By Adam Masters,
The middle Ocoee in Copper Hill, TN is one of the most classic class III runs in the whole country featuring continuous fun rapids, tons of playspots and an easy roadside shuttle. I have been kayaking the middle Ocoee since 1994, and have run it hundreds of times. I developed my love of hand paddling on the Ocoee and as soon as I had the first plastic bellyaks in 2012 I haven’t looked at my kayak again.
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
The 2017 Ocoee River Race, sponsored by the Tennessee Valley Canoe Club, had over 130 racers this year. This is a challenging downriver race, requiring hundreds of small moves to stay in the fast water to make it down the 4+ mile Class III course. Team Bellyak represented with our own category and five racers this year.
How to Race the Ocoee
To post a fast time, it’s not so much about being fast in the rapids, as much as it is about having the smoothest line between the end of one rapid and the beginning of the next. Each rapid has multiple ways to run, with a fast ‘race line’ through every feature. Racers are released in one minute intervals to race against the clock.
Men’s Hand Paddle Race
Adam Masters – creator of Bellyak – raced twice: first in the men’s kayak hand paddle division (racing on the bellyak Frequency), and then in the bellyak category (racing on a Play 35). Here’s what he had to say about the experience:
“Every year I’ve raced in men’s hand paddle (as that is the closest category to bellyak), and I like to pretend to hurt people’s feelings, or at least make them realize we aren’t messing around. I’m wearing webbed gloves, and they are using large plastic hand paddles. I won the category in 2012, and since then we’ve created our own category. For the past three years I’ve come in right behind the hand paddle master of the southeast, Keith Sprinkle. Plus, I just want to race bellyak in as many categories as possible.
The Frequency is the fastest boat in the bellyak lineup, at 8’7″. The flip up skeg is designed to work in whitewater, and the Ocoee is a rocky, shallow river – a perfect place to put it to the test. The skeg allows the boat to stay on course in the squirrelly water between rapids, thus making it much more efficient to paddle quickly during the transitions. After racing back-to-back with and without the skeg, I’m convinced of it’s effectiveness for going fast in whitewater.
My first run was clean with only a few mistakes, I spun out in the middle of Broken Nose by overshooting the race line, and then got stuck between a big raft trip in Double Suck that I didn’t get past until half a mile later at Double Trouble. The next part of the race are the doldrums – a half mile of flatwater where dreams are crushed, reasons for living are questioned, and you come face to face with the truth of how much you did or did not train for this type of output. For whitewater paddlers, flatwater is akin to uphill paddling. For the past year I have been swimming, mountain unicycling, running and paddling more regularly than any year prior, and I felt as strong as I ever have during the race. I stayed fast all the way through to the end, and nailed the finish move at Powerhouse, which is deceptively tricky if you’re not prepared for where the finish line raft is.”
Adam finished in third place for Men’s Hand Paddle Kayak, with a time of 39:15.
The rest of Team Bellyak had start times 50 minutes after Adam (since he was the only one racing two categories). As soon as he was done with race lap number one and partially recovered from the lactic acid overdose and weird tracers he was seeing around everything, he jumped in the van and headed back to the top.
“I had strategically placed an ice cold Dr. Pepper in a glass bottle, along with some more traditional recovery foods like Skittles. Strategic soda and Skittles intake can be performance enhancing. There happened to be a car wreck on the two lane road back to the top, so I sat for nearly an hour blasting Rihanna on the half of a radio station that one gets in Copperhill, TN and cheering on the rest of Team Bellyak as they paddled by.”
Bellyak Category Race
There were five competitors in the bellyak category race – Adam Masters, Jamie MacLeod, Bill Wunderlich, Corey Topping and Sarah Neal. Adam and Jamie races on Play 35s, and the rest chose Play 45s. The race according to Adam:
“My second run was clean. I made no mistakes and stayed steady throughout the run. However, the absence of the skeg was very noticeable as I had to put substantially more energy to keep the boat on course. I was mildly delirious as the end of the run and grateful for all of Team Bellyak standing on the bridge above the finish line cheering for me!
For 2017, we decided to recognize ourselves and make our category as awesome as possible. Our prizemaster this year was Bill Wunderlich, who had assembled the best assortment of prizes for the Bellyak category.”
First Place: Adam MastersPrize: Webbed belt, Aquaseal, two pound bag of ‘America’ Skittles, 24 Ounce engraved beer stein.
Second: Jamie MacLeod Prize: $50 PF Changs gift card, resealable bag of original Skittles
Third: Corey Topping Prize: Large spray bottle of Rain X, two pound bag of ‘America’ Skittles
Time: 49:01 (missed takeout raft, had to paddle back upstream)
Fourth: Sarah Neal Prize: $25 Barnes and Noble Gift Card, two 12′ NRS Straps
Time: 49:02 (missed takeout raft, had to paddle back upstream)
Fifth: Bill Wunderlich Prize: ENO Twilights, 1986 Pro Tec Helmet, open bag of used skittles
Time: 51:02 (only his sixth trip ever down the Ocoee, and he will be in the medals next year)
Spring has sprung and Summer is upon us. We want to do EVERYTHING while we frolic in the sun, but here is our top 50. Can you do them all?
1. Pet a dog
We thought we’d start you out with an easy (most super fun) one. With puppers in public more and more these days, it’s easy to spot a furry friend in need of some love. Just be nice and make sure you ask first!
2. Hold hands with an otter
You can’t look at these little guys and not want to give that little furry paw a squeeze! These playful little fluffs will often hold hands while they float in order to stay close. If you’re lucky, you can get a whole romp of otters to accept you as their one and only. You can all raft together!
3. Eat a 1lb burrito
If you hit a Wednesday night and realize that you’re not knocking off enough items from your bucket list, you can always count on a burrito to save you. Apparently, we are also counting *two* ½ pound burritos from Taco Bell if you are in a crunch!
3. Give a raccoon a forever home
Once the otters have accepted you, you should have enough animal clout to move into raccoon territory. You’re way past dogs (you’ve already petted one) so get out there and adopt the ring-tailed forest puppy of your dreams!
You may be thinking that a 10 pound burrito seems a bit difficult. How soon you forget that you have been welcomed into a romp of otters and you have a raccoon with a bandana on at home. We believe in you!
5. Bellyak on 5 different rivers
Summer is the perfect time to get out and break in that brand new Bellyak. Choose from a number of whitewater options and get paddling!
6. Go to England
Are you curious about the origin of Fish and Chips? Do you want to know who Paul Revere warned us about? Are you a fan of really big clocks? Go to England! Enjoy some time overseas and get to know the motherland!
7. Try a hike you’ve never been on
These are super easy to find if you’re ever been on any social media ever. Challenge yourself with a long or more strenuous hike than you usually do – bonus points if you leave your state!
8. Take your friend bellyaking
Sharing is caring! Are you really a real friend if you have discovered the joys of bellyaking and not taken your buddy ol’ pal? (Hint: no, you are not) But! You can easily remedy that by taking them this summer! Choose one of your new rivers and hit it together!
9. Swim in a mountain lake
The Southeast is full of swimming holes, rivers and lakes that are just begging to be jumped in! (You can even bring your bellyak buddy!)
10. Pee in your wetsuit while surfing
Hate being cold? Us too! Save time and body heat by peeing in your wetsuit while you’re surfing! It’s much more challenging then you would think!
If you have never been to an outdoor summer concert, you are absolutely missing out. We’re warming you up for full-blown Bonnaroo with a few hundred of your closest friends singing the best music! And the long lines at the porta-potty with complete strangers always leads to great connections!
12. Go night swimming
We aren’t sure what it is, but something about swimming in the dark makes it feel about 1,000 times cooler. Maybe it’s the anxiety of knowing all of the nighttime predators are now awake and only inches from your vital organs. Either way, the experience is worth the rush!
13. Use a fake name to order coffee
If you are a Sam and you go with Joe, then you are officially no fun. But go to one of those places that calls out your order and give them the name you’ve always wanted (or thought was hilarious). Bonus points if you let them yell it more than once, and double points if you use Barack Obama. Or shootingfishjumpingstarrainbow, if you’re in Asheville.
14. Cook with a vegetable you’ve never heard of
If you have a local co-op or a farmers market, you should definitely go and pick out something that you’ve never seen or heard of and look up how you’re supposed to cook it. Prepare it for yourself or for friends. You never know, you could love it and gain mega hipster points.
15. Attempt Bellyak Yoga
We are giving out all of the A’s for effort on this one. We don’t think it’s fair to have great loves and have to keep them apart. So get your waterproof yoga pants on (or take them off!) and stretch it out! You might find a new favorite way to mount your bellyak in the process! (or get really good at getting on out of the water).
16. Say yes to everything for a whole day
You don’t have to be full-on Jim Carey, but open yourself up to some new opportunities by saying yes to whatever comes your way!
17. Pet all the dogs in a shelter
Since you’re already a dog-petting pro, we challenge you to test your skills at a shelter. You can volunteer, or just drop by to shower some welcome attention on all the doggos!
18. Run a half marathon
You’ve been trail running forever, now is the time to put your skills to the test. Shake up your workout routine by setting a specific half-marathon race as your goal.
No matter if your commute is short or long, hop on a bike for your morning commute. (You can still drop off your kids!)
20. Fish for dinner (without backup)
Time to put your super survival skills to the test. We know you’re a great fisherperson, but now is the time to prove it to your stomach. Catch, clean and eat your hard work for a satisfying supper!
21. Take an aerial yoga class
Built for all types of fitness levels, aerial yoga, is becoming more and more popular throughout North America. Check the location you choose’s site for a possible free trial class!
22. Go live on Instagram for five minutes
For those of you who do this all the time, this should be no big deal, but for those who have never done it before, take it as an opportunity to step out of your box and connect with people! It doesn’t matter how many people watch, it’s about being comfortable with yo’ self!
We’re not sure why the turtles tend to cross the road out in the summer heat (maybe running late for a meeting with a chicken), but we feel we can help them reach their destination more safely! Turtle heroes unite!
24. Tie-dye something
Whatever fabric you can find that could use a little sprucing up is fair game. Grab some rubber bands and dye and a big bucket and get colorful for the summer months! We like bandanas and shoelaces!
25. Make bread from scratch
We know, we continue to test your kitchen skills, but making bread by yourself from scratch is almost as satisfying as actually eating it!
26. Donate your time to a local cause
Give back a little this summer Season by getting involved in a local non-profit or organization! You’ll help people AND have the best time. In the Asheville, NC area? Check out More Heart Than Scars – an organization that assists individuals facing physical and or mental scars/challenges to help realize they can live beyond them.
Another way to stay in summer shape without the gym. Contra lessons can be super fun and the people you meet are just friends you haven’t met yet! (Be prepared to sweat!) If the music doesn’t move you then smell of the unwashed masses will!
28. Have Campfire Karaoke
Warm up those vocal cord with some hot chocolate and bring out the radio. Go around the circle and take turns belting out whichever ones you know. You might even scare away the bears!
29. Go on an unplanned weekend road trip
Pack up one Friday after work and just drive until it feels right. Try a new restaurant, sleep in your car, spend a day at the beach, whatever sounds like the perfect complement to a spontaneous weekend!
30. Hand feed a squirrel
You are a wilderness god/goddess!
31. Hike to the highest peak in your state
You can expand your knowledge of your area by getting out and exploring the range! (We will accept border states if your highest peak is an active volcano)
Depending on the lengths of your summer travel, this may become more of a barter, but deciphering exchange rates is a skill you never know you need until you need it! Practice now!
33. Get a henna tattoo
Calling all commitment phobes! Get an awesome henna tattoo and enjoy your art for just under a month! Bonus points if you are a male and get a tramp stamp.
34. Go on a date with your pet
Show that special furry someone how much they mean to you with a pet date! Take them to their favorite park, and maybe pick up a pup cup along the way! If they want to slow-dance, well that’s up to you!
35.Have a tech-free day
Unplug and get outside for a whole day. You’ll be surprised at how relaxing it can be to get away from responsibility for just 24 hours!
36.Volunteer locally for a day
Anywhere you want to volunteer would be an excellent way to spend a fantastic summer day. We totally encourage you to keep this one up after summer is gone!
Brinner is the breakfast (for dinner) of champions! Brinner comes in clutch when you’re short on groceries or just craving that good good bacon after 5:00p.m. Take our word for it – it’s addicting!
38. Hang out at a weekly Bellyak demo
New to the world of prone paddling? Great! Come give Bellyak a try at one of our many demos and clinics!
39. Ride a unicycle
40. Eat tacos for every meal
Because you truly haven’t lived until you’ve had a brunch taco!
41. Go to a bookstore and read the first book you find
We love to stumble upon great things that we would have otherwise missed (duh, Bellyaking). WE think the same would be great with reading!
42. Go Zip-lining!
Need a baby step before your first bungee jump or skydiving session? Go zip-lining! We recommend zip-lining through the forest or a gorge!
43. Take a class at the local community college
Community Colleges have so many cool classes you can take to add a new skill or just have some fun! Don’t worry about sending your transcripts or making a schedule, because most are open enrollment!
44. Try a new local restaurant
Everyone we know has “their place” that is a hole-in-the-wall that no one has ever heard of, but it is so good. We think it’s time you found yours!
45. Do a scavenger hunt with your friends
Be creative, and get out either in your town, or the woods or even a new place and come up with a list “things” they need to collect or activities they need to do. Photos are your evidence!
46. Try a comedy club
Let off some summer steam by gathering your friends and going out to a comedy club for a night. Listen to local talent, or buy tickets to a big show.
47. Plan a big summer road trip
In contrast to your weekend getaway to who knows where, plan a big road trip to something you have always wanted to see/do. Pack great road trip snacks, cool stops and bring great music.
48. Have dinner from your garden
All of your hard work from planting this spring, can come straight to the table for an Al Fresco summer meal. Don’t forget all of your great herbs!
49. Watch a familiar movie in a Foreign language
Expand your brain with something you already know you love! Also find funny words in another language you can use later.
50. Water balloon dodgeball
The only logical last item is always dodgeball. Take advantage of the summer sun by getting outside and have a good ol’ fashioned water fight. Lines and actual rules optional.
Whatever you get up to this Summer, we hope it’s fun, fabulous and outdoors! Happy Summer!
A Bellyak is not meant to be ridden, it’s meant to be driven. People ride in kayaks, but to successfully bellyak, you must drive the boat. What should you expect your first time bellyaking?
1: You will get wet.
2: It’s harder and easier than you think.
3: You will get a great workout.
The Bellyak is meant to be primarily ridden in the prone position. At first, you may feel a little unstable if you’re not used to watersports. You’ll want to lean right and left to feel your ‘secondary stability.’ This lean is crucial for entering into and out of eddies, and for turning the boat while paddling. You’ll want to make sure you are in the middle of the boat: not too far forward and not too far back. This is known as your trim. If you’re too far forward the boat won’t go straight, and if you’re too far back, it will make the boat feel sluggish.
The benefit of the Bellyak is the ability to ride in multiple positions. This gives you a break from one position, and allows you to enjoy hanging out on the boat.
The trick from going from prone to seated is the swing your legs around the boat as you transition (straddling the boat with your feet in the water). Our soon to be released instructional video will show you how to do this. At first, you may fall off, but the good news is it’s really easy to climb back up on the boat from the water.
What if I fall off?
Since there is no cockpit to fill with water you can remount the boat in two ways: slide the boat under you as you mount from the rear, or climb on from the side as you throw your legs over the boat.
Will I be tired?
Doing any new sport for the first time will require new muscles and skills. If you’re using the boat in the ocean, you can easily take breaks as needed. If you are going down a river, it is recommended that you stop and enjoy the scenery…there is no rush. River surfing and running harder whitewater require a higher degree of fitness, but the good news is that the bellyak provides a terrific shoulder and core workout.
Key Pointers for River Running:
Set up way in advance of your line. What this means is that if you want to go left at the next rapid begin setting up to go left before you get there. The benefit of being so close to the current is that you can learn exactly how the water works and find path of least resistance. There are really only a few strokes required at any given time: setting up your angle, punching through waves and holes, and crossing into and out of eddies.
The Boof Stroke:
As you come over a drop, or into a hole, the last stroke is crucial. You want to take a big breast stroke, which naturally takes your weight off the bow of the boat. This accelerates the boat and insures that you glide over the feature rather than get bogged down in it. The handles are not for grabbing onto while going through whitewater, they are meant to be used to reposition yourself on the boat.
As you come into and out of eddies (the interface between the moving water and still water) you’ll want to lean into the turn.
Leaning into the turn will help you carve across the current and keep you from flipping over. If you’re already a kayaker, all the same rules of edging and leaning that you know in your kayak apply directly to the bellyak. After all, the bellyak is a kayak that you swim on top of!
Key Pointers for Paddling in the Surf:
As you paddle out into the break, the same ‘boof stroke’ is crucial for getting past the breakers. Take a strong stroke right as you crest the wave. If the wave crashes over you and pushes you back, then just surf backwards! The bi-directional nature of the bellyak works well either forward or switch!
When catching waves, the shorter length of the bellyak means you need to start paddling sooner to catch waves than you would if you were on a longboard or SUP. With a little practice you’ll have it down in no time.
If you get turned sideways to a wave, then lean into the whitewater (away from the beach). This will keep you upright and smiling.
The best pointer of all? Have fun, and be safe!
See you on the water.
Here are some new photos from our recent adventures on the French Broad River.