What should a wave warrior wear when in wind and waves—and rocks? Armor, of course. But if you look through the websites of kayaking gear manufacturers such as Kokatat, NRS, Astral, Stohlquist, and the like, you won’t find any. That’s because the kayaking industry is way behind the folks who make motocross gear.
There is a reason for that. Sea kayakers have only recently been ratcheting up the risk factor by maneuvering through whitewater and rock gardens. River kayakers and canoeists have stretched the envelope a little farther every year since the film Deliverance came out. They are a naturally adventurous lot who have progressively taken more and more chances. Gone are the days of enjoying Class II and III fun; now it’s Class IV or more or forget it. If you say you’ve run a waterfall, the first question you get is “How big was it?” The point is, for river runners, running over falls and shooting by hard rocks are now the norm. With all this impact danger, there is still no body protection for river boaters except for the foam in a PFD (personal flotation device). I wish PFD stood for personal flak diverter.
Sea kayakers are only now playing in rocks (except for the Tsunami Rangers, who have been doing this since our inception in 1985). And since manufacturers are in business to make money, why should they create products for a small customer base? But if you combine the market segments of sea kayakers and wave skiers, river kayakers and rafters, surfers and boogie boarders, wake boarders and military swimmers with other water sports enthusiasts, you see there are a lot of potential customers out there who might want to wear armor in the water.
Armor Phase One—Wetsuits
To avoid getting scraped up while kayak surfing, in 1983 I started wearing a full surfer wetsuit as a second skin. It worked fine, and over the years I’ve experimented by designing custom wetsuits with extra padding placed on the knees (1/4 inch neoprene pleats) and up the spine and kidneys (3/4 inch neoprene). I had these made by Monterey Wetsuits and Heatwave in Santa Cruz, California. I was and am very satisfied with the abrasion and contusion protection I get from neoprene wetsuits. But I wanted impenetrable pads for my shins, shoulders, back, and chest to protect me from impact. In my years of extreme sea kayaking, I have witnessed many spearings in surf and experienced a lot of contact with rocks. I wanted to address the impact issue, rather than shy away from the adventurous side of ocean kayaking.
Armor Phase Two—Motocross Armor
Jim Kakuk and I tried everything under the sun—football shoulder pads, soccer shin guards, and knee and elbow pads. All these worked up to a point, but would either corrode in salt water, or the straps wouldn’t hold, or the pad would move out of position in swirling surf.
Then we discovered motocross armor, and tried several models of plasticized foam shoulder pads which also covered the sternum and upper back. We wore the motocross armor in lieu of a PFD. It worked well, but hard shell shoulder pads would whack me in the face, and the Velcro was far from adequate in holding the thorax protector in place. We resorted to duct taping ourselves up before each kayak outing.
Finally, we had had enough of expensive motocross solutions to our armor problem. Jim Kakuk tried to make our own armor out of Kevlar and Ensolite, but it pinched at the shoulders and a year’s worth of research went down the tubes. We were perplexed. Then the miracle occurred.
Armor Phase Three—Armored PFD
In 2001, Jim Stohlquist gave us a deal on a prototype PFD he was working on for creek boaters. This PFD featured thin Kevlar plates over the upper back and sides, which protected one’s ribs and upper spine from impact. I fell in love with this PFD and wear it to this day. It’s the best PFD I’ve ever worn. Regrettably, the prototype never made it to market, and to my knowledge you can’t buy one today. Drat.
I’ve been wearing my trusty Stohlquist for a decade, yet I know that someday it will wear out. Plus, the PFD is bulky in front and does not protect my shoulders. So what will I do? As a guy with an artificial aortic valve and a damaged aorta, it’s essential I not get smacked by a rock, log, or bow of someone’s boat. Ponder, ponder.
Armor Phase Four—Motocross Redux
This year my friend Will Nordby gifted me with brand new motocross armor, the best I’ve ever seen. Made by Sixsixone, this armor is lightweight with an articulated spine made of plastic inserts which allows your back to move naturally and protects you like an armadillo’s armor protects the fragile mammal inside. It also covers your chest, shoulders, and arms in featherweight plastic armor with foam underneath.
I tested the Sixsixone a few weeks ago and found I had full range of movement, could get on and off my boat easily, roll no problemo, and swim in aerated surf just fine. The only thing I didn’t do was have someone hit me with a baseball bat to see if it held up.
I would have been completely sold on the Sixsixone armor, but it uses a nylon mesh on the insides of your arms to hold the armor in place and allow full range of motion. That would be perfect on a dirt bike but the wide mesh webbing snagged a bit, and that presents a hazard in surf.
Wave Warrior Armor Challenge
So I’m still looking for that perfect armor which protects my upper body from impacts and simultaneously adds positive flotation so you don’t sink while swimming. I hereby openly challenge Stohlquist, Kokatat, NRS, Lotus Designs, Astral, Extrasport, Stearns, Mystic, and all other PFD manufacturers to design, develop, produce, and market watersports armor for kayakers. I’ll be glad to help in the design and testing aspects—and I’ll do it for free. There are a lot of new materials out there, and if you are looking for the future of basic padding protection, connect to www.d3o.com. Mystic already uses d3o in its impact vests for wake boarders. Just think, if d3o foam was combined with lightweight plastic and ceramic composites, Cordura, Rubatex, and Hydroskin, who knows what kind of overall body armor might be developed for water sports?
Feel free to add your thoughts below. What’s your take on kayaking armor? Is it needed, or is it a pipe dream? Please ask questions and share your armor experience, knowledge, and dreams. Oh, be sure to share your or someone’s stories where you wish you would have been wearing armor.