Select Page

In a word, yes. Not pulling punches here. This review may not be for you if you’re an experienced WW paddler. It’s for beginners, older folks about to retire, and even older folks looking to enjoy the health benefits and joys of kayaking.

I’ll bet a case of Fat Tire that a few years from now the Jackson Kayak Karma will be known as a most majestic beginner’s boat (time for another word besides awesome). Yes, it’s a fast and racy creek boat (as Dane Jackson and others have proved—congrats Dane for WWGP!), but the qualities that make the Karma a winning ride for the pros are what make it finest kind for us lay people.

I’m not a pro by any means. At almost age 76, 185 lbs. without kit, 28” inseam, 5’6” short, on chemo so way outta shape, and just started whitewatering a few months ago. At my age and condition I want a boat with lots of comfort, stability, easy learning, and portability. So if in my shape the Karma offers all of these and more, that’s saying something and will be even more meaningful for younger pups. Here’s why.

Mine is a Large and I’m comparing it to large-size “beginner’s “and school boats from other manufacturers. What’s so blooming great about Jackson Kayak’s Karma? Let’s start with it in the swimming pool, as that’s a great place to start learning a boat and around these parts right now it’s 14 below and everything is iced up. Actually let’s start even before the swimming pool.

Karma—the TV Test: Comfort while sitting
I recently posted here about the new, updated 2013 Jackson Sure-Lock Backband and what a difference it makes. Guess what? It seems to get better over time! Compared to its predecessor it’s larger, wraps around you farther and can be set a little higher on your back. The dimensional changes may be small, but ergonomically they’re very noticeable and way more comfortable for me than any other brand.

We older folk want comfort. Our aging bodies demand it. Beginners, no matter what age, should expect it. With today’s technology there’s no reason to start out with a boat that’s anything but comfy. I can’t see how any boat could be any more comfortable than this Karma. How comfortable is that? Well, I sat all the way through the Sci-Fi Channel’s Dune by Frank Herbert while in my Karma. I felt great all through the show and was able to get out of the boat very easily and without discomfort when it was over.

Comfort is key to learning any sport. If you’re not comfortable, you’re not going to learn as well, as quickly, or as easily. You’ll be distracted. Don’t just take my word. There’s research to support this. So before you even demo a boat on the water, read War and Peace in it for a while in the shop. Play with the outfitting (the way the boat can be adjusted to fit you better). Rearrange the ergonomics and see what happens. Kayaks are not trivial purchases and you will be sitting in yours a lot. Would you buy an uncomfortable armchair for your media room? Fat Tire says you’ll find the Karma comfortable. Here are more reasons why.

COMFORT—getting in and out
Quite important. How easy or difficult is it for you to get in and out of a kayak, especially if you’re older and less flexible than a younger you? The Karma helps me get in and out easy because of the way the cockpit is configured and the size of the boat. In a later installment we’ll look at how that size can help us freshmen in ways other than getting in or out.

COMFORT in all your body parts
This is arguably one of the most frequently discussed kayak topics out there. How comfortable are your body parts in a kayak during lengthy sitting spells? Do you get numbness anywhere? As you get older, Arthritis, Flexibility, Neuropathy, skeletal, or circulation issues can arise and body/boat ergonomics become especially crucial. Ease and flexibility of how you control the ergonomics are terribly important at any age. You’d be very hard pressed, in my opinion, to find a boat with as much ergonomic control, thus comfort, as the Karma.

One reason is the way the Karma (and other Jackson Kayak whitewater boats), allow you to adjust your foot/leg position on the fly. They call the gizmo that lets you do this the Uni-Shock Bulkhead. Don’t let the word Shock, jolt you. That’s for the pros. For us lay paddlers it means you can more easily dial in foot and lower body comfort. No need to get out of the boat. A simple cord lets you loosen the position of the footrest bulkhead and you can stretch your legs during a break, tighten the footrest for firmer control of the boat after the break, or just change the ergonomics for variety. This Jackson innovation is easier than any sea, touring, or recreational kayak’s so-called easy-to-adjust footpeg system I’ve tried (many!). No messing with wingnuts that get lost or bulkhead brackets that take King Kong or Plastic Man to change. No contortions while seated to reach for a lever. This Uni-Shock Bulkhead thinghy is wizard! Not only does it easily adjust for body comfort, but it’s also covered with very thick foam so it’s a soothing footrest. And it makes it very easy to pack gear in the bow if you’re the trekking kind. The adjustment mechanism is simple, elegant, and bomber.

As you advance in paddling you’ll learn that foot pressure is important at times because it aids boat control. You may find yourself “pedaling” often, even with every stroke of your paddle. So it’s very soothing to push on a bulkhead that has a svelte cushiony feel to it, which the other brands I’ve tried don’t. I have vascular and nerve damage in my hips and legs so if anyone’s going to feel poor ergonomics it’ll be me and very quickly. I believe Karma’s outfitting is a boon for Baby Boomers and oldsters.

COMFORT for better boat control
As you’ll learn, you control a kayak best by wearing it like a kid glove. You get this fit by how you dial in the “outfitting”. This includes the seat, hip pad supports, thigh braces, and other paddling, as well as the foot rest, and backband. In the Karma (and other JK WW boats) you do this not only with the to-die-for new Sure-Lock backband, but also the infinite way you can adjust that backband, plus the Sure-Lock footrest with a simple rope & jamcleat system. This gives you better control of the boat with none of the ratchets to mess with you’ll find on other brands. Ratchets work, but you’re stuck with the adjustment their teeth give you. The Jackson system is infinitely variable. You get exactly what feels best to you, not what works best for the hardware. Not only does that give you more comfort, it gives you better control over the boat. Besides, ratchets can give you owies if you hit them wrong getting in or out of your boat.
The seat can very easily be re-positioned fore & aft for even more comfort and/or performance. Hip pads are extremely easy to adjust to your body. The thigh braces are right where they should be for me and feel great. The Karma feels like it’s a part of me. And I don’t get numb or any other kind of discomfort. That alone can make it a best buy in my book, but there’s a lot more to like.

Karma—the Pasture Test: Comfort while carrying the boat.
The Karma Large is not the lightest boat out there, but I don’t think it needs to be given it’s many advantages. If I can portage and load it, just about anyone can. I carried it up and down a pasture to see if it’d be a hassle. Granted this was not over rock ledges, but the point is that Jackson Kayaks has thoughtfully put a handhold inside the boat that makes it easier to carry and lift. Plus with all the safety and security grab handles, getting it up on a truck rack is simple. The lighter Medium or Small size Karma models will be easier.

Karma—the Pool Test: Comfort afloat
Because this Karma was so soothing on dry land, I so wanted it to be friendly in the wet. Skirt on, flaps set, revs up, Karma and I sat on the pool deck while I pondered what it’d be like when I hit the water. Two scenarios came to mind. First, with all that rocker I’d plop and spin, maybe catch an edge and crash and burn. Or, because people had told me it wasn’t as stable as my Jackson Zen which I love, I’d bottoms up instantly and swim.
I kid you not, the moment I slithered in the water–the exact moment!–I knew this boat was something special. Something very, very special. Why?

First, a little background here for never-evers. In simple language any boat has two basic kinds of stability: 1) Initial (a.k.a. primary) which is how tippy it acts laterally from a flat, horizontal position. Poor initial stability makes for a nervous boat which makes for a hugely nervous beginning paddler. Nervousness is distracting and not good for beginners or retirees with fading balance! 2) Secondary stability describes how easy it is to capsize a boat. Poor secondary also makes for nervous and distracted beginners. Thus, boats with Jell-O initial and squirrely secondary will make learning progress slower and more difficult.

My wife finally said to get with it so I Otter launched from the pool deck, slithered in and with enormous aplomb the Karma glided forward with stately majesty, perfectly straight, no twitching, and a good turn of speed. What a surprising christening! Woot! This thing has character! I’ve launched a bunch of boats over the years from 8-ft. racing sailing prams to Americas Cup Trials contenders, cruising trawlers, even a minesweeper. Not one of those has impressed me as much as those first few moments in the Karma.

OK. First launch was nice. Aplomb not expected and very, very nice. So, I started stroking up and down the pool. Shazam! Like rocking to a lullaby in the arms of Captain Marvel, Karma could not be steadier. Then I spun lots of very fast donuts. I’d rev it up then tip Karma sideways to one side and the other on the same circle trying to see if I could catch an edge and trip up. Nope! Steady she goes. Neato! What’s this boat got, a gyro?

I’d read in other reviews how the Karma had lots of initial stability, but maybe not as much as the Zen. I have a Zen 75 and on flatwater I think the Karma is more solid. I reserve final judgment, however, until I do an A/B test at the same time.

Karma—Rocker with a Shocker
Look at the 360 degree views of the Karma. First-timers, see how the bottom curves upward near the bow and stern? That’s called “rocker” and it’s a key element in how a kayak handles. Boats like the Karma have it to make them more maneuverable in moving water. However, maneuverability and going straight (tracking) are not supposed to co-exist well in the same kayak. I don’t know how Jackson kayaks pulled this off, but the Karma will track almost on rails on flatwater, yet turn fast. In the pool there was some chop from lap swimmers and you’d think that would urge the Karma from the straight and narrow. Wrong. I could start at one end of the pool, get up some steam, coast to the other end and stay in the same lane. OK, now I was really scratching my helmet. Was I hung over and numb from the previous night’s Solstice party? So, I went to the edge of the pool for another checkout, secondary stability.

Karma—the Tipsy Test
This boat wouldn’t budge the needle on a breathalyzer! Several pros have written about how much secondary stability the Karma has. Boy, are they right! But even better, the sweet spot (the range where you can hang out on your ear on an edge) is as wide as an 8-lane Interstate. Look at the picture, see how much on edge the boat is? That shot was taken just shy of the tipping point, the angle where a boat wants to belly up. There is actually a tad more secondary than this photo shows. Look how far from flat horizontal the boat is. Wicked!

What’s this mean, to you as a beginner or older kayaker? In a word, even more comfort. It means that as long as you’re paying attention, not over your head as it were in water beyond your skills, and have an acceptable high and low brace, you ‘ll be hard pressed to capsize. Frankly, I don’t see how it can get more comfortable than this in a whitewater boat. Big time important for us older kayakers. But also way advantageous for younger and jockier boaters. Yes, the Karma is winning races and dropping gnarly creeks, but the Karma will provide for me and any other easy-riding kayaker many joyful floats and Class II-III. If you snow ski or snowboard well you may know the delight in getting up on edge and letting the radius of the skis or board make the turn, not your body. This is true carving on snow. The sensation of a high speed (above 40 mph), very long radius turn with no body movement is like none other. I have a feeling this sensation may be attainable in the Karma. I can’t think of more fun than carving long radius turns down an easy rapid.

Karma—the Cowboy test
In sea kayaking there’s a self-rescue called the “cowboy” you can do if you capsize and can’t roll. It uses no aids like stirrups or paddle floats and entails vaulting yourself over the stern from the water onto your aft deck, sitting up and straddling said deck, then scootching yourself forward to where you can raise one leg at a time and slide back into the cockpit. It is not easy. In my opinion it’s one of the harder self-rescues and only works with a boat that is super stable, especially if you have short legs. In the picture is my wonderful 5’3”, short-legged wife less than a minute after starting a cowboy and almost in the cockpit. Fast! More testimony to super stability since she’s not a Spring Chicken either and as the years go up, the balance goes down.

Karma—the Cork Test
See how lightly the Karma sits atop the water? See how much space between the water and the edge of the cockpit? The Karma draws very little water. Cool because it’s going to ride high in shallow, bony conditions and not catch you out on shallow, submerged rocks. More comfort! There are other advantages to this part of the hull design, but that’s for another installment.

Karma—Komplete Komfort
Initial stability like a duck, secondary like a cork, TempurPedic comfort in the outfitting, tracking like a trolley, portability, even a GoPro mount pre-installed. A lot to like. A very lot to like. It all adds up to what it will do for you as a beginner, Boomer, or oldster. You will learn faster. Have more fun learning. Have fewer nervous moments. And have some wonderful, mellow cruising down the river, let alone gnarly creeking if you go that far. You owe it to yourself to check out Jackson Kayak’s new Karma. No hype! I don’t work at the factory. Simply, this is a very exciting step forward in kayak design, I believe…for anyone and everyone.

Solstice has passed, the days are getting longer, and our ice won’t last too much longer. Stay tuned, we’ll tell you more of the other exciting Karma kualities soon when we can get on a river. Butler Cox with photography by WhiteFox.