They may look alike from a distance and share the same habitat, but how does a Bellyak compare to a kayak? Well friends, settle in because we’re about to tell you.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.