Ever want to get some of the exhilaration of whitewater kayaking without actually learning how to Eskimo roll or self rescue? Essentially a cross between a kayak and a river board, the Bellyak is hand-paddled craft designed to deliver a new way of enjoying the water by letting you jump in head first ... literally.
Bellyak, Inc. is owned by husband and wife team Adam and Anna Masters. A paddler since his wee years, Adam conceived the idea in 2004 but took a few years to get serious about developing it. For the past two years, he's been fine tuning the innovation from the banks of the French Broad River near his home. Adam has had a pretty world class support team to guide him through the process, including his own father Bill Masters, founder of global industry staple Perception Kayaks.
While Adam has the experience and industry connections to seed the project, his wife has brought a different but equally important perspective to the project. Unlike her husband, her approach to whitewater - and water in general - is more of the reserved, humble respect of a beginner. With her input, the Bellyak was created to be as fun and functional for new whitewater enthusiasts as for experienced paddlers.
"I can’t tell you how many times Adam would lead me through a rapid and immediately turn around once through, only to see me getting flipped and dumped on some benign rapid, " Anna explains in a blog post. "There’s a whole language in how the water moves and as someone without all the experience, it was important that the boats could be ridden by everyone, even us newbies."
The Bellyak is easier to exit than a kayak, leaving you free to bail out quickly and surely. It also relies on the simple art of hand paddling. The learning curve is supposedly much shorter than for kayaking, and the Bellyak beckons even novices to grab it, leap in the water and go for it (though you'll still want to start on something mild and manageable).
In addition to being more novice friendly than other boats, the Masters claim that the Bellyak provides a more intimate connection to the water, since you're actually immersed in it. Experts can attack the river from a new angle that makes even calm water feel more dynamic. In fact, the Masters believe it's a sport that demands its own name - call it "bodyboating" or "face-first kayaking."
When compared to a river board, the Bellyak has several distinctions. Most obviously, it's longer, spanning about 8 feet (2.4 m) from tip to tip. Like a kayak, it employs a planing hull that allows for quick directional cuts and carves. The carved out body allows you to lay comfortably, while the foot and hand holds give you a way of holding on. On the downside, it doesn't look like your legs or feet will be much use for paddling since they're in the boat.
"I have river boarded and love it," Adam explains. "Our rivers around here are rocky, and river boarding isn't really an option unless you like getting beat up a little. On a Bellyak, you can easily ferry, dynamically catch eddies and run low volume whitewater that isn't possible on a river board. The Bellyak allows for multiple rider positions as well - prone, kneeling and sitting. Each of these positions allows a range of moves."
Adam sees the Bellyak as a complement to existing river vessels more than a competitor to any single one. He comes across as a guy that genuinely wants to share his passion for whitewater with others, one way or another.
Bellyak is currently working on two models. Its first model is the Frequency, a wide, stable all-arounder that is suitable for beginners. The newer Play model is a freestyle boat designed for more experienced whitewater enthusiasts looking for a new way of hitting river and ocean features.
Bellyak plans to get both models in retailers by this summer. While they won't be cheap, the company has priced them below standard kayak prices to help appeal to the broader segment it's trying to attract. The Frequency will cost US$749 and the Play $699. Not only is that cheaper than the four-figure prices of many kayaks, but you also save money on the paddle!