my creations. I had spent countless hours sanding, shaping and glassing my prototype bellyaks and even though the winter of 2011 was a cold one and I didn’t own a drysuit, I was not going to be stopped. Instead, I bought two of the cheapest wetsuits I could find and wore both at the same time, leaving me feeling like a fat kid dressed for a snowstorm, and just as happy. Numb legs, slightly disoriented after freezing myself, and hands that took a few hours to work right again were small side effects compared to the thrill of doing something no one had ever done before.

Dust, Everywhere

The process of turning a chunk of foam into a paddleable bellyak had the side effect of producing trash bags full of foam dust. It was everywhere…in my hair, on every piece of clothing I owned, and even inside my fiddle. The first bellyaks were built in my dads shop, in my yard, under a shade tree, or anywhere I could set up and build…I was a man possessed.  In January of 2011, my dad let me use a room in a warehouse that used to be an old meat locker. I was in business. Climate controlled for working with the foam and resin and no one to clean up for. Every Wednesday for a year I would work around the clock to have something to paddle for the weekend.

History: the meat locker where the bellyak prototypes were created.

The meat locker, complete with my foam man that I used for scale. We were good friends.

Kayaks, Halved

I had learned enough in my first round of prototyping to know what I needed to do different next time. How can I create a bellyak that is as forgiving as the Phat (creek boat) but with the performance of the Session (freestyle kayak)? I had halved my personal collection of kayaks and thus started looking for used boats, something with a wide planing hull and somewhere between seven and eight feet long.

All my old boats turned bellyaks

All my old boats turned bellyaks

Nipple to Knee

After a few complete failures, I learned that a consistent curve from nipple to knee, with knees slightly below hips, was the optimal ergonomic position for prone paddling. I also knew I wanted to work off a planing hull, since it was much easier to turn and carve with ‘front paw drive.’ I was focused on figuring out the human/kayak interface, as this was the key element for this style of paddling. For this round of R&D I wanted a similar feel to the Liquid Logic Session. I found a used Wave Sport EZ and quickly gutted it and cut it in half to make a mold.

History: the Wave Sport EZ bellyak mold

Three Versions: Blue, White, Sprout

The EZ bellyak paddled just like a freestyle kayak (defined edges, quick transitions) but didn’t have quite enough bow volume and was very tippy for anyone over 160 pounds. I built three versions of this bellyak, and learned a ton about ‘how’ to paddle; surfing, squirting, spinning were all discovered on this particular evolution of prone paddling.

Hey Man, I Want Your Kayak!

Perception 3D:

The original bellyak, a Perception 3D, was beyond destroyed for using as a mold. The wide planing hull of the 3D and the extra volume would give me a plug with plenty of volume to work with. Then, the bellyak gods answered! At the French Broad River Fest in 2011, there was a guy with a 3D on his car. I chased him down and talked him into trading it for my Liquid Logic Little Joe.

Old school Adam Masters on a bellyak prototype

Throwback Adam Masters on a bellyak prototype

History of the bellyak: Yellow prototype History of the bellyak: Red prototype

Red and yellow: both of these had extra stern volume and bow volume, which gave more stability, and kept the boat from diving as much as the lower volume EZ and Session. This model introduced many of my friends to bellyaking. It had the performance of the Session and EZ but the extra volume made it more forgiving for learning.

Too Long

New Wave Sleek:

This kayak belonged to a friend of mine and had a few features I wanted to experiment with: length for speed, and figuring out the proper body depth in the bellyak. I built two versions, one blue, one green:

Greeek: much more boat under body (4″ at hips). Very tippy because the high body position, and the extra length made it very fast. Would hold a line but not very easy to use, none of my friends could make it past the eddy line without falling off. I needed to take out foam underneath the hips to allow the paddler to be lower in the boat. Sometimes mistakes teach more than getting it right.

History of the bellyak: Green prototype

Bleeek: Lowered body area, handled much better, needed more rise for chest.

One of the key factors I was figuring out was the proper body depth in the boat. The ideal is when your hips are level with the surface of the water while floating in the bellyak. If your hips are higher than the surface of the water the boat becomes exponentially tippier (yes, that’s a word). This version also reinforced the idea that secondary stability would be key for prone paddling, thus the planing hull with defined secondary stability was a must.

Too Short

Liquid Logic Biscuit:

This tumpy little boat was super fun in a wave. I Called it the WTF. Zero hull speed, no glide, awesome in a hole or small wave, but not substantially better in any one category over the Big EZ for prone paddling. It did provide me with valuable insight into the length/width ratios I was figuring out. I had found out what was too short, which was a valuable insight.

The WTF bellyak prototype

Just Right!

Wave Sport Big EZ:

This version was the culmination of everything I’d learned so far. More bow volume let me create more of a ‘nipple to knee’ ratio. I got the body area very close to right. I had figured out the crucial elements of the body/boat interface, was figuring out how to do tricks on my knees, and was able to front surf like a champ. Surfing a two foot wave, with my head inches from the water, is a feeling that only a bellyak provides. The length/width, volume distribution and planing hull all added up to an awesome ride.

3 Versions

Purple bellyak prototype Surfing on an early bellyak

 

EJ, who lives behind the waterfall, was checking my boat out.

EJ, who lives behind the waterfall, was checking it out.

 

Sanding, shaping, glassing and paddling: this was how I spent the spring and summer of 2011. It was a crucial time where I developed the skills and techniques that form the basis of bellyaking. But, there was no way I could bring my hand shaped models to the masses, so it was time to put on big boy pants.

Coming up! History of Bellyak: Evolution Part 3. Big Boy Pants, Computers and Huge Ovens

Bellyak roll in the river

How to Roll a Bellyak

The bellyak roll is a fundamental skill for paddling whitewater. The main function of the bellyak roll is so that you are able to maintain connection with the boat and stay on line. This leads to a happier time on the water, gives a stronger sense of control which leads to confidence, which thus equals more fun. And he who has the most fun wins. We read that in a book. To help you along, here’s all you need to know to flip and dip your bellyak.

What Happens if I Flip Over?

Swims happen. Sometimes you lean left when the river wants you to lean right, and you find yourself in the water. The good news is that the bellyak is very easy to remount/self rescue. But let’s face it. It’s way cooler to roll. If you’re off your boat swimming, then you aren’t in control, and you aren’t having as much fun as you could have. The good news is you don’t have to spend $900 on clinics and hours of lake practice…the bellyak roll can be mastered by most people in a short amount of time, often in the first few hours of paddling.

Set Up

As you feel yourself about to roll over, your instinct may be to grab the handles. Not so! Bear hug the boat like you would hug your favorite hound dog, wrapping your arms all the way around. The key is to create a solid connection via your arms and your chest to the bellyak.

Bear Hug the bellyak when you start to flip

As You Begin to Flip Over, BEAR HUG the bellyak

Keep the bear hug strong when the boat is upside down

Once Upside Down, maintain BEAR HUG of bellyak, keeping chest connected with the boat.

It’s Mainly in the Legs

Once upside down you will be hugging the bellyak close and telling it secrets. Your legs will be in the water, because of gravity. Perform a quick scissor kick to maintain your momentum and get the boat fun side up.  Imagine wrestling an alligator and trying to flip it over on it’s back. That’s what you want to do.

Perform a Quick Scissor Kick While Chest Stays on bellyak

Perform a Quick Scissor Kick While Chest Stays on bellyak

Back Upright: Almost There

Once your boat is back upright, you will be oriented as in the picture below. At this point you will want to swing your legs back on top and get back in position.

As you roll back upright, maintain chest connection to boat.

As you roll back upright, your legs will be off the side of the boat. Maintain chest connection to boat.

Swing legs back on and your bellyak roll is complete!

Swing Legs Back on, re-adjust trim as necessary using the handles to move fore and aft

The bellyak roll from the back

As boat is brought around upright, a quick scissor kick helps with the momentum of the roll

Rear View: As boat is brought around upright, a quick scissor kick helps with the momentum of the roll.

Bring one leg onto the bellyak and swing the other in place

Bring one leg onto the bellyak and swing the other in place. Use knee or foot to ‘hook’ side of bellyak and bring it under body.

Common Challenges

Not Maintaining Momentum

The roll is something that happens as soon as you feel yourself flipping over. The key is to GO WITH the roll, and use that momentum to bring you all the way around. If you don’t maintain momentum you will lose connection with the boat and have to remount from the water. This works, but isn’t as quick. Or as fun. Like we mentioned.

Not Bearhugging Tight Enough

If you give your bellyak a half-hearted hug, it will leave you. Hug it like you mean it.

No Sense of Urgency

We see this all the time…people just flop off and don’t even try to get back on. Have some urgency. The safest place on the river – and also most fun – is on top of your bellyak, paddling in control. TIP: Imagine the water is filled with starving pyranhas and you have to get back upright, or else some fish is going to be wearing your skin. You don’t want that do you?

Bellyak roll in the river

Bellyaking Upper Gauley – The Maiden Voyage

What’s the Biggest Thing You’ve Done on That?

There’s an unwritten expectation in every ‘extreme’ outdoor sport: size matters. People want to know what the biggest, baddest, gnarliest thing you’ve done. Not how well or how graceful you’ve done average things, but what is the biggest thing you’ve survived? Do you even Class V, bro?

Even the Squirrels are Scared

The Upper Gauley River, in West ‘by god’ Virginia, has long been the bedrock class V run of every aspiring kayaker. It’s a big, powerful river with multiple places that can kill you dead if you get off line. More nervous shits have been taken at the put in of this iconic run than possibly any other run in the world. It’s not that technical by Southeastern standards, as the lines have a pretty wide margin of error measured in feet, not inches. But the real danger are the undercut rocks, and the long intense rapids. This run had been causing me anxiety since I first decided to run it in a bellyak in 2012, but didn’t actually run it til 2016. I had kayaked the Upper Gauley as a teenager and I remember the anticipation of paddling it was much worse than the actual run. But this was different. I was paddling a boat that I was only attached to by gravity, with nothing but my hands to propel me. I was remembering stories of my Uncle Allen clawing off his fingernails trying to get out from an undercut, tales of kids dying in siphon suck sieves and hydraulics so big squirrels were getting torn out of trees. Thinking about how bad it would be for the brand if I screwed up and lost my boat, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself.

Self Preservation vs. Cajones

Friday morning of Gauley Fest, 2016, I woke up sweaty in my minivan to a blue sky day with highs in the 70s. I hemmed. I hawed. My “high sense of self preservation” was in overdrive. I knew deep down my skill level was far greater than the size of my balls and none of my friends doubted my ability to get down the run gracefully. I just doubted myself. Eli Helbert, one of the best OC1 paddlers in the world, told me to basically get in the car and let’s go, I could follow him down the river. So I went.

View from the bellyak of Canoe Guru, Eli Helbert

The Canoe Guru, Eli Helbert…none better to follow in the world.

Nervous Shits and a Fleece Lined Wetsuit

The put-in was clogged with rafters, kayakers, long lines at the porta-potties, and throngs of people congregated together in various states of undress, pounding light beer and chain-smoking. If these people could make it, even in a raft, I was good to go. I found a porta-potty willing to take some abuse, put on my NRS Radiant fleece lined wetsuit (my favorite piece of gear) and got in the water, away from the crowds.

Nothing But Plastic Between Us

As soon as I get on my bellyak and pushed away from shore, my anticipation anxiety is replaced with a feeling of being completely comfortable and relaxed. Maybe it’s because I designed the bellyak and know it like the back of my hand. Or because I’ve spent thousands of hours training for this moment. Or maybe it’s because the unencumbered swimming motion of a bellyak is more natural than ‘sitting’ in a kayak. Whatever it was, I was grateful to be in the water and get downstream, with nothing between the river and me but a hollow piece of plastic.

A SUP, Canoe, Kayak and bellyak on the Upper Gauley

A SUP a canoe, a kayak and a bellyak set off on the Upper Gauley…

Game On

The run was awesome. After a few pucker factor moments in the first big rapid, Insignificant, I was good to go. We had an odd crew: Spencer Lacy on SUP, Eli in his Canoe, me in my bellyak, and a handful of kayakers. I ran everything except for what I didn’t. I didn’t run Iron Ring. Wasn’t feeling it. Don’t care. I always listen to my gut. I took the adventure race line on far river left instead. Someone else can get the first D on Iron Ring. You’re welcome!

Eli Helbert showing me on my bellyak the way down the river

“Come this way”

View from the bellyak of Eli Helbert running the second half of the Insignificant rapid

Second Half of Insignificant

 

Legend in My Own Mind

The feeling of getting past the big rapids on a run is like waking up the day after exams are over and knowing you passed. Equal parts relief and exhilaration. In the Guinness Book of World Records for things that tens of people care about, I was the first to prone whitewater paddle the Upper Gauley. The same day a nine year old successfully kayaked the Upper Gauley and another guy did it in a drift boat he built himself. But I was the first to do it on a boat I designed for a sport I invented.

 

History of Bellyak: Evolution Part 1

Asking Better Questions

“Why do we only design boats with sprayskirts?”

Growing up in the small town of Easley, SC, the son of a dad who ran the largest kayak company in the world, all of my friends wanted me to teach them how to kayak. It sucked. First, I had to get them over the fear of the sprayskirt. Then stand there while they awkwardly tried to roll. Then, when they did swim I had to round up all their gear and get their heavy ass boat to shore and start over. I wanted to share my love of the river with my friends, but spending days on class II chasing gear just wasn’t any fun.

I based my teenage years and early twenties around paddling as much as possible, choosing where I went to college based on proximity to rivers. Around 2002 I got way into hand paddling, as I loved the extra control and finesse required to do it well. Eventually I got pretty dang good at kayaking. I was running the Narrows, with hand paddles, in either my Liquid Logic Session or Gus. No big deal. (Side note: kids these days do that now in year one, right after running Nantahala Falls).  I thought, what would it be like to be able to have this much fun without my asshole puckering up so tight?  I wanted to spend my time playing fiddle, and have my river time be somewhere happily between bored and scared to death. I wanted to make the Ocoee great again.

How can I have Class V thrills with Class III consequences?

I used to live on a small creek called Cane Creek in upstate SC. One day after a heavy rain, the small creek was almost out of it’s banks. I was itching to paddle it (I also had a bad case of poison ivy), but the overhanging rhododendron was creating a tunnel that was too small for a kayaker with a paddle. So…

“What if I laid on top of my boat and paddled with my hands?”

I put my sprayskirt on my Liquid Logic Gus, duct taped the tunnel together to keep water out, and put on an old pair of webbed gloves. I pushed off the shore, face first on top of my kayak into the class II torrent and I felt like I was flying! I called it the bellyak (because I was riding my kayak on my belly) in those first few moments and the name has stuck ever since.

How Can I Make This Better?

I needed to lower my center of gravity in the boat and eliminate the negative space. My dad and I  took my old Perception 3d and a jigsaw, cut off the top, added 36 cans of sprayfoam, covered it in plastic sheeting and duct tape and voila. It weighed 68 pounds bone dry and leaked slow enough to prove that it was awesome. Small rapids? Big again. The feeling of hand paddling, while feeling every current throughout my entire body, was mesmerizing. Everything was completely new, yet incredibly familiar, since I was using a kayak hull. I had accidentally figured out how to combine freestyle kayaking with  swimming and the result re-ignited my love of paddling x’s 10.

How can I make another one for my friends?

At the time I was teaching my good friend (and still second best bellyaker in the world), Callan Welder how to kayak. Callan is an extremely gifted athlete, the kind of person who backflips off cliffs on skis for fun. But Callan got so boogered up over the roll. He would paddle great and then while upside down forget where he was and swim. The first time Callan tried the bellyak, he learned more about reading and running rapids than he did in his previous two years of kayaking. Eliminating the sprayskirt created so much more confidence; he had no fear of flipping over and swimming, so he relaxed and when you relax…you succeed. And the best part for me? I wasn’t bored at all. We could be on the same stretch of Class II but the freedom and versatility of the bellyak allowed me to interpret the river in ways never before imagined, and I didn’t have to worry about my friend swimming, since self-rescue is the name of the game for bellyak.

The earliest and roughest versions of the bellyaks were the original Perception 3D, a Perception Whip-It and an early Corran Addison design, the Black Attack. These worked well enough to prove the concept, but all filled with water (because the duct tape came off) and thus were nearly impossible to drain and thus, short lived.

Design Evolution of the Bellyak: Part One

Mainly because I wanted better boats for Callan and I, and I was going to quickly use up my existing kayaks (of which I paid for every one), I needed to figure out how to make multiple bellyaks out of one kayak. I had a vision of using the kayak as a mold and filling it with expandable foam. I would then create a plug that I could shape to work on the ‘body to boat’ interface and then I could fiberglass the foam in epoxy and glass, making a paddleable prototype. I called it “moderately rapid prototyping” or “why Adam has a huge stack of kayaks cut in half.” How did I learn how to do this? Via the internet of course. Surfer Steve and his super informative blog about how to build your own surfboard helped me get started.

Perception Phat

Working in my dads shop with the original Perception sign hanging in the back.

Working in my dads shop with the original Perception sign hanging in the back.

 

 

Bellyak Plug ready for shaping.

Plug ready for shaping.

Bellyak outfitted with scraps and ready to paddle!

Bellyak outfitted with scraps and ready to paddle!

Phat #1: 

This was my first time learning how to shape foam. I used all manner of tools to carve the plug, but the best was a paint removal disc on a right angle grinder. It made a satisfyingly huge dusty mess. I taught myself how to fiberglass by reading blogs about making your own surfboard.

The Phat had a displacement hull which meant it had very little secondary stability as it tended to ‘roll’ without a break. This was not an ideal user experience as it tended to dump people right off. Secondary stability was going to be a key element for whitewater prone paddling. The extra bow volume was confidence inspiring, as it resurfaced very easily and stayed on top of the water.

Phat #2:

First version of toe braces, didn’t get paddled much, didn’t measure/account for 80% of bodyweight being in the front of the boat. Toe braces provided nice body to boat contact boat but limited the ability to hang off the back of the bellyak and ‘blast’ holes.

That crazy look in my eyes happens right before I test a boat for the first time

That crazy look in my eyes happens right before I test a boat for the first time

Version 2:

Liquid Logic Session:

Awesome, super responsive hull for prone paddling, but I took too much volume out of body area and thus it functioned like a prone squirt boat. I could tell that the wide, flat planing hull provided excellent stability for prone paddling, and the defined edges made it super responsive to carving downstream however.

Cutting up my favorite kayak of all time

I was sad to cut this boat up. My favorite kayak of all time. We had a lot of good times together.

New bellyak, version 1 Prone Squirt Boat

New life, version 1 Prone Squirt Boat

Session Snow Sled with Parabolic Hull

Session Snow Sled with Parabolic Hull

What the Phat bellyak proved to me was that this was a great idea. I was running rivers IN CONTROL, with the exact same performance characteristics as my kayak: I could carve, edge, spin and catch eddies and boof. Granted, I was only paddling Class III, but the fun I was having was unreal. I knew there was work to do. The key part of the bellyak are the sidewalls: these are crucial for lateral stability (because you want to be able to carve without coming off the boat). The height/width/depth of the body pan was a variable that I knew needed refining. But the concept: the concept of paddling, on your stomach, with only your hands for propulsion through whitewater left me thinking “why hasn’t anyone done this before??” I had two things to refine: My skills at prototyping and executing my ideas so that I could test them, ask questions, and refine.

The Session showed me that a wide, planing hull was a foundation to work off of. The stability, ability to spin on a dime, and ability to achieve top hull speed quickly were all elements that enhanced the prone paddling experience. I had a lot to learn about volume distribution and fiberglassing, as well as figuring out how to create the ideal ‘body to boat’ interface.

There is nothing like paddling down the river with just a boat you designed and built between you and the water. These first prototypes let me know what was possible. But now it was winter 2010, so I got to work in earnest, knowing spring was coming, and with it, more belly kayaking.

I had learned enough to know that my idea was worth patenting, so in December of 2010, I filed for Provisional Patent. The provisional patent was later converted to a Utility Patent: you can read it here.

Next Chapter: History of Belly: Evolution Part . Rise of the Freestyle Bellyak, mountains of foam dust, and an old meat locker.

 

 

Bellyak’s Features Athletes of the Month; Luciano Menezes and Jess Rustine

Lucy and Jess
Luciano Menezes
Luciano was born and raised in Salvador, Brazil where he grew up on the beach. He learned to swim at a young age to help overcome asthma and became a natural water lover. As the story goes, Luciano got turned onto surfing in his teens where he learned how to overcome many of the fears that come with water and its forces.
When Luciano heard about the Bellyak Progression Clinic he said, “I was really excited about the idea because I missed having fun in the water, and Bellyak was the closest to surf I could find since moving to Asheville. My previous experience with surf definitely helped a lot, but I still had and will have to overcome fear. Nature is very powerful and I respect it a lot.”
Luciano was certainly a natural from day one in the way he worked with the water rather than trying to work against it, which most newbie paddlers tend to do. Once we found a helmet that would fit over his massive dreadlocks, we took Luciano from class II whitewater to successfully running the Ocoee in just 6 weeks time. And dare I say he “styled it.”
The most pivotal growth occurred on the Pigeon River Gorge in Tennessee, which Luciano took 5 laps on before moving on. Beginning by taking the easy lines down and progressing to catching every eddie and surfing the big wave at the bottom of Double Reactionary. He was ready to step it up and that he did.
Bellyak is excited to announce Luciano as one of our athletes of the month and equally as excited to follow him in his future Bellyak endeavors.
“I like the idea of continuing to learn and teaching other people what it’s like to have the same fun as I had. Bellyak is a new concept which I’m sure we will see more and more people join in and learning this new way of surfing the rivers.”
     Luciano Menezes
 Luciano
Jess Rustine
Jess Rustine is a light-hearted gal with a creative soul and now a graduate from Bellyak Progression Clinic! Jess only smiles when she is on the river and she proved that attitude is everything. She may have been the least likely candidate to become Bellyak’s V.I.P. of the month since her previous water experience only involved floating down a river on a raft with beer in one hand and sunscreen in the other. When others were fearful and timid, Jess looked only at the lines she wanted to run and pictured success in her mind with a big smile on her face. As most of us know it can be easy to focus on the places we do not want to be on the river and that is where we usually end up, but Jess never once focused on the negative.
“After attending eight classes I was on a class III+ whitewater river and crushing it! I say that not to brag, but to show how fast it is to get a feel for the Bellyak and how comfortable you can become on a river that intense so soon. I’d never imagined myself on a river such as the Ocoee after my first couple classes. This brings me to my third love of Bellyak (and most surprising to myself), the THRILL! I absolutely love hitting big water and get a kick out of flying over wave trains. It felt amazing to be so close to the water having to use my arms as a guide and body to steer, the Bellyak really helps you connect to the water.”
       Jess Rustine
Jess is now in the frequent Bellyaker club and looks forward to continuing to refine her skills and learning more about whitewater. She plans to become an Instructor in the future so keep an eye out for her!
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