Goldilocks has found the whitewater river runner kayak that is “Just Right” – the Jackson Zen 55.
Followers of my blog and paddling career know that I have had the Goldilocks syndrome with boats – you’ve heard my stories and read my reviews – this boat is too slow, this boat is too heavy, this boat is too wide, yada yada yada. For those that are interested, I am working on an overview of the small whitewater river runners on the market from the perspective of a petite woman paddler (5’4″ and 120#). Until I get it written, here’s my whitewater kayak of choice -
Review of Jackson Kayak’s Zen 55
First impressions -
On the website
The promo video showed a fun, capable river runner, but I wasn’t excited until I saw the specs (I am a bit of a numbers person). The Zen 55 is listed as 7’11″ long and 24″ wide, 60 gallons, and weighing 36 pounds. The specs would lead one to think – a fast, lean boat. I could get excited about this but was a little skeptical that it might be too narrow for my hips like many of the kids’ whitewater boats.
On the showroom floor
The Zen 55 looked like the right size. True this is a very subjective statement but having paddled many different river runners over the years and looking at others, they always look too big. My fear that the Zen 55 was a kids’ boat was alleviated when I sat in it and fit. It fits like my favorite pair of jeans.
On the water
River Running – The Zen 55 danced on the water for me as we boated the Chili Bar Run of the South Fork of the American River. The boat continued to feel like my favorite pair of jeans and moved with me – where and when I wanted to. The planning hull carved into and out of eddies and glided nicely on waves. The hull was sporty and playful yet stable. I liked the way the boat rode through the wave trains. The volume felt well balanced and the handling was very predictable.
Rolling -The Zen 55 was easy and effortless to roll. This may have been one of the easiest boats that I have ever rolled.
Ocean Rock Gardening – A day rock gardening and surfing in the ocean on the Mendocino Coast reaffirmed my thoughts that this is a great river runner. For this type of paddling my craft of choice has been a Necky Jive because it is fast and surfs well. In the Zen 55, I continued to have that solid body boat connection and was able to maneuver the boat and make directional changes when riding pour-overs.
I also really appreciated the Zen’s volume for predictable resurfacing from holes.
I’m not sure about the Zen 55 on an ocean wave yet. As expected the Zen 55 was slower than the Jive, and the stern volume was a bit contentious when caught by the foam pile. More work and testing on this to come.
Outfitting – The outfitting is easily adjusted and comfortable. Obviously Jackson Kayaks have put a lot of thought into outfitting. Here’s a link to all the features of their outfitting. I appreciate that there are no ratchets to corrode and bulkhead adjustments are simple and even possible to adjust on the fly with Jackson Kayak’s corded system (no more crawling in kayaks and wrestling with the adjustment brackets on bulkheads).
|Footrest/bulkhead adjustable from the seat of the kayak with one pull on a rope.
The smaller cockpit size of the Zen 55 is really nice compared to other river runners. It makes for a more comfortable body/boat connection. The shorter cockpit length makes it so that smaller paddlers can use drier, more implosion resistant spray decks without having a wrestling match to get them on.
The original position of the backband is way to high for my liking so I re-routed the adjustment cords so that it would sit lower.
The foot room is ok in the boat for me in my booties but too tight in my Keen Gorge Boots. This is not an uncommon problem and one that I will solve by carving out notches for my heels in the center pillar.
Other Sizes – I have not seen other paddlers in the Zen 55; however, quite a few of our students have been paddling the Zen 65 and 75 on the river and in our Whitewater of the Sea Adventures (ocean rock gardening). Both Jeff and I have been amazed at the beginner friendliness of the Zen – stable, maneuverable, fast, and easy to roll.
Jeff has become a huge fan of the Zen too. Here he makes the Zen 75 sing on an ocean wave.
Would I recommend the Jackson Zen 55? YES!!! My favorite thing about the Zen 55 is that it is fast and responsive. The design and outfitting are well thought out and work for a smaller paddler. For me, it handles like a performance sports car instead of the ho-hum Toyota Camry feel of the other river runners that I have paddled. Even though it is sporty, the Zen is quite stable and confidence inspiring. The Zen’s edges will carve into an eddy or on a wave but aren’t grabby in chaotic water. It is predictable and fast for making moves and super easy to roll.
For those looking for an easy to roll, beginner friendly boat for learning to whitewater kayak, the Zen is it. The Zen is stable, maneuverable, fast, and easy to roll. The Jackson Zen is the first whitewater kayak that comes to mind when students ask for recommendations for a river runner or ocean rock garden kayak. The Jackson Zen is also a very capable performance craft for river running up to class IV and playing in ocean rock gardens.
I am at the top of the weight/size recommendations for the Zen 55 which is probably why is it such a sporty kayak for me. If you are taller than 5’4 and/or over 120 pounds, you might want to try the Zen 65. I have sat in our 65. It feels too big but will paddle it and share my thoughts – if I can tear myself out of the 55.
These are my overall impressions of the Zen. Fortunately the Zen 55 seems to fit the hard to fit smaller paddler but also there is the 65 and 75 to accommodate a wide range of paddlers. If you are in the market for a river runner, definitely check out the Zen.
If you have experience with the Zen 55, please share them with me in the comments below or send me an email.