The Jackson Kayak Zen Review - Down the Creek Without a Paddle
Down the Creek Without a Paddle Zen and the Art of Equilibrium Maintenance By Butler Cox
Jackson_Kayak_Zen_Review_Butler_Cox5 Photo Credit: Josh Oberleas

With a bow to Robert Pursig and some deep genuflection to the Jackson Kayak designers and builders without whom I might not have been able to type this. But first, these are comments addressed primarily to Senior Paddlers (65 and up) or total newbies to Whitewater. The following is based on my experience with the Jackson Kayak Zen 75 during seven hours of flatwater paddling and three miles of Class I-II on Colorado’s Arkansas River. It addresses some of the concerns us oldsters have with anything physical, especially how a kayak fits our rusty bodies and minds. This rusty bod is age 75, 5’7”, 28 “ inseam, 175 lbs. and is in not affiliated with or contracted to Jackson Kayaks. It started white watering a few weeks ago so is more than just rusty. Our seasoned bodies do not bend like they used to; they can object mightily to extended periods of limited mobility. So the interface between boat and body, thus boat and mind, becomes pretty critical as we get up there. I flat out want to state that the Zen for me is the most comfortable kayak I have had the pleasure to experience over the year since I started kayaking. I’m a boataholic so that’s several.

Before the Zen I would paddle 5-8 hours on flatwater and experience numbness and cramps, despite hours of tweaking outfitting and pounds of foam. Many times, because of health issues, I’ve had to have help exiting the boat at the take-out. There have been times when I actually preferred wet-exiting because it was more comfortable. Pain is not only uncomfortable; but as we age it may occupy an obtrusive portion of our awareness, spoiling the mental benefits of paddling, as well as the physical. Not in my Zen. Why?
  1. Number one for me (and these benefits are listed in no special order) is the Sure-Lock Backband. This is more flexible, extends further around the back, and can be adjusted further up or down than all other back supports I’ve tried. This flexibility can be vitally important for us oldies because it conforms better to our rusty bits and assists with arthritis complications. Some younger paddlers I know seem to believe that discomfort is intrinsic to kayaking. They liken it to snow skiing in the 50s and 60s when ski boots equaled agony. The Zen proves otherwise. I sat in it for more than three hours straight without any numbness, cramping, or chafing. A big feature of Jackson’s backband is that it is infinitely adjustable. I’ve tried boats with ladder-lock straps and ratchets and the Zen’s simple cord and jamcleats are elegantly simple, easily repairable anywhere, and allow you to precisely set the support you want and not have to settle for what a ratchet gives you. Geezer bods will love this!
  2. Jackson’s Uni-Shock front bulkhead/footrest. Originally designed for aggressive, gung-ho kayakers, I’m going to bet, that when discovered by others less macho, it will become desirable for any level paddler because it makes adjusting for foot comfort quick and easy. It lets you rest your feet on roomy foam blocks that combine to make a sliding bulkhead. The blocks are large enough you can easily move your feet around to aid comfort and with one easy tug on a cord you can either push the bulkhead away from you to stretch your legs or pull it closer to lock yourself tighter into the comfortable thigh braces. In the Zen you don’t have to get out of the boat to fiddle with recalcitrant frames and wingnuts. In the Zen you do all the adjusting while in the cockpit, with your feet on the foot pads. Moreover, it is a snap to pop out the bulkhead when you want to stow gear in front of your feet. The Uni-Shock is available in several Jackson models.
  3. Stability. Flat out the Zen is a very stable kayak…VERY! Hence the phrase “the Art of Equilibrium Maintenance” in the title. Not only did I verify this by just sitting in the boat on choppy flatwater with my eyes closed (try that in some other boats), but I also judged this through a camera lens set for burst shots. No wavering! So stable that the Zen even permits macro photography. Pretty cool. But the kicker was when I pulled a truly geezer stunt and started my whitewater foray by dropping and losing my paddle while fussing with my skirt in the launch eddy and being carried across the eddyline backwards into the downstream current enroute towards a hole with the mouth of a giant hippo. Result? Extreme thrashing of hands in the water, but no swimming! The Zen kept me upright. Right out of the box here was hands on confirmation of the Zen’s stability! I’d have been road kill without it. Additionally, the Ark was very low, very bony, and I constantly slithered on submerged rocks, yet the Zen kept its feet all the while. Another test was my first-ever kayak surf. Sure, it was a friendly, little wavelet, but I easily stayed vertical with my hands behind my head, not needing the paddle for either support or directional control (at least for a while), which leads to my fourth Zen fun factor:
  4. Secondary stability and edge control. This is hugely important for us oldies because one’s sense of balance heads to the Deep South with age. Of course that’s important with primary stability, too, but when you want to turn, I swear the Zen will read your mind, if you want it to, set on edge and stay there without fuss and bother. Yes, one still needs to be loosey-goosey with the skeletal Northern and Southern hemispheres, but it seemed like not quite so much as with some other boats, truly a blessing if you have geezeralysis, either mental or physical.Think edge and you have it—confidence inspiring! And you can really hang on the edge when you want to without an Act of Congress. Especially cool for oldsters and newbies.
  5. Handling: The Zen turns on a microdot. This may take some getting used to if you’ve paddled other hull shapes. However, it is a real benefit when you’re trying to park behind a smallish rock midstream. In a larger eddy, you may benefit from either experimenting with bow/stern trim (the seat has five positions fore to aft) to change response and broaden the radius of your turn, or better yet, perfect a good bow draw stroke which is likely more useful in an eddy than trim adjusting. I leave mine in the middle position. Another testament to the way the Zen’s hull handles: Being a rank newbie in whitewater boats and, until the Zen, have had difficulty paddling a decent power circle, using only with the inside blade. Much easier in my Zen. S-Turns are easier, too. Well, OK, the Zen turns easily for sure, but how does it track? This is a whitewater boat right? Made to turn and spin, right? Going to yaw all over the place, right? Not! The Jackson Zen tracks surprisingly well, too. Yes, your stroking needs to be decent and when it is, the Zen is surprisingly well-behaved. Speed? Pretty zippy!
  6. Seat comfort. This is the first boat I have paddled where I don’t need my Jackson Sweet Cheeks (or any other) cushion. I don’t think it’s because of any miracle padding so much as it’s the contouring of the seat pan and pad and the ergonomic relationship of the seat, backband, and Uni-Shock bulkhead.
  7. The handy gear loops on the aft coaming. They’re placed up high so it’s much easier to snap in gear than when you have to spelunk into the basement as on some other boats. Also handy are the two locations for stowing water or other bottles. My Zen even came with a stout aluminum bottle, not plastic.
  8. The shape of the Zen’s coaming makes it easier for me to put on my skirt. Age has stolen the ability to reach behind my back very far, yet my skirt slides on easier than other boats I paddle.
  9. The handy carrying handle strap on the forward center pillar. Big help! An improvement for carrying might be a tad more cushioning for the shoulder along the gunwale, but you do carry a sponge, eh?
  10. The non-skid texture of the cockpit deck. Younger paddlers may not consider this important, but it allows your feet so stay in place when getting out of the Zen, making deplaning less of a challenge for us who may be not-so-nimble.
  11. Plenty of safety grab loops. They also make it easy to locate a locking security cable. They are hand-friendly, being covered in a grippy, comfortable plastic, indeed a nice touch.
  12. No holes from hell in the hull! No need to caulk/seal fasteners that penetrate the hull because there aren’t any.
  13. Your younger grandchildren will love the Jackson Kayak sponge that comes in the Zen.
Jackson_Kayak_Zen_Review_Butler_Cox Photo Credit: Josh Oberleas

OK, yes… I didn’t mention rolling ability. Why? Because I’m not there yet. One thing I have discovered, however, is that on the way up there’s a point at which the boat seems to want to come up on its own. Indeed. The Zen is an artist at maintaining equilibrium. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE A NEW JACKSON KAYAK ZEN:

Stay tuned for more reviews from Butler! He's honest, and has lots of life experience, which makes him a great addition to the CKS blogging team. Thanks Butler!


Zen 75 Update: Bringing mind and body together with comfort, convenience, and speed

Now that I’ve put lots of time on my Zen 75, here’s what I’ve learned since the above review. It’s addressed particularly to beginners and oldsters. In short, this is one versatile boat, plain and simple. Why? Stability and comfort are two biggies which I described in my original review. But what I didn’t know at the time was how handy this boat is for any kind of paddling. It goes everywhere with me so I can plop into any flatwater I choose. I call this “puddling” and it’s a super way to get in a couple of hours of fitness, de-stressing and arthritis therapy, no matter where you are. This does wonders for the physical and mental rustiness of advanced age and is a great way to stay in shape for anyone. Puddling you say? Isn’t the Zen supposed to be a whitewater boat? Perhaps, but it can be amazingly fun on flatwater because it tracks so well and is very fast for such a short boat. It’s quite the pocket rocket when you paddle it right. The Zen is so light, short, and easy to get on and off my truck top that I have no trouble carrying it to and from any water despite age, arthritis, and a bum ankle. Being comfortable in a kayak is important to us oldsters. In my Zen, stiffness or other discomforts never intrude on pleasure. A couple of hours in this boat do wonders for an aging body and mind.

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Thank you for your excellent review!

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