Moving across a body of water under your own power is a wonderful feeling. Combining the motion of swimming with the speed and glide of a boat/board is what prone paddling is all about. But why lay down and use your hands when you can sit, stand or kneel and use a paddle? Read on.
Evolution to Production
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!
About our Campers
Camp PossAbility and the bellyak
“I like using the bellyak at Camp PossAbility because I get to be in the water without having to rely on someone for help. I get to be out of my wheelchair and can still move around! Being paralyzed, I was cautious at first about getting on the bellyak, but soon realized they were very stable. The bellyak gave me a good workout maneuvering around on the water. [It] was like I was floating on clouds and I didn’t want to get off.”
This Year at Camp PossAbility
The beauty of bellyaking is it’s simplicity. No paddle, no cumbersome sprayskirt, no extra gear. Just you and the boat. While it’s a possibility this is all you may need, most of us don’t live on a remote island in the middle of the desert which would allow such shenanigans. Instead, here’s a list of essential gear for bellyaking; gear we have tested, proven, and use on a regular basis.
Let’s start from the bottom up:
Sure, the flip flops you wear in the shower at the gym will work, but for bellyaking – especially in moving water/whitewater – you’ll want something more sturdy. Old running shoes work fine, but if you are looking for the most effective footwear, then you’ll want to use Astral Footwear. Astral is known for their PFD’s (more on that in a moment) but they make some of the best aquatic adventure shoes around, that also look stylish!
My personal favorites are the Astral Hiyak:
This shoe was built for whitewater bellyaking, if ever a shoe was. The padded ankle, velcro strap, and incredibly tactile soles work amazing on rocky, wet, or uneven terrain.
A less tactical option but still just as functional is the Astral Brewer:
These do double duty and can go from prone paddling to seated drinking with very little time in between since these dry so quickly.
You probably don’t think about the back of your legs very often but let me tell you that you will once you have a solid calf sunburn. Let my experience be the guide: cover your legs. Even in the hottest environments, a pair of bike tights or non-cotton yoga pants will do wonders to keep your skin from turning three shades of red.
I wear boardshorts over my wetsuit, though I’ve heard that this gets you made fun of on the coast. It’s quite a practical reason: we are around rocks all the time and rocks abrade fabric. Have you ever heard of tearing your wetsuit on sand? I didn’t think so. After all, you are paddling a bellyak, so do you really care about what people think? Exactly. You be you.
My recommendation? Always don a rash guard/long sleeve T shirt. Again, this is as much about sun protection as anything else. Sure you can go skin to the wind and show off your awesome sleeve tattoo, but in my experience I get the worst sunburn when I’m playing in the water because a) I can’t feel the sun’s heat as much and b) I’m having fun so I’m not paying attention to things like this.
There is some debate in the prone paddling world about PFD usage. Here’s our thoughts: WEAR ONE. We always wear PFD’s. We paddle mostly in freshwater, that is moving, that has rocks. Also, the bellyak was developed with the PFD in mind: the curve of the body area is ergonomically designed to accomodate a rider wearing a PFD.
Our hands down all time favorite PFD, designed for women but works no matter what bathroom you choose: the Astral Layla. This vest has a flat front, multiple adjustment points for getting the perfect fit dialed in regardless of torso length/etc., and is also easy to get on and off with it’s convenient side zip.
While this is our preferred PFD, anything that has low profile front and is comfortable for prone paddling will work great. Just do us a favor and make sure it fits properly with all straps adjusted. PFDs are like seatbelts: you hope you never need them but if you do, make sure they’re buckled!
We love the Bellyak Flow Gloves, because they are purpose built for Bellyaking. You can also use your bare hands, inverted flip flops, or any number of webbed gloves out there. Again, fit is important, gloves that are too big will ‘flop’ around and not be as efficient in the water.
We wear helmets when we paddle whitewater. Again, rocks hurt, especially if you hit them with your head. We are big fans of Shred Ready’s Session Helmet and it’s is what we use for all of our classes. and their Scrappy version also looks stylish and is suited for belly kayaking. Make sure that whatever helmet you choose it doesn’t have a visor that impedes visibility while paddling prone.
8) Thermal Gear
We go out in all sorts of conditions because we love it, and because there is gear out there that makes it comfortable. On a budget and have to buy one piece of gear? A 3/2 full wetsuit is going to be the most versatile for spring/summer/fall paddling in most of the world. You can find great deals on these all over the internet, often for less than $100. Get a wetsuit designed for surfing, if it has knee pads, that’s an added bonus for durability.
What do I wear? I have an NRS Radiant 3/2 that is lined with fleece. This is hands down one of my most favorite pieces of gear. The fleece lining keeps the clammy wetsuit feeling a thing of the past, and the full protection afforded by this piece of gear gives me confidence to tackle anything.
For the dead of winter, nothing beats a drysuit. Being able to stay warm and dry on the inside while your suit protects you from the cold water is invaluable. This is a pricey option, but for those ready to paddle year round, and those who want a super versatile piece of gear, a drysuit is worth the investment. We’ve had luck with Immersion Research and Kokatat. Bellyaking is quite hard on gear, so we’ve found that it doesn’t take long to wear off the water repellent finish on some drysuits, making them dampsuits. We hope to own a Gore Tex Kokatat one day, to see if there really is such a thing as a ‘dry’ suit!
And no matter what Billy Ray tells you down at the river, two pairs of bluejeans and a hoodie DO NOT MAKE YOU WARMER ON THE WATER. Synthetic fabrics only people. It’s 2018. You should know this.
Bellyak Founder and World Champion
There are no shortage of beautiful waterways to bellyak on than in our home region of Western North Carolina. Not only do we have killer BBQ and more craft breweries than we can count on our fingers and toes, but we also have more than 400,000 miles of waterways in the whole state. You better keep them a secret, but here are our top 5 WNC rivers to paddle:
1) Section 8 of the French Broad
The French Broad River is the second oldest river in the world, which makes it older than my great, great, great granddad. And he’s old. So old in fact, that it has developed a certain smell only found in this particular waterway. Although the whole river is great to paddle, Section 8 is one of our favorites.
This is a 5 mile (ish) section downstream of Marshall NC, about 30 minutes north of Asheville NC. Section 8 begins below Redmond Dam, and takes out at Barnard (the put in for the most famous section: Section 9). Section 8 is rarely traveled, but is the perfect section for new paddlers, or those looking for a family friendly float. There are no real ‘rapids’ on this section, but what makes it fun is that there is consistent gradient from put in to take out, making for a nice ‘moving sidewalk’ of current. There are also many eagles and otters that live along this mostly unpopulated stretch of river. If you’re also on the hunt for somewhere to stay, one of the French Broad River Paddle Trail campsites is on this section.
2) Section 9 of the French Broad
Are you seeing a pattern here? This section has been written about before, and is the location for the evolution and development of Bellyak more than any other stretch of river. This is a great section for beginning whitewater training, with an instructor. In the four mile stretch of river between Barnard and Stackhouse, there are multiple Class 2 and 3 rapids that offer many different ways to go down, from easy straight down the middle to maze like runs that require precise navigation. At higher levels this section can be quite pushy due to the amount of volume coming down the river.
For Section 9 rapid by rapid, check out our Where to Bellyak: French Broad Section 9 post here.
3) Lower Nolichucky
This section of river, beginning at USA Raft in Erwin TN and ending at Jackson Love Bridge, is a perfect section for those looking to taste a little whitewater action in a perfectly clean and pristine river. The Lower Nolichucky is approximately one hour north of Asheville, and flows year round. Contact the folks at USA Raft to book your trip. They have expert guides, hot showers, and beautiful accommodations right along the river.
4) Nolichucky Gorge
On the books to be named a Wild and Scenic River, the Nolichucky Gorge flows through the deepest gorge in the Southeast. Over 8 miles of amazing whitewater that will delight and test the most avid of paddlers. Rapids such as Quarter Mile, surf spots like Jaws, and miles of beautiful scenery in a pristine gorge make for an amazing day on the water. For those inexperienced, having the experts at USA Raft guide you down is the way to go.
5) Big Laurel
40 minutes north of Asheville is the best section of whitewater Bellyaking known to man. The Big Laurel River. Flowing out of the shadows of Mount Mitchell, the Big Laurel is a tight, low volume creek popular with fisherman that flows into the French Broad River below Stackhouse. The Big Laurel has a trail running along the side which allows for easy scouting and portaging if necessary. Rapids such as Triple Drop, Suddy Hole, and the Narrows provide exciting, technical rapids in a beautiful setting. Check with the folks at Laurel River Store for good levels. Levels from 3” to one foot are ideal. Over a foot and the spice level goes up exponentially. Great surfing right at the put in at Cabin Wave.
By Adam Masters, bellyak Founder
There is no better feeling than having your face inches from the water while watching the river rush by. Going fast while sitting still. Prone river surfing causes time to stop, and everyone remembers their first time better than prom night. For most, it’s the only anniversary that matters. Most impressions of surfing conjure up Gidget standing effortlessly sliding down a perfect TV wave with nothing but palm trees and coconuts for miles. Those of us lucky enough to not go to bed every night stuck to sandy sheets have to look for our own endless wave, the waves created by the timeless forces of rocks, water, and gravity.
We used to think dry suits were in the realm of the privileged and sponsored. Something you got when you graduated gnar school. A luxury for the fortunate, an unattainable holy grail of wintertime warmth for Southeastern boaters. What’s wrong with a farmer john wetsuit and a drytop? I mean, is there a difference between that and say, the 7Figure Immersion Research Dry Suit?
Name: Natalie DeRatt
Bellyak Experience: 0
First Track: National Whitewater Center
Bellyak Used: Play 35
In my short life, 18 years has been dedicated to a sport. 12 of those years have been dedicated to competitive sports, and 3 of those years have been spent bobsledding professionally, for both Team USA and Great Britain. Up until recently, it was bobsledding that has given me the biggest thrill – hurtling down mile-long ice tracks at speeds averaging 75 mph with no way out. That’s until I tried bellyaking at the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, NC.
My bellyak background
Based in Asheville, NC, I’ve seen bellyaking before – floating down the river, pictures of them in the surf, and spending lazy days on the beautiful waters of Lake Jocassee. However, nothing could prepare me for the experience of bellyaking in whitewater. The premise is simple: You hop on, you lay on your belly, you use your arms to direct you. But, what isn’t obvious is your connection with the water. Every little move – a slight lean to the right, a little turn to the left – all affect your ride, and so within minutes of trying one for the first time I felt like I was connected to the water (as frilly as that sounds). Within an hour, I was going down Class III rapids, and loving it.
My bellyak fears
I’m not going to lie, I’m not the strongest swimmer. My biggest worry was getting knocked off my bellyak in a rapid, sinking to the bottom, and never being heard from again. I came to find out this was way too dramatic of me. It’s actually super easy to just hop back on if you are sent swimming because there are no spray skirts involved and you’re on the boat and not in it. Plus, the bellyak is so buoyant, it took quite the splash to send this lack-of-experience ‘yaker into the water. Imagine if you actually knew what you were doing?!
I Became Michael Phelps
Although I was the most exhausted human in North Carolina after spending the afternoon bellyaking, it was the biggest thrill I’d had in a long time. While in driving school for bobsled, they let us try skeleton for a couple of runs – the bellyak of the ice. You simply lay on the sled, hold on tight, and ride the ride to the icy bottom. Having now done both, I can tell you bellyaking was SO much more fun. A sort of swimming/ kayaking hybrid, you feel you are literally flying through the water. Or swimming really, really fast. Like faster than Michael Phelps fast. Probably faster than Aquaman too. And it was so intuitive! You treat the boat as if it was an extension of your body.
Don’t Judge a Bellyak by its Bellyak
What did I learn from this experience? I learned you should never judge an outdoor activity by its cover. I learned that even if you’re not the best swimmer in the world, bellyaking is perfect for you (p.s. Always wear a life jacket). And I learned that exhilaration and adrenaline are available outside of winter sports and roller coasters, and they’re much, much closer than you think! As for me, I’m already plotting my next bellyak adventure.
The National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) is therapeutic, recreation organization, based in Denver Colorado. The NSCD has been one of the first rehab groups to use the Bellyak in a therapeutic setting. After attending the No Barriers Summit (an adaptive sports gathering) in Telluride, we realized there is no such thing as disabled – only differently-abled.
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