Jackson Nirvana, Zen and Karma large's... all compared, all pictured side by side

It's nice to have good friends. It's even better when they're similar enough builds to you, and the best when they all also paddle Jackson Kayaks. That was the story of getting on the river today. The Nirvana large had just hit the local paddle shop, and one friend had already swooped it up. I brought my large Karma, and another friend brought their large zen. We thus had all the large offerings from Jackson that can really be compared. The antix I suppose could go in here since you can creek with it... but it wouldn't be all that fair to compare nor help any of us decide what boat was best.

The plan was simple. Run a stretch of river we know rather well  the Washougall River, MP 7 to Hathaway, class III+ with lots of inbetween stuf. Along the way we'd switch boats and everybody got a feel for everything... well... I did at least. My buddy in the Nirvana stuck to just his Nirvana and my Karma, and my friend in the Zen only paddled the Zen and the Karma.

Some pictures for size and profile comparison:

The short summary of my experience: The Nirvana and the Karma are two great boats. The Nirvana excels in a lot of places the Karma does not, and the Karma holds it's own in most categories while actually surpassing the Nirvana in a few others. For the direction I desire to take my paddling, the Nirvana is a better fit. I will continue to recommend the Karma for aspiring or progressing boaters, or just for people looking for the most bomber stable boat ever for staying comfy through things that would ordinarily challenge them. All of the above said, I personally don't think I'd be unhappy in either boat. They both are just excellent. The large Zen I was never really a fan of, and next to these two boats it just felt like a turd in every possible category. It had a few aspects over the Karma, but for the three places it was better it was miserable in 100 other far more important places. The Nirvana surpassed it in all categories, and I'm surprised the Karma is being removed from the JK lineup in favor of keeping the zen which is garbage in the large size.

The long version of my paddling comparison: This past spring when I took my ACA training, one of the instructors had us practice manuevering up stream against current through a few rock formations to practice various aspects of our paddling. The instructor pointed out that nothing shows you what your strokes and boat control is doing better than paddling upstream. On that note, I'd like to say that nothing makes a better comparison for me than taking boats back to back upstream through the same formation and moves, and then for fun doing a few downriver moves on my way back.

The Nirvana out paced the Karma in my upstream/downstream comparison practice. It did have some upsides and downsides.The big upside I experienced with the Nirvana had to do with a manuever that just clearly demonstrated the difference in rocker between the Karma and Nirvana. Paddling up along a river left eddy, in order to proceed up stream I had to carry my bow over a diaganol eddy line that was higher in elevation, crossing into and maintaing a ferry up and accros the river to water slow enough to paddle upstream. The bow rocker on the Nirvana made it easy to drive my boat accross that eddy line and into a perfect ferrying position, carrying me upstream with ease. In the Karma however, the notably lower rocker combined with the additional volume up front ensured that a larger amount of volume further up the boat than myself hit first, and the current ripped that volume downstream while the rest of me was still working to exit the eddy behind it... essentially forcing me to peel out despite not angling nor desiring to do so.. After about 3-4 tries I was able to finese the Karma just right, but the Karma required notably more finese to make it work right. Overall, the rocker profile and edging of the Nirvana seemed to jive a bit better with some of the more complex manuevers I may want to pull, where just peeling out may not be adequate.

The Karma shone in the sense that I think it was more "responsive". While paddling the Karma, continuing a stroke into a small dash of stern draw to stay tracking exactly where I wanted was easy. I found the Nirvana however a bit tiring as it didn't respond to corrective strokes nearly as well. Say what you will about my paddle technique, I find that water is rarely perfectly linear, and thus will push you around a bit, requiring some corrections to wind up with linear travel. The Karma was very easy to maintain the angle I wanted once already in the current, while the Nirvana once it started getting pushed around a bit required more work to bring back.

Downriver the Nirvana having edges shown big time for me. After paddling upstream, the same eddy manuevers around the rock islands created great opportunities for carving through various eddies and currents, switching from edge to edge as you transition from one eddy, to current, over to another, working your way down. The Nirvana, much like my Antix or other edged boats, can provide a modicum of control to your carving. You can enter an eddy and drive deeper with a forward stroke, taking you back out the other side as you roll ont the next edge to maintain driving. The ability to manuever like this is very important to me in connecting various chunks of river up. The Karma doesn't have the edge to carve on, and with so much volume up front of you, before you've even entered the eddy or current the front of the boat has hit and already started the manuever, essentially killing any of the fun S curves through rapids.

Surfing and manuevering accross the river via waves, the Nirvana destroys the Karma. Edges and a planing hull tell the whole story here for the Nirvana, while a semi-planning hull and soft edges on the Karma pretty muche dictate it just doesn't surf all that well. That said, the Karma is more than adequate to manuever accross water to the next section of manuevers on some class IV whitewater. It jus won't be as crisp as the Nirvana. I'm looking for a crisp paddling experience.

In general, both boats demonstrated to be excellent. The increased responsiveness to paddle strokes made the Karma and breeze to keep in control moving downriver. The bow rocker of the Nirvana and edges let it move in and out ofe ddies with ease. The Nirvana boofed better and would hit and then drive forward. I charged a few things and cleared them cleanly and with comfort in the Nirvana. I hit them in the Nirvana and the lack of grace conveyed was more like a tank landing after catching air. Just like that big heavy tank though, the Karma carries it's momentum through. The Nirvana is superior, but the Karma is not lacking.

I haven't mentioned the large Zen yet. That's because in all honesty, the large zen is such a turd. The medium has a lot of reeding aspects to it. The large zen however increased in length 8% while increasing in width 3%. It just didn't scale up terribly well. The Zen has the least rocker of all the boats. That meant the problems the Karma had, the Zen had without any of the benefits additional volume brings along for the ride. The only saving grace the Zen had over the Karma is that with the edges I was able to connect up a few manuevers through rapids and eddies rolling from edge to edge as I worked my way through. It also surfed a smidge better... but don't let these few benefits fool you. They weren't terribly distinctly improvements, and overall, the very few things it gained it gave up in all other categories, such as ease of rolling, responsiveness, stability, comfort, speed, etc etc.

So in summary: I'm going to be trying to sell my Large Karma to raise some money for a Large Nirvana. That said, if I can't sell the Large Karma and wind up paddling it all winter... I won't be terribly bothered. It's still a plenty fine boat.