Bellyak—The next big Summer Paddle Sport
Thank you to Back Country Skiing Canada! for this rad review of our Bellyaks! Watch the video below, and check out the FULL REVIEW HERE.
Thank you to Back Country Skiing Canada! for this rad review of our Bellyaks! Watch the video below, and check out the FULL REVIEW HERE.
Growing up in the small town of Easley, SC, from a family that made kayaks, all of my friends wanted me to teach them how to paddle. I didn’t enjoy this responsibility. First, I had to get them over the fear of the sprayskirt and then stand there while they awkwardly tried to roll. When they did swim I had to round up all of their gear and get their boat that was now full of water 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 became obsessive about hand paddling, as I loved the extra control and finesse required to do it well. Eventually I got pretty dang good at kayaking and started to get myself in situations where mistakes could be terminal. I thought, what would it be like to be able to have this much fun without worrying about my friends having to potentially notify my next of kin? 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.
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, but the overhanging rhododendron was creating a tunnel that was too small for a kayaker with a paddle. So…
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 creek and I felt like I was flying, on top of my kayak. I called it the bellyak in those first few moments and the name has stuck ever since.
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 now I had a bellyak that 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 felt completely new. In the process I had discovered how to combine freestyle kayaking with swimming and the result re-ignited my love of paddling x’s 10.
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 boogered up over being upside down underwater. He would paddle great and once he flipped 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 so he relaxed and when you relax…you succeed. 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 flipping and 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.
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.” I taught myself how to do this via the internet, my dad and my uncle Allen Stancil. (Surfer Steve has a great blog about how to build your own surfboard)
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 huge dusty mess.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After 6 evolutions of prototyping and over 22 (because some were modified/repaired re-glassed) paddleable prototypes (the dumpster ones don’t count) it was time to go big boy on it. I didn’t have the skills, patience or time to turn a huge block of foam into a plug since a bellyak has compound curves. The skill of carving a surfboard is challenging, but to carve something that has compound curves and still maintain symetry is beyond my search engine. I enlisted Evan Solida, a brilliantly talented CAD designer who visited me at my shop and we got started by cutting up one of my Big EZ Bellyaks into 3″ cross sections, photographing them, and then digitally ‘stitching’ them together in CAD. Evan was instrumental refining my ideas into the models we have today.
Evolution 7: Getting Fancy: from Foam and Fiberglass to Rotomolded Polyethylene
My learning increased exponentially while designing this boat. The final version looked nothing like what we started with. My idea was for a general purpose river runner and something that would also be good on flatwater. (a ‘crossover bellyak). I made a rookie design mistake: I designed for what I ‘thought’ would work, and what I ‘thought’ people could paddle…not what I knew to work.
My first designs were a bit too hard to use for the average user and I wanted to make the experience of prone paddling more accessible. After we refined the CAD version as much as possible I ordered my first big chunk of urethane foam and had the plug cut via CNC at Digital Designs in Winston Salem NC. David Maughan (who worked at Perception and still works for Confluence) helped me prep the plug and we pulled a fiberglass mold off of it. The guys at Jackson Kayaks agreed to let me come in and run a few plastic prototypes on their oven, so that I would have a plastic prototype for testing.
This first plastic bellyak, which I originally called the ‘Octane,’ was crap. The sidewalls were too steep, it was edgy in a ‘suddenly upside down’ kind of way, without the upside of higher performance. The body cavity was also too deep and I hadn’t yet nailed the body to boat interface.
It was a great learning experience. I learned how to prep a plug, make a fiberglass mold, and then mold a plastic kayak from that. I honed my skills and tested my resolve with hours upon hours of sanding. I took what worked and kept moving forward.
I was pursuing the ultimate ride on whitewater and often times knowing what doesn’t work is the best clue to figure out what does.
To start this sport I knew I needed two models:
A boat that was fun on all water, a general purpose, all around Bellyak. Like the Perception Dancer…(a classic design that would define the sport for over a decade.)
I took the plastic Octane and ‘moderately rapidly prototyped’ several more versions. Modified Versions: Octane without stern drain, Octane without foot cups, Octane with hull flattened, octane with new toe braces.
I also wanted to make a freestyle bellyak for surfing and playing every feature of the river, as the Big EZ prototypes were insanely fun for front surfing, and the planing hull made snapping into and out of eddies a feel like flying (what I imagine flying to be at least).
By now, I’d spent a few thousand hours building and testing, and I knew what needed to go into the production versions.
Frequency: the cruiser…based off the phat, the Sleek and the original Octane, with toe braces and hatch redesigned.
Play 35: planing hull, body area refined, depth refined, with a performance hull. Rocker Profile similar to a Session for easy spinning. Length of 7’7″
Play 45: I designed the Play 45 last, as we needed something that was sporty and fun like the Play 35, but with key changes to make it more forgiving and would accommodate a wider weight range. We designed this one off of the same hull as the Play 35 and added ten gallons of volume throughout the boat, increased the width by two inches, and made the body area wider and deeper. What we found was that the extra volume made the Play 45 very stable, and also accommodated a wide weight range.
By asking questions, following the thrill of making the ride better, and not being afraid to make mistakes led to the creation of our current model lineup and birthed a new discipline into the paddling world!
***This is the second installment of the History of Bellyak. To catch up, read part 1 HERE.***
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. 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 paddling my own invention.
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, in my bed, and 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…whatever it took to make a boat. In January of 2011, I set up in a warehouse that used to be an old meat locker. It was climate controlled for working with the foam and resin and I had 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.
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.
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 of 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. For this I found a used Wave Sport EZ and quickly gutted it and cut it in half to make a mold.
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.
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. After stalking Craigslist and every boaters car at takeouts around the southeast, I found a guy with a 3D at the French Broad River Fest in 2011. I talked him into trading it for my Liquid Logic Little Joe.
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.
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 are the best answers.
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. 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.
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, again getting me closer to the desired outcome.
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.
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.
Some of the world’s most ingenious creations have been thought up and made right here in the USA, such as Harley Davidson Bikes, cheese burgers, and 3D printing. Did you know the bellyak joins this prestigious list too? In fact, we are 100% made in the USA. The handles, hatch, and pad all come from North Carolina, and graphics from Arizona. They are expertly molded at BIG Adventures in Fletcher, NC, who are also the molders behind Liquid Logic and Native Watercraft. Sure, we could have our boats made in China for a lot cheaper thus sell our boats for less, but there are loads of reasons why we don’t want to do that – and neither do you! Here’s our top 3:
Why go prone, you ask? Why lay down and use your hands when you can sit, stand or kneel and use a paddle? Why get water in your face and subject yourself to such a workout? Read on.