Whitewater kayaking requires five essential pieces of gear: boat, paddle, helmet, PFD, and spray skirt. We sat down with Max Blackburn from Immersion Research to discuss skirt design, and what Immersion Research has been doing in recent years to improve them.
Max is the Northwest rep for IR, but he isn’t just some sales guy—he also happens to be a top-level class V+ boater.
We love talking to Max about gear because he is a passionate boater who is out there really using the stuff that he sells. And having people like Max in the industry, people who really understand what customers need, is part of what makes whitewater paddling an awesome sport
Blister: Let’s start with how the market for spray skirts works. The market for high end spray skirts is not huge, so how do you guys justify making these highly-targeted skirts, and what affect does that have on the price tag?
Max: Well IR as a company is dedicated to making the best whitewater paddling gear out there. That’s our mission, and it’s been the goal since IR started. Some of us argue that a reliable skirt is the most important piece of safety gear you can have while running whitewater, especially very difficult whitewater.
We’re all paddlers, so we want to make the best skirts out there, not just to keep boaters dry and prevent having to empty your boat all the time, but we want to keep people safe, knowing that their skirt isn’t going to come off unexpectedly.
If you don’t have a solid spray skirt that stays on your boat, you can take an unexpected swim anywhere on the river. Minimizing the time that you spend swimming is critical to safety.
But yes, the fact that it is such a small market does affect the price of the skirt. The materials for skirts like this are not cheap and we do our best to minimize cost. But at the end of the day, the reality is that a high-end skirt will cost a bunch more than an average skirt.
Blister: Can you give us a rundown of the forces that can cause a spray skirt to blow off the cockpit of the boat when you’re not expecting it? Skirts can implode, but they can also explode, is that correct?
Max: In this day and age a lot of people are starting to run big waterfalls and rivers with higher volume. If you go deep under the water, the pressure of the surrounding water as you go deeper and deeper can push on the deck of the skirt to the point where sometimes the neoprene on the skirt deck can touch the inside of your legs, or even get pushed down to the bottom of your boat. And if the outside edge of that skirt is not securing the skirt to the cockpit well enough, then it will come off because of all the pressure on the inside of the skirt.
If you have a skirt material that is designed to take that sort of impact without putting strain on the outside rim, then it can flex without the skirt coming off.
So that’s implosion. But explosion occurs when you land flat off of a drop to the point where the boat’s plastic flexes, compresses, and then has less space for air inside of it. Air is being pushed out of the boat and into the underside of the skirt. That air pressure is trying to blow the skirt off of the boat and escape, which you can actually see in screen grabs of people running big drops. Their skirt sometimes looks like a big dome – like there is a beachball inside. That’s air that is pushing up on the skirt. But again, a skirt that is designed for that kind of impact will stay on the boat.
A lot of research has gone into this over the years. It’s by no means rocket science, or like we’ve cracked the atom or anything, but a lot has gone into figuring out the exact right circumference of the skirt deck to where it fits the cockpit as perfectly as possible.
Having the appropriate neoprene is also a huge part of it. We try to make sure that the neoprene is not only durable enough to withstand the abuse that kayakers put it through, but that it is also stretchy enough to absorb force without putting strain on the outside rim of the skirt.
Blister: This is a relatively new philosophy, right? Implosion bars have been used in skirts for a long time, but Immersion Research doesn’t use them. They’re still out there in a lot of other skirt designs, so why don’t you guys do implosion bars?
Max: We’ve found over and over again that the key to preventing implosion and explosion is having the least amount of resistance on the outside of the skirt. If you have an implosion bar that doesn’t allow the neoprene on the inside of the deck to flex, then you immediately transfer a lot of that pressure and a lot of that strain to the outside rim of the skirt. There’s just nowhere else for it to go. You’re keeping that rigidity and form of the skirt when you actually want it to be flexing the most. And that flex, as long as the sizing of the skirt is correct, is what saves it from coming off the boat.
I’ve also known implosion bars to come out of the place where they’re sewn into the skirt and create a hazard. IR experimented with implosion bars when we first started making skirts, but there was never an implosion bar that we designed where you could stand on top of the skirt and have it stay on the boat. We can jump up and down on on top of our rand skirts when they’re on the boat and they stay on the boat– as long as they’re the proper size for the cockpit.
Blister: We see most pros using rubber rand skirts. It seems like this trend toward rubber rands has taken the market by storm across a lot of levels of paddlers, but you guys are still making bungee skirts. Who are those skirts good for and what are the advantages of going bungee?
Max: Well first and foremost, the biggest advantage of a bungee skirt is just the ease of putting it on the boat. A lot of people like a skirt that is easy to get on and off, especially in cold weather, which affects the elasticity of rubber rand skirts.
Bungee skirts are leaps and bounds more user friendly. And while we do put a lot of emphasis on how implosion-proof the rubber rand skirts are because that’s what they are designed for first and foremost, these bungee skirts are also very implosion resistant because we put so much emphasis on the proper circumference and using really stretchy neoprene.
So bungee skirts are actually great for the vast majority of paddlers. I think people get caught up in the fact that most of the best paddlers in the world are using our rubber rand skirts for running big waterfalls. That’s what gets the most attention in the media. But for 99% of whitewater, bungee skirts are just fine. They stay on the boat, and they’re much easier to use.
Bungee skirts are also going to be a little drier. Rubber rand skirts leak a little bit by nature because of the kind of seal they make on the cockpit. So for someone who is looking for a real user-friendly skirt that is going to be dry for a long time, go with the bungee.
Regarding putting a rand skirt on in the cold, rubber rands are very sensitive to the cold. They lose their elasticity when temperatures drop. Something you can do to combat that is to stand on the back of the rand and pull up on the front of the skirt like a couple of quick curls, which will stretch out the material and make it easier to get on the boat.
Blister: You guys add extra neoprene material around the outside of the cockpit rim on some of your skirts. How does this function to keep more water out?
Max: We’ve got a couple of reasons that we add that extra material, especially for our rand skirts. It sits around the bottom of the cockpit rim and prevents water from seeping up through the rand. It also sits over a lot of bolts and screws around the rim that have a tendency to leak in a wide variety of boat designs.
But the other thing that we use to defend against leakage on the rand skirts is the “fin” technology. That is fairly new for us from just three or four years ago. The rand has fins that act as barriers against water. I think some folks see those fins and think they are designed for additional grip, but they are actually directed at dryness.
Blister: What is IR’s process for skirt design? Are these ideas coming from engineers? Is the team coming to you with a lot of input? How is a new idea born, and how does it then move to a final product?
Max: It all starts back at IR R&D with the owners, John and Kara Weld. They’ve put a lot of time into researching and studying the science behind what makes a skirt dry and implosion resistant. Jess Whittemore, a longtime east coast paddling legend, does a lot of the R&D for IR. They do all sorts of tests back at HQ, but most of the testing eventually ends up happening in the field with our athletes and our skirt testers. They’re running the biggest whitewater in the world, which is obviously the best platform to test performance.
We make a round of 20 or 30 prototypes to give to our skirt testers, and usually give it a full year of testing to get feedback from those paddlers before we go to production.
NEXT: Skirt Tunnels, Dry Wear, and the Future of Spray Skirts