Jackson Zen Kayak Review

by Bryant Burkhardt

The Zen is the new river runner from the great people at Jackson Kayaks. It is a moderate volume boat that comes in three different sizes (55,65,75), with a planing hull and relatively soft edges. It is going to be the backbone of our instructional fleet this year so I took it out on the class II/III section of the South Fork American River to see how the boat performed. So this review is from the perspective of how the boat will do for beginners (though it is also a viable choice for experienced paddlers looking for a general river runner).

The first thing of note is the Jackson outfitting. For those not familiar with it, it consists of cords and cleats. This makes the boat super quick to adjust. The Zen has the sliding bulkhead which allows you to sit in the boat and just pull a cord to get the feet positioned properly. A similar set up for the backband allows quick and easy adjustments their as well. The seat is on a plastic track (which helps stiffen the boat) and by removing a wingnut it can be moved into five different positions. I kept mine in the middle position and the boat trim seamed fine (I’m 170 lbs. and was paddling the Zen 65). I was able to fit into the boat with my creek shoes on but it doesn’t have quite as much footroom as some of the other Jackson boats do (I have a 32″ inseam and wear size 11′s). Jackson’s no longer come with the customizable sweet cheeks (they are available as an accessory) so the seat has a typical foam seat pad. I have to say, I did miss my sweet cheeks by the end of the day. But overall the outfitting is simple and solid and takes a minute or two to set to the individual – you can’t beat that when gearing up a whole class of newbies.

On the water, the first things to strike me were how stable the boat feels and that it seems shorter than it is. The stability comes from the flat bottom and flared sides. But what impressed me more was the secondary stability when edging the boat. Many flat bottom boats have a singular point of secondary stability – you can lean them way over but it can be hard to hold them with just a little edge. The Zen does have that point of extreme secondary where you can hold it up with the cockpit under water. But more importantly for beginners is that it was super easy and comfortable to hold a little edge – just the right amount for learning to eddy turn or brace.

The Zen 65 I was paddling is 8’4″ but and it looks shorter when sitting in it because the front deck doesn’t have a lot of rocker. Your nose seems close to the water, giving a long water line. This helps the boat feel fast – and it really feels fast. But it does tend to go through waves a little bit more than it goes over them. It has plenty of volume so it doesn’t dive, but it doesn’t really ride up and over the little stuff. And that speed carries really well -it’s great for ferrying or slow, wide turns. On a wave it has great speed – for those who know it, I was able to sit on the side of barking dog and just ride the fast green part of the wave without lifting a muscle. But that speed and lack of rocker doesn’t make it the best for waves with a steep pile.

The other thing I noticed with the Zen’s long, flat bottom and edge is that it likes to carve into and out of eddies. That’s a great thing most of the time, but for small eddies and sharp turns it has a tendency to go right on through. The trick to making it snap sharply is to lean forward to disengage the stern – something I used to have to do on my old Pyranha H2. Once the stern is free you can snap it around as quickly as you want.

The other boat we use a lot in our instructional fleet is the Liquid Logic Remix series. They are super forgiving and similar in many ways to the Zen. The noticeable difference was that the Zen gives a more definite carving feel when you put it on edge. But at the same time, that edge make it slightly less forgiving when you edge the wrong way. But I was pleased to note that in swirly current the Zen didn’t get grabbed at all the way some flat hulls can.

Overall I am super excited to get to use this boat for teaching this season. I think the adjustability and comfort will help us get our students set to go quickly. And once they are on the water the combination of stability and speed will help them gain confidence quickly. And once they learn how to turn, the edge and carving ability of the Zen will give them tactile feedback to help them get the feel of things.  It should be a good year!

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4 Responses to Jackson Zen Kayak Review

  1. bryant says:

    Just a little update: I taught my first class over the past weekend using Zen’s for the students. Used all three sizes and worked well – had someone at about 140lbs. in the Zen 55 and it was fine and solid, a guy at 220+ in the Zen 75 no problem. From watching them as they learned how to eddy turn, it seems like the edge can catch when you lean the wrong way but it doesn’t result in a quick and violent flip. As the boat starts going the edge releases and the secondary stability holds you up. Of course, several students still flipped over because they just thought they were and went with it. But the slightest of braces or even just a relaxed hip flick would have kept them upright. But they all got the feel for carving and the speed of the boats really helped them crossing eddy lines and cruising down the river.
    -Bryant

  2. Pingback: Jackson Kayak Zen Review by California Canoe and Kayak Staff! - Jackson Kayak - Whitewater, Recreational, Touring and Fishing kayaks Jackson Kayak – Whitewater, Recreational, Touring and Fishing kayaks

  3. John Simpkin says:

    Bryant,
    Nice to see you yesterday and thumbs up (again) on your “mission”. Challenging and honorable “run” I’d say. Matt at CCK Lotus loves the Zen. Talked a coupla times on the river with a CCK Sacto guide a few months ago and he just went on and on about the boat both times I saw him. Yesterday Chad Long had a bunch of good to say about the boat also. Tom Long was in one down Chili Bar yesterday. Chad did say that he thought the boat would “spear” rather than ride up over bigger waves (I’m thinking winter Gorge). Your review is the clincher. I’m taking Weston Rademacher (CCK Lotus, chemisery kid at school) down the Gorge next Saturday or Sunday for his maiden trip IF he can get Tammy to give him a day off. I’m guessing he’ll be taking his Fun and I’ll probably give a CCK Zen a try then.

  4. I had a chance to try some rolling practice in the Jackson Zen at the outdoor pool in Folsom a few weeks ago. Loved the way it felt and it was easy to roll. I see that CalKayak is having an event in April River Running with Colin Kemp and Noah Fraser at Barking Dog featuring the Zen. Prerequisites say that only Whitewater 201 is needed, but the event indicates that it will be held at class 3+ Barking Dog.

    I have had class 2 instruction and would love to try the Zen on the river. Is the April event appropriate for someone who has class 2 experience, a decent river roll, but never been in class 3 water? Thanks..

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