We recently featured an interview with Kai Bartlett on his new oc1 design The Draco. This revolutionary canoe is geared towards flat water environments, can be rigged on both the right and left, or even double ama rigged. And has been a new direction for Kai Wa’a who’s focus in the past has led to excellent performance in surf and conditions. That said, Kai was confident the canoe would perform well in the surf as well, despite its focus and design goals. But reality of a canoe vs the concept don’t always match. So when we saw that Kai Wa’a team rider Judson Gray raced the new Draco at the recent Hanohano race, we couldn’t wait to send him a bunch of questions to get his feedback and thoughts. The first race opportunity for this design came at the biggest race settings we have had in 2 years, with 600+ race entrants across the two courses. And a high-caliber turnout of performance-focused paddlers who like to go fast from across the country, across the pacific and an international representation as well.
So with no further adieu here is our back and forth with Judson, enjoy!
Hi Judson, thank you so much for taking the time to share with us your impressions. First off, congrats on your third place finish at Hanohano and 1st place in the under 19 oc1 category. Could you briefly share how the race played out for you and what were the conditions like, if any?
Hello Clarke! Thank you for having me. The race was tons of fun seeing people battle it out both on the short and the long course, but overall the conditions were flat with slight wind that created so little bump on the sections favoring the wind. At the starting line I noticed I was on the far left in comparison to whom I would battle the race with. So sadly I wasn’t part of the wake train but still held on the race without any wake to carry me. For the majority, I held a long stroke which made the canoe maintain a high speed especially in the flat sections. There was little to no seaweed throughout the course but hilariously at the finishing stretch the tide was so low to where right around the corner before the straight there was an over abundance of seaweed. I didn’t notice it was there until it was way too late and just pushed through it. Overall, it was a super super fun race, I had tons of fun, and it was a thrill to be with such competitive paddlers.
Based on those conditions, and that the course had some ocean and bay components to it, please share how the Draco felt and preformed?
The conditions were interesting, the open ocean portion had some side bump which the Draco was able to go through with ease. It felt super responsive and was able to jump and glide into any bump that came through. Overall I believe that the Draco really showed itself when there was a bump present and in the flat water. It felt as though with every stroke it pushed forward, not down, up, then forward.
What have you been paddling prior to this race? How do the canoes compare?
Prior to this race I have been paddling a lot of V1 in a Fai but have been going in an Ares every now and then. It’s interesting how the Draco compares to the Fai. I believe the Fai or most V1s to be really good in the flat due to a longer profile with thinner sides but I believe the Draco holds speeds similar if not overall better than the V1. I don’t have too much experience to say which one is better but I believe it depends on how a paddler feels. From what I felt, the Draco wanted to keep going forward. She didn’t even bounce like what you would typically feel in other canoes. For instance the Ares in the flat water can put up a really good fight but its true nature is in the surf and small bump.
What strengths are there with the new Draco?
It felt like it wanted to keep pushing forward and maintain at any speed especially when you bump up the intensity. The canoe had the ability to just continuously increase speed. For instance, you can pick up your rate in sections where needed but you won’t lose it in your settle stroke.
What do you still enjoy more about your other canoe?
In comparison to the Ares or the V1 I didn’t miss much, if any. I believe this is a completely different canoe in and of itself. It even held true in all conditions that were given. But from what little time I’ve had on the Draco I can feel that the canoe thrived in the flat and in the surf.
Overall, can you share any more about how it did in the following situations?
At the start of the race?
At the start of the race I felt heavy but as soon as I started to pick up the pace it felt like sprinting where my legs were going faster than my body. She just wanted to go off the line with instant high speeds only to hold on to those speeds right after the fact.
Coming out of the various buoy turns?
With a surf rudder coming out of the turns it felt just as responsive as the Ares. Turned quick and fast with no issue to only bring back that speed you had coming into the turn. Going through the turn the speed didn’t decrease drastically, yet when you take a hard angle turn any canoe will slow without the right entry.
The course had a little headwind, sidewind and slight tail wind based on the triangle course? How did it do in the three?
Against the headwind the Draco wanted to keep pushing and went over the bump without any issues. What made me interested too was how the canoe didn’t lose much speed going into the bump. The rigging on the canoe is different yet still feels just as maneuverable as the Ares. I had her rigged similarly to the Ares and she felt stable with sidewinds. But sometimes a bump did catch me by surprise and pop up my ama, although keeping it light is no issue even when sprinting. With a tailwind the Draco surprised me. By that point I was tired and had little energy to pick up a higher rate but even with a slower rate the canoe still pulled into bumps with ease. Same with the case on picking it up to get into the little rollers.
Obviously the canoe is meant for different waters than Hawaii on a big windy day. That said, what are your thoughts on how it would handle California waters based on you time racing it?
In California waters I see this boat dominating whatever race you put it up to. With how it carries and maintains speed in the flat it's shocking. I also have an idea how it would handle in someone’s wake as well. With how it wanted to slide and jump into small small bump I can only imagine the ease of placing yourself into someone’s wake and maintaining speed with the other paddler.
What will your next race be? And will you be racing the Draco again or will someone be giving it a spin?
The next race will be the Hal Rosoff Classic and I am excited to say I will be racing the Draco again!
What demo opportunities are you aware of for folks to try the canoe?
I know the canoes are open for demo whenever available. I know when it's presented at races you can come right up to the Kai Wa’a booth and ask and whoever is there will happily help you try it out and show you the different features and capabilities it has.
Obviously, you are a team rider for Kai Wa’a so we expect a little puffing up of their products from anyone who paddles them. However, are there any tips you could share on what you look for in a canoe, based on your body type, waters you frequently paddle, or anything that might help others? Regardless of brand or model.
What I believe, regardless of weight or body type, try as many boats as possible. Everyone has different needs and desires, I can mention what I want in a canoe but it may be the same or different from many other paddlers out there searching. I just say go out for a paddle in the various vessels more than once, then make a list of what you like and don’t like. So many people feed into what others say about canoes. In the past even I have given into the hysteria on a vessel before only to realize it wasn’t the right fit for me. But when you look at other brands without a bias in mind, that’s when you realize what type of a canoe you want. Overall, a boat won’t make you a better paddler but finding a boat to fit your needs as a paddler that you can work with in the water and don’t have to fight against makes all the difference. Above all, make sure you're having fun while doing so.
Thanks again Judson, we are so grateful for your time and enthusiasm for the sport and paddling community. If you have more opportunities to try new canoes, we’d always be excited to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, see you on the water!
photo gratitude to Ash Seraphin!