Thursday, 14 November 2013

Blast from the past...

photo © Helen Stewart 
My old paddling buddy Pete Vickers (he on the left in the Dagger Vertigo) recently dug out this photo from 1998 - yes, we were trying to find ways to make life more exciting even then.
I have a funny feeling it's been scanned from an old copy of Paddles magazine. I recognise that paint splatter effect. Very popular that was. In the 90's...
The original photo was (probably) taken by the talented photographer (and my ex-business partner) Helen Stewart née Metcalfe, and from the angle I'd say she was balanced precariously on the driver's seat or someone's shoulders with the sort of regard for Health And Safety that I'm proud to say most of us continue not to have. I can't actually remember the photo being taken. I was too busy trying not to be sucked into the trough behind the transom where I imagined I would flip right and head-butt the propeller. That's about as far as I go with risk assessment. Looks bad, be careful or avoid. Luckily, balancing on top of the pile of a weirdly surging wave was pretty much my job back then.
From all of the above you may gather that I'm the one on the right, paddling the controversial and irritating Prijon Alien. Controversial because it wasn't exactly the best-selling boat in the history of the very successful Prijon GmbH, and irritating because I got the blame for it. I think that episode put paid to any chances I may have had of a career as boat designer, which is a shame. But I reckon enough water has rushed under the bridge that I can come out and explain why, without too much fear of upsetting anyone.
The brief was to create a concept playboat, to address the threat to Prijon's image posed by the new planing hull kayaks like the Vertigo above, the Riot Glide and many more. They feared that without some sort of radical freestyle kayak they were in danger of looking old-fashioned. At a meeting at Prijon HQ in Rosenheim, Germany, I was told that it was not necessarily to be a production boat. "We will probably never make it in plastic" they said, surmising that it was too specialist a boat to suit their production methods. I also clearly remember  being told "I don't care if only a few guys in the world can even paddle this thing - make it crazy, truly extreme!"
You don't get a commission like that every day, so I set to work with alacrity. And after a week I had shaped a deck design that looked sexy and that I was confident about. It was unusually symmetrical, for better cartwheels and spins, and was designed so that the knees were moulded in to the deck shape. But I had no idea what to do with the hull and the rails. I made the hull completely flat with the same upturn at each end as my surfboard's nose, and rounded the rails to a 1cm radius because that works well on wave-skis. My plan being to get a prototype out and develop it based on paddling it in the real world. There the whole scheme started to unravel.
photo © Bill Mattos

When the prototype arrived it needed some tweaks to volume and width before anyone could credibly judge the hull performance. This done, the phase 2 prototype was awesome on a green wave face and on top of a foam pile, but a bit of a nightmare in the trough. It was as hard to paddle as promised, but I could do things in it I'd never been able to before and I figured I could make it easier to live with in one more iteration. But while I was still trying to get my head around that, the boys at Prijon went into production with a plastic version. They too had concluded it was overly trippy, but had addressed that by chamfering the rails into a pair of sharper twin rails (which was kind of a double-edged sword).
This shot is of Tim Thomas paddling at Flowerpots, in the Mk1 prototype which I had unceremoniously cut up with a jig-saw and stuck back together with ductape. It's still one of my favourite kayak cartwheeling shots of all time!
More stable on end - wavewheeling the production, plastic Alien © Helen Stewart
Unsurprisingly, the boat was a bitch to paddle and almost everyone hated it. It bombed. A few of the best paddlers in the UK and Europe persevered for a year and then switched sponsorship deals to get something that didn't make them look like a beginner half the time. I was pretty unrepentant (read 'putting a brave face on it') in saying that the design delivered exactly what the company had asked for, but it hurt at the time. I continued to paddle the Alien for a while, enjoying it a lot in the surf and on surface features in the river, but eventually had a really bad experience on a Class IV that properly rattled me. And I don't think I ever won a freestyle event again, except in the squirtboat category or in the surf.
Back to the fun and frolics of showboating with the powerboat. We don't have any surviving video of that first attempt, but here's some from about ten years ago in a Sneaker surf kayak. As you can see, we used a tow start until the wave develops, but then it's surprisingly easy to retain the ride. Well, I say easy...

 Thanks to Explorer Marine for their continued willingness to provide powerboats for reckless stunts of all kinds. Here are a couple of shots of me driving  (and flying) their phenomenal RIBs. Yes, there's a big boat inside that whirlathon. It's a trademark move my brother invented - kind of like a handbrake turn/blunt fusion. But bigger. 

Until next time.

Don't forget to breathe...


  1. Hello Bill
    I enjoyed the experience too - I recall reviewing the design - comparing the rocker on a snowboard to the MK1 and deciding it might a bit more than just being completely flat.. They did go well - when you could keep them upright - or in one piece.. Sorry about the hole in one of them.. My kids paddled one in the Summer - it was great to see it being used again - even if it was on a flat lake!

  2. Hi Mike - good to hear from you! I remember you making a hole in the prototype - I was just relieved you were in one piece. In some horrifying hydraulic in Ireland, wasn't it? Hope you're well :)

  3. Yes it was in Ireland; it was at the Cork Rodeo Festival - and it was a horrible hole to be in as I recall.. Yes all OK here - no paddling for years now - Mountain Biking is the way forward!