I am going to compare four playboats – the Pyranha “Jed”, Exo/Guigui “2018 Helixir”, Jackson “2016 Rockstar” and the Jackson “4.0”. I have demoed all four of these boats at various locations including: the Ottawa river (August flows), Hurley weir (2 and 3 gates), St Pierre de Boeuf WWC, Holme Pierrepont WWC and Lee Valley WWC on both the Olympic and Legacy course to test their capabilities. Thanks to OKS Keeners and Above & Below shop for allowing me to test these and decide for myself which is the best playboat. I will base my analysis on the following five variables: Snappiness, Height, Responsiveness, Comfort and Price.

Pyranha “Jed”

I first tried the Jed on the Ottawa river, mid August 2018. I owned a 2016 Jackson Rockstar at the time and had been using it on Garburator wave for the past two weeks. My instructor from the Keener program – James, suggested I that I try his Jed for the weekend. While he said “I wouldn’t regret it” I was sceptical. A medium Jed weighs 13.50kg which is already heavier than a medium 2016 Rockstar which comes in at 13.15kg and when I first got into the boat the backrest in James’ Jed was broken. I’m going to break it to you from the start: the Jed is not a comfortable boat, it takes a while to make it fit right and compared to other freestyle boats it feels heavier than it should do. I personally have a vendetta against Pyranha hip pads, I would switch them out immediately on purchasing the boat for a pair of Dagger or Jackson hip pads – a worthwhile investment of only about £30 extra, so from the start the Jed scores lowest by far on Comfort. As for price, it actually scores highest being about £650 with the basic outfitting which I find more than adequate – especially if you’re replacing it quickly. No point wasting another £150 on outfitting that really isn’t that much better. Now… onto the positive points. The first feature I tried the Jed on was Garburator wave in Canada, a popular wave with great rails and a huge foam pile (incidentally the site of the 2015 freestyle world championships) and over the course of the weekend I tried it on features all along the river. They only confirmed my suspicions – “I need to get this boat as soon as I get home!” It was a dream to paddle even with a dodgy backrest. It has a tiny stern with low volume and perfect rails which make it bounce on a wave; Pyranha boast of the “V-Chine hull,” maybe this has something to do with it. The Jed is a really fast boat being quite long (180 cm), this is not only useful on flatwater, but on a wave too as you can easily build up speed to skip before hitting the green water. On Garb I found the boat seemed to want to throw itself around and I just had to deal with it, it was ridiculously responsive. The slightest movement of you body and the boat dived in that direction. The boat is long and narrow but also quite high, combined with hard edges it is the snappiest boat I have ever been in and responds instantly despite being heavier than the other four boats. The only problem with this is that it is not forgiving. It needs to be tamed and told what to do, for this reason it is not a beginner boat by any means. I would advise anyone trying the Jed to ignore Comfort and focus on handling to get the best out of the boat, the first time you try it may put you off but I urge you to persevere. When I came back from Canada I instantly demoed the Jed at Lee Valley. Moving onto hole boating then, while the Jed has a low volume (208 litres) compared to the Exo/Guigui or Jackson 4.0, the way the volume is distributed is very clever. The back tapers and has low volume (great for wave moves) but all the volume is at the front giving it just as much pop as the other boats in a hole so it still flies high on loops, something else worth noting is that the Jed comes with it’s own overthruster instead of having to buy it as an optional extra. The snappiness on a wave transfers to all aerial moves and cartwheels etc in a hole along with the responsiveness needed for long combos. The boat seems to want to help you but is difficult to master like “the force,” I myself liked the Jed so much after testing all these boats that I went straight out and bought one. One last thing to add about this boat is that, like the Jackson 4.0 and Helixir – it’s not great on flatwater. Compared to my old 2016 Rockstar, cartwheels are a nightmare and when bow stalling the balance is almost completely different. Having used a Jed for the past four months I have got used to it and now find a Rockstar difficult to use on flatwater but as your first playboat I would just not recommend this boat. To summarise: not high scoring for Comfort, best value for Price, most Responsive and Snappy but bang in the middle for the Height of aerial tricks –  not a good beginner boat but the best once mastered.

Exo/GuiGui “2018 Helixir”

I have tried the new plastic 2018 Helixir at Lee Valley on my home feature. This does mean that I do not know how the boat handles on a wave, so I will base my overall opinion on it’s performance in a hole which you can take with a pinch of salt given the former. I own an Exo “Rexy” so I already really like Exo boats and their construction. The plastic seems to be a perfect mix between being light but also strong. The plastic has a shiny gloss coating/appearance which doesn’t wear off quickly meaning the boat is the immediately attractive, and Exo boats are known for being some of the most lightweight on the market. This is due to a mixture of things: the plastic itself feels quite thin and does have some flexure and the outfitting is fairly basic. I myself like the rope backrest and it saves on weight but it is worth noting the rope used in the mechanism is a bit slippery in comparison to the rope that jackson use and so really needs to be jammed into the cleat. The backrest is really comfortable and the hip pads are on par with Jackson boats but the seat suffers from a real lack of padding. I don’t find this a problem but Comfort wise while being noticeably better than the Jed it slots in just below the 2016 Rockstar. The plastic is tougher than Jackson plastic while retaining the feature of easily popping out if dented which is useful. For Price the boat comes in at around £900, this is around the price for the upmarket Jed and about £100 cheaper than either of the Jacksons. Onto performance then, the boat has 220 litres of volume which is considerably higher than either the Jed or the 2016 Rockstar so the boat instantly has a lot more pop. The air on loops was quite impressive but seemed to be reduced slightly by the Snappiness. The plastic Helixir weighs 15kg which is just under 2kg more than the Jed and it showed with rotation. While the Helixir definitely scored highest for Height so far it also scores lowest for Snappiness. The extra air gives the boat more than enough time to complete the rotation but it just wasn’t really happy doing so. The added weight is obviously down to the extra volume but I think they cancel each other out, perhaps in a carbon Helixir the extra pop remains while the weight is no longer problem but certainly the two properties in the plastic version meant that both the 2016 Rockstar and Jed completed rotations a lot faster; Having said that the plastic Helixir was very Responsive. This may be in part due to the outfitting which allows plenty of contact with the boat and consequently it wants to follow your movements, but I think it must also have something to do with the edges on the boat and the flat underside. Whichever reason it was I found the boat just as Responsive as the 2016 Rockstar whether going in for a loop of with a cross-bow stroke, the weight of the boat did not seem to matter in this respect. OK, overall I actually really liked the boat. It’s reasonably priced and very comfortable, I know that I can trust the materials and the design. It gave me plenty of pop on aerial tricks, much more than any of the other boats and while this was marred slightly by the added weight and slower rotation I doubt it would make a difference in the carbon Helixir (depending on whether you’re interested in that option); the boat was more than Responsive and was on par with the Jed surprisingly, it was quick at getting where I wanted and went with me rather than against me. I would recommend this boat for heavier people in the weight range as the additional height might compensate and I probably would not recommend it for beginners, being a larger boat with a higher deck than the 2016 Rockstar it would prove to be a bit slower and heavier both to learn tricks in and to inevitably roll up after attempting them. An interesting new option, if you can you try the Helixir before making your decision…

Jackson “2016 Rockstar”

The 2016 Rockstar is the very first kayak I owned and it did not disappoint. All of the instructors at my local club (the Westminster Boating Base) used one and this was how I got to try it. The club is based on the Thames, a flatwater venue and this is where the boat excels, however when I bought the boat I had only just learned how to roll after my first proper whitewater trip and it offered stability and comfort, factors myself as a beginner two years ago valued highly. I used the Rockstar last year in Canada as well as at St Pierre de Boeuf before switching it out for a Pyranha Jed. My reasons for doing so are explained earlier but I genuinely believe the 2016 Rockstar is still a great boat, it is easy to learn in and very forgiving. This is mostly due to its squat profile with a wide hull and low centre of gravity – this makes catching an edge and landing in the drink harder to achieve as well as being inherently less tippy allowing the user remain upright. In terms of freestyle performance my thoughts are as follows: the 2016 Rockstar has the exact same volume as the Jed (208 litres) and it is distributed evenly across the boat. It’s shape is wide and flat like a skimming stone with soft edges making it much more stable than the Jed or 4.0. The boats volume distribution means that it is very snappy and responsive in a hole as it feels like you’re lifting less boat, but you also get reduced pop – so faster rotation but less height. Of course the 2016 Rockstar can still go huge, it’s just less inclined to and this is also true of stern related tricks seeing as the volume is the same at both ends; One redeeming feature for height is that the 2016 Rockstar actually weighs 0.35kg less than the Jed and surprisingly this is noticeable when lifting it. On a wave the added stability gives a reassuring feel, certainly I felt a lot more comfortable on Garb for my first few runs than I would have done in the Jed. The flat bottom of the boat really makes it skip over the green water it was really fun to paddle, however the edges just weren’t quite as extreme as on the Jed. I felt a bit too safe and was looking for something a little more unpredictable, the boats responsiveness wasn’t up to the same standard. Once the bar had been set higher nothing else would do. Comfort-wise this boat and the 4.0 which of course have identical outfitting) win hands down. The sweet cheeks and happy feet are clever and make it easy to fall for these boats immediately, my one warning is that the boat’s performance should come first. If you get the boat I would recommend cutting off the rear airbag section of the happy feet; it adds weight (especially with the bulb pump) and makes the happy feet more inclined to move around, I have also heard of mould growing within the happy feet which is a bit grim but it took a while before I had to replace mine. A final criticism of this design is that the cockpit rim and thigh grips are extremely weak. There appears to be some batch variation, perhaps this was fixed on later batches – I got lucky and mine was completely fine but I know of 3 people with 2016 Rockstars where cracks in the cockpit rim appeared very quickly or where there to begin with. Once this has happened the thigh pad is permanently weakened despite plastic welding attempts and the boat is rendered almost useless. At the time of writing this review I believe the 2016 Rockstar has just been discontinued but whether you can still buy a new one from certain dealers or whether you’re forced to buy second hand boat, I would caution you to beware of this issue and check if you can before purchasing. This also adds some dispute to the pricing, when new it was roughly £1000 which appears to be fairly standard, now it has been replaced by the 4.0 you may be able to get a used version for a similar price to the Jed… In conclusion, the 2016 Rockstar is a great all-round playboat, especially for beginners. It is the Snappiest boat in this review and certainly feels like one of the lightest, it can get huge air but is the least likely to so for Height it ranks lowest. The boat is Responsive, partly due to tight fit and mouldable padding, but the hull can’t quite match the Jed or the Helixir however Comfort-wise it smashes it’s competition, equalling the 4.0. Price is debatable due to the models discontinuation but it would have been bang in the middle. Great boat, I learned a lot from it and recommend it to anyone who finds one in good condition.

Jackson “4.0”

I was a bit sceptical about the new 4.0 to begin with; I tried it first in Canada and when I saw it alongside a Pyranha Jed and a 2016 Rockstar I thought it was trying to copy both but somehow managed to loose the elegance of either of the former two. While I now accept that some people may like this boat and that it is perfectly decent, it is also my least favourite of the four in this review. The 4.0 has the same cushy outfitting that we know and love in the 2016 Rockstar but it manages to loose some of the comfort. Weighing 75kg and being 5” 9’ I fit the specs of medium almost exactly but the 4.0 just felt too large and cumbersome which is funny because it only weighs 13.15kg apparently which is lighter that the Jed, 2016 Rockstar and Helixir. I know that a lot of foam is required just to get the Jackson overthruster to work let alone wedge you securely inside – so while the outfitting is good, the internal volume is so large I feel like I could sleep in it and consequently it scores just below the Helixir for overall comfort. Price is easy to get out of the way: a new 4.0 sets you back roughly £1000 which is the same as the 2016 Rockstar used to be before it was discontinued and therefore joint most expensive of the four boats. Alright then, onto performance. The 4.0 has a total volume of 232 litres which is 12 litres more than the Helixir and explains why it felt too big. This does give it considerable pop in a hole but this advantage is lost in the rotation, compared to the 2016 Rockstar the 4.0 is a pig – the 2016 Rockstar got little air but rotated really quickly whereas the 4.0 flies high and lands badly. The 4.0 just doesn’t feel snappy, it isn’t fast at initiation and it struggles to appear stylish. Lowest scoring for Snappiness then, even if it scores highly for Height! Don’t worry, some of this ungainly performance is compensated for on a wave: the 4.0 is 178cm long which is only 2cm off the Jed. This makes it speedy and allows more momentum to be gained before take off, it also means flushing is more difficult as it is easier to fight the current. The 4.0 is a bit sluggish in comparison to the Jed or 2016 Rockstar but on waves it’s responsiveness increases, the boat is higher than the previous generation and the edges are harder giving it a unique feel when throwing blunts etc. Sadly, however responsive it is on a wave the Helixir and Jed beat it hands down and in a hole the 2016 Rockstar does as well; Compared to the other three boats the 4.0 scores somewhere around and maybe just below the Helixir, altogether a disappointing showing from the latest edition of the leading playboat design. I would not recommend this boat for beginners seeing as it is harder to roll than the other three due to it’s high sides and the size makes learning to throw moves just that little bit harder. If you weight on the upper edge of medium but can’t quite make a large then this is the boat for you or if you aspire to look like Dane or Nick then jump on the bandwagon, but choose any of the other three boats and you would be much better off whether you are an experienced paddler or just starting out.

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2 thoughts on “Best Playboat 2019?

  1. Demoed a Helixir at Lee Valley the weekend and was reminded just how personal boat choice and fit is. No matter what I tried I couldn’t get it to fit me well, the non-adjustable thigh braces were too far forward (barely touching my knees) and I struggled to get my knees up into the pockets. The back band constantly popped out of the cleats no matter how hard I jammed them in. At 5’9″, size 10 feet and 74kg it’s just too big a boat for me to feel well connected in. Such a shame, as I really lusted after one and wanted to make a change. Perhaps time for me to give the Jed another go?

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    1. It is really interesting how some boats just aren’t right for certain people, I’d give the Jed ago – maybe it’ll fit better!

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