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May 15, 1997
San Francisco Chronicle


A New Craft for the Rapids

'Paddlecat' is more versatile than the kayak

By Paul McHugh
Chronicle Staff Writer

Infrequently, some new toy or tool sends a sport into a giddy growth spurt. Alpine skiers saw just such an explosive development occur with the popular new "super sidecut" skis. Now, a similar phenomenon bids to create a quantum leap in the world of river-running. Its name is "paddlecat."

Key attributes of a dynamic new tool are: It should enable easier learning of the sport for beginners; yet it must also give a boost to current players. Paddlecats accomplish both these things, and also offer a hotter combo of durability, portability, versatility and value than any other river craft on the market.

"Paddlecats shall be as big a step for the whitewater world as self-bailing rafts once were," predicts Bill McGinnis, owner of Whitewater Voyages -- one of California's premier rafting companies. "I tried one on the Tuolumne (River) and got sold. It ran it all, including Clavey Falls, no problem.

"They are amazingly stable. Even people of moderate paddling ability can go up a level, just by jumping onto one."

Paddlecats are deceptively simple in appearance. The "cat" part comes from two inflatable raft tubes, laid out in catamaran style. These are linked by a frame (which incorporates a seat) made of either thick Lexan plastic in the Otter version, or metal tubing and nylon webbing in the SOTAR type. Depending on the components used, weight ranges from 40 to 50 pounds.

"Catarafts," similar but much larger craft equipped with rowing frames and oars, have been sold for almost a decade. These new paddlecats are shorter, narrower and light enough to be effectively driven with a double-bladed kayak paddle.

SOUTH FORK TEST

McGinnis, who has concocted and promoted fresh developments in river- running since 1975, recently engineered a group demo-day on the South Fork American to tout the paddlecats.


One voyager, Michael Johnston, 45, director of Tourism for El Dorado County, exhibited enthusiasm about his bright blue craft. "I've done plenty of trips with others, aboard big rafts," he said. "But it's far more exciting to go solo on one of these, and in control of my own destiny."

A dozen paddlecats, half of McGinnis' new fleet, were given to clients such as Johnston, as well as guides from Whitewater Voyages, seeking familiarity with their outfit's latest option. McGinnis had playfully painted names ranging from "Arouse" to "Thriller" on each craft. His type of paddlecats employ SOTAR Elite raft tubes, and Lexan frames from Otter Industries. These feature seats with strap-adjusted backrests, as well as thigh straps that aid a more responsive performance.

We launched onto the South Fork for its Chili Bar run. It became quickly obvious that the claims of dramatic technical advance were valid. The nearest competitors of paddlecats are inflatable kayaks -- long, narrow rafts with solid floors that have been in use for decades. But paddlecats have no floors to shove through the water, and also have no tendency to collect splashes of water, so they're remarkably more agile than inflatable kayaks.

To pop into an eddy behind a rock or curve of riverbank, all one must do is poke the bow of one tube into the eddy, and lean against the thigh strap in an appropriate manner. Because these long, twin tubes have modest tracking ability (a tendency to stay on course), paddlecats also excel at ferrying (crossing a stream at an angle while paddling against the current). I was even able to briefly surf the craft on standing waves at Maya, Troublemaker and Old Scary rapids.

Besides their excellent handling, paddlecats boast ample floatation for carrying accessory drybags laden with camping gear and other equipment. This makes them quite attractive for self-supported river trips of several days. Their portability -- especially with tubes deflated and lashed to the seat/frame -- means they can be easily hiked to remote rivers. In fact, water safety instructor Tim Delaney says he already has used the paddlecat in this fashion for several wilderness runs.

TARGET FOR WIND
Just one flaw appears in performance: the high and lordly seating position, which provides a rider with great visibility and good leverage on paddle strokes, also makes you a target for upriver winds, or blasts coming from across a lake. But where winds don't pose a problem, anglers may also find them an attractive option.
Those exploring the paddlecat's performance on the South Fork did pay some dues. Johnston collided with another raft and upset at Meatgrinder rapid, and two paddlers punched the First Threat wave at a bad angle and took a swim. Two more swam at Troublemaker. But the paddlecat is easy to remount after an upset, and by day's end, all still were smiling.

"This won't replace hardshell kayaking for me," said Jennifer Jasper, 31, director of tourism for Placer County. "But it's a perfect way to enjoy a river with friends. If you're ready to move off of big rafts, it's a logical next step. I feel the phenomenon of these things will just explode."



© 1999 San Francisco Chronicle

 

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