2015 Jackson Kayak Zen (large)

Current Overall Impression: I've sold this boat and have found other boats more enjoyable. The LARGE zen is just a straight up turd! See more about why below!

Most recent impression paddling: I was able to paddle this boat back to back with a new Nirvana and a Karma Large. I paddled them all down a stretch of river I know very well that has one of my favorite combination of upriver attainments and down river moves. The Nirvana was the least responsive but the best for crisp moves, the karma the most responsive but far less crisp and with the lower rocker wouldn't make some moves as well... and the zen was just the biggest turd of the three and was just not comparable.

The large zen, like many large offerings from Jackson, is a botched upscaling of their medium boat. It's a shame, and it sucks... and I say this as some one who largely loves Jackson outfitting and their playboats.

Reasons why I'm over this boat: A friend was selling a large jackson Karma. I figured I'd give it a try, and I found the boat a better fit for my paddling. People with no clue why will say it's an easier boat for beginners cause it's less edgy and more volume blah blah... except that's not why I prefer the boat.

The Jackson zen has less rocker than the karma. Therefore it has more volume in the water and in turn it turns like shit, and when it does get turning bringing it back you're fighting all of that. The Karma has more rocker, so the effective edge in the water is reduced, so it's manueverability increases. It might be slower... but I can control the karma more so I can put speed down and maintain it in pushier water with far less issues.

The jackson Zen doesn't catch eddies as good as the karma. The karma rips into eddies better. How though? It's got rounder edges, it's a bigger boat... how does what seems like a recipe for a less nimble boat catch eddies better and peel out better? I believe it's the reduced effective edge in the water. You've got enough edge to grab the eddy, but not so much that you introduce resistance and keep plowing on through.

Overall... I'm quite over the Zen. It was great in many regards, but it needs some fine tuning to become a boat I want in my quiver again. This isn't exactly an uncommon story from the zen series of boat though.

Original purchase story:

So I've been through a lot of boats. Having sold most of my boats to date (Superhero) and not wanting to paddle the behmouth Dagger Katana, I found myslef paddled a second generation Pyranha Burn for a while this summer. The burn was a good boat in many regards, but there were a few things about it that just weren't clicking for me and never had me feelin all that stable in the boat compared to others I'd been in.

I've long been a fan of Jackson Kayaks. Made in America by a company that does a lot for the community, I like to give them my support. Jackson's surely got first dibs on kayaks for me for the majority of my new boat purchases, and I'm always keeping an eye out on used boats.

I decided to hit up Alder Creek as they are the big Jackson Kayak dealer in the area, and demo a Jackson Zen. I was able to finagle the boat for the weekend, and give it a go. I took it out on North Santiam and then the Middle White Salmon and Lower White Salmon (I've since paddled it MUCH more).

My inital impressions were good. The boat was forgiving but not auto-pilot levels of easy. It punched everything and the edges were noticably softer than the Burn (which is renowend for the sharpest edges on a river runner). It caught eddies decent enough, and was just a fun boat. I also am a big fan of Jackson outfitting which I'll explain more in depth later. I struggled though with the boat getting pushed off of line a bit and just not being as easy to manuever around as my Burn. Overall, it just didn't win me over enough to plunk down $1000+ when I already had a fine boat. The responsible me won out. Fast forward one week, I had sold a few other things, had the money, and the irresponsible me won as I finagled a very reasonable cash price on a 2015 blemished kayak.

The next few months of paddling the boat I struggled more with this Zen than the demo Jackson Zen and I didn't know why at first. I found this boat was prone to have the tail spin around on me, meaning if I had any speed going I'd have to make major corrective stern draws, or corrective ruddering. I found this rather tiring on my shoulders, and overall was a lot of extra work that didn't generate speed and would often throw me off. I was rather unimpressed. I brought this up with the shop and the paddlers were mostly pretty quick to blame paddle technique... perhaps not realizing I've paddled many boats without this issue, and in the end proved not to be the case anyways.

Fortunately for the spinning issue, I remembered I had a similar problem that I documented in my Jackson Super Hero years prior. If I put the seat forward, the boat was faster, but the emphasis on the front pivot point become so much that the boat became unruly. Scooting the Zen's seat back one position made an instant difference. Later I stopped by Alder creek with a friend shopping for boats and observed all of the Jackson boats having varying distances between the holes in their seat adjustments. Turns out... these aren't nescessarily precision pieces of work, they're made by humans and so theres a certain amount of human error that goes into them.

I can't complain too much though. This boat took me from a rather inconsistent place in my paddling to running class IV stuff without any drama. I can combat roll with certainty, and that confidence quickly trickled down to my play boating.

Overall review though is this boat is still somewhat mixed. Yeah, it's fast. It's not nescessarily a blessing though, as I find myself having to muscle the boat around a fair bit. It gets spinning and then bringing it back is a chore. and if you really get this puppy going you can blow right through eddies you were maybe hoping to catch (inertia + soft-ish edges). It surfs good enough, but at 9' long and geing this fast of a boat, I often find myself submarining where other boats might stay on the wave better.

It's a solid river runner for sure, but the rest of the details have left me underwhelmed and I'm still sorting out if this is the boat for me.

Most Noticable Pros:

  • Moderately soft edges, makes running most things easy without feeling like you have no edges at all.
  • The easiest boat to date I'd rolled. Makes combat rolls a breeze. Easier than anything else that's a river runner or creeker.
  • The bulkhead system in Jacksons cannot be beat as far as I'm concerned. It's infinitely adjustable, unlike the crapy rail systems along the wall most use. Ontop of that, not having the rail means you can get your feet about 3" wider total than other boats. That makes this boat feel a lot wider/more stable without actually being a wider boat.
  • Due to not having any external holes (another Jackson thing) tends to stay really dry).

Things I'm uncertain about and will weigh in on long term:

  • I'm not the first person with the seating position/trim and handling issues. Another paddler I know got the same boat and had to go to the rearmost position to get the handling he was looking for from the boat. I'll need to try this for myself, and also compare what it gives up.

Most Noticable Cons:

  • The hip pads are easy to adjust but also easy to knock out of place. There isn't really anything in there to let you lock them into a specific place.
  • Fast boat but blows through eddies if you really get it going. I believe this is due to it's lack of agility and large amounts of edge length in the water, it resists getting ripped and instead keeps on pushing right through the eddy. I don't have this issue in my far larger Karma with notably softer edges.
  • Lack of consistent manufacturing on seat positions shows me that there's some slop in the way these are built. Inconsistent results experiences various people is likely making general configuration trends unreliable.