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I recently received the following email from my mother, who just finished helping out with an Intro to Whitewater course with the Philadelphia Canoe Club, where many of her students were using Zens. The boat choice was a change from the Funs of recent years, and she noticed the difference it made for them.

“It seemed as if they really struggled to manage these boats in the water, and they required a great deal of effort. I’m curious if you have a favorite beginner teaching boat(s) and if you think a Zen is a good choice. It seemed that the people in the Fun and Antix faired better and were less exhausted in the end.”

Her email touched on a question I get asked frequently, and so I thought I would share my thoughts on the subject. Keep in mind… this is just one opinion- I would love to hear yours!

The main advantages to a Zen are 1: people are often more comfortable sitting in them (esp. bigger people). And 2: Once people get on whitewater, they are much more forgiving- they bounce through the waves more easily and can give a sense of confidence. They may also be easier to learn to roll. I have noticed a big difference in the initial sense of success and confidence students can have when I teach in New Zealand, where the whitewater is classic river-running grade II-III, with swirly eddylines and banking turns. The increased volume and rocker profile of modern-style creek boats (like the Nirvana) keep the bow up and can help prevent sterns from catching while crossing volatile currents.

The downside, as you mention, is that a Zen can feel like a lot of boat to move around. And, because the boats are more forgiving- blasting through grade II-III, they can encourage laziness and bad habits.

Personally, I would rather see beginners in an Antix-style boat- an Axiom, an RPM, because they interact with whitewater more, and give a better sense of 1. How currents work. 2. How the boat is designed to engage or interacts with the current. They allow progression across a broader range of skills- they are easier to surf, stern squirt, etc., so they can provide additional challenges for fast learners. They are also, as you mentioned, easier to turn and move around, so can be less tiring.

The downside is that the slicey sterns, while they carve nice, proper eddy turns instead of skating out, can be less forgiving. If you drop and edge or catch your stern on squirlley stuff, a beginner may be more likely to flip over or feel “unstable.” (Again, the Zen puts you more on top of the current, so you are less likely to feel that way. But… you also may see people struggle to control the boat on edge for the length of a ferry glide or feel what an eddy turn should feel like.) 

With regard to shorter boats- teaching in Rockstars, for example- I think this is a large reason why the Ottawa Kayak School has seen such success and rapid progression in their students. Yes, the Ottawa itself is big, warm, and friendly, and ideally suited to teaching, learning, and playboating, but I think the fact that playboats are easy to turn, easy to steer, and easy to edge can help to accelerate the learning process. The Fun can be a good compromise, though I personally think the shape is a little outdated and have more fun in an Antix.

At the end of the day, the boat you want students to learn in will likely vary based on the rivers you have available and the comfort levels of your student. Whichever boat is the most comfortable for a student while being reasonably responsive for them is probably best!

Hope this helps! Happy Paddling,