Gearing Up for Squirt Boating

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Squirt boating is a unique form of whitewater kayaking or canoeing in which the boat is designed to be as low in volume as possible while still allowing the paddler to float. Squirt boats are most commonly used for performing tricks on eddy lines, in flat water, or for the “mystery move,” which is where the paddler uses the current to get completely submerged under water. If you aren’t familiar with squirt boating or aren’t sure if it’s a style of paddling you’d be into, check out my previous blog, “Mystery Moves, Charcs and Squirt Boat Gatherings.” Once you’re convinced to give it a try, this break down of the necessary gear, which is a bit different than what you usually wear in a whitewater boat, will make a little more sense.

Photo: Jeff Campbell

Starting with the boat: A squirt boat is constructed using a heavy lay-up of fiberglass for two reasons. One, this construction makes the boats durable enough to handle sliding in and out of the river and hitting rocks. And two, it allows for easy customization to fit a specific paddler.

But should you buy new or used? The benefit of a used boat is cost—obviously. If you aren’t sure if squirt boating is going to be your thing or if it’s something you will only do on occasion, it’s worth saving the money. Start with Facebook—seriously, it’s your best bet—and ask to join the group page called Charc. Even if you don’t find a boat here, you’ll benefit from the community. The key is to find a boat that fits your body. The previous owner should be similar in weight, height, shoe size, and inseam. It doesn’t have to be exact but as close as you can find, the better.

My used boat was a pretty close fit for me but my feet were not in the foot bumps, which are in place to give you a bit more foot room. Because of this, I dealt with some pretty horrible ankle pain, which made it hard for me to stay in my boat longer than 30 minutes.

There are pros and cons to the used market but you can always sell the used boat and upgrade. My second boat was a Slip (a Jim Snyder design) custom made for me by Murky Waters. Paddling a custom-fitted squirt boat was a huge game changer. Suddenly, I was dropping mystery moves longer than I was comfortable doing, my flatwater freestyle tricks became easier and more fluid and I could stay in the water much longer than 30 minutes. It was totally worth the money getting a brand new squirt boat custom fit for my body—and my custom graphics are pretty awesome.

Two companies in North America make squirt boats: Murky Water Kayaks in Ontario, Canada and PS Composite Kayaks in Pennsylvania. Both make fantastic boats. But the absolute key to getting the perfect fit is doing a float test. When the boat is nearing completion, get it on the water, hop in and figure out how low you want to sit in the water and seat location. The lower the boat sits in the water the better it will mystery. If you’re more into running rivers over mystery moves, then you don’t want it super low in the water. But it all boils down to personal preference. I wanted a mystery machine so mine sits as low in the water as it can and still allows me to fit inside.

The boat is your number one priority, but there are some other essential pieces of gear for squirt boating. Some are obvious, while others are unique to this subculture.

Some squirt boaters prefer paddles while others use hand paddles. In my opinion, river running and freestyle tricks are easier with a paddle but mystery moves are easier with hand paddles. Jim Snyder started a company, Rivr Styx, that makes custom wood squirt boat paddles that I consider a must-have if you’re going to use a paddle for squirt boating. I use your typical plastic pair of hand paddles for mystery moves but I totally need to get myself a pair of ES Paddle Works wooden hand paddles. They’re beautifully crafted and work so much better. The major difference, the wooden hand paddles have zero flex making my strokes noticeably more powerful than when I’m paddling plastic.

Forewarning: I’m not trying to spark a heated PFD debate. There are very few instances in boating I would ever debate wearing a PFD. Squirt boating is one of those instances. If you’re river running then yes, of course, you should wear a PFD. If you’re at a gnarly mystery spot, you might want to wear one. If you’re at a chill spot, slow-moving water with a big eddy, which is what a lot of mystery spots are like, you might consider not wearing one. Adding extra buoyancy to your body when the goal is to sink underwater and stay there almost defeats the purpose, which is why squirt boaters choose not to wear a PFD at times.

In the end, it’s a personal decision, but one that shouldn’t be made lightly. I’ve worn my NRS Zephyr Inflatable PFD before just for peace of mind. You wear it around your waist and if you get in trouble you just pull a cord and voila you have a PFD. It’s a great PFD that I wear standup paddling and is the lowest profile PFD you can wear while squirt boating. It’s a certified type III approved by the Coast Guard when worn around your waist.

On the other hand, a helmet should never be a debate—wear one always! I really like my WRSI Trident Helmet for squirt boating. It’s a great fit and doesn’t budge when I’m deep underwater. And unlike other paddlers, squirt boaters tend to wear goggles, which are a key piece of equipment when doing mystery moves. Half the fun of surfing underwater is being able to see your surroundings. Any old swim goggles should work. I’ve been wearing the Speedo Vanquisher 2.0 for years. I do have to spit in them a few times during a session so they stop fogging up but other than they’re comfortable under my helmet and overall, I’m happy with them.

Earplugs are also key because when you aren’t underwater you’re sitting so close to the water you’ll get lots in your ears. With that being said, nose plugs should be a must—I don’t know how anybody could not wear nose plugs!—but I don’t think everyone does.

Skirts are a must have, clearly, but be aware what kind of rim your squirt boat has. There’s a regular cockpit rim like a whitewater kayak or the Jimi Rim. The Jimi Rim was designed to keep your boat extremely dry. It takes a few extra minutes and effort to get the skirt on but is so worth getting a Jimi Rim when buying a new boat. Skirt Works has reopened and is making squirt boat skirts again. They’re the only skirt company that makes skirts for the Jimi Rim. When they were on hiatus Jim Snyder was making the Jimi Rim skirts.

As for apparel, layering is important. Since you’re immersing yourself underwater, you tend to get a lot colder and a lot faster than traditional kayaking. Since the boat is so small, tighter fitting layers on your legs are better and I recommend neoprene socks for foot protection. (Remember you’re squeezing into a fiberglass boat.) On my legs I wear the NRS H2Core lightweight pants most of the time unless it’s cold, then I’ll wear NRS HydroSkin Pants. That’s pretty much all I can wear on my legs to fit in my squirt boat. For socks, I wear the NRS Hydroskin 0.5 wetsocks and if it’s cold I’ll layer a pair of small wool socks underneath the neoprene.

I increase the layering for the upper body. Water temp and air temp play a big part in the layers I will wear for squirt boating. I’m usually wearing my NRS Flux drytop or NRS HydroSkin if it’s chilly. When it’s warmer, I’ll wear my NRS Stampede Shorty. Squirt boaters often wear a rashguard or a neoprene top over the drytop or shorty to help keep air out of the top. When you’re doing a mystery move your drytop tends to balloon up and screw up your mystery move if you aren’t wearing something over top. If you wear your drytop and nothing over it, just suck the air out before each mystery move—like burping your drysuit.

Photo: Jeff Clement

That’s the gist of the needed gear to get you started. Squirt boaters are extremely helpful and any questions you have put them up on the Charc page. If you’re looking for a local squirt spot just check out Sink Spots or again just post up on Charc and someone will let you know where to go. If there isn’t a spot close to you, just head to a river and play around in an eddy line or head to flat water. Who knows, maybe no one has looked for a mystery spot on the river you live near. I’m no expert on finding a mystery move spot but look for deep spots in the river where two currents converging or have an eddy line with distinguished whirlpools. There’s probably more that comes into play to find a mystery spot but that’s just my general non-expert explanation. Now get out there and get your sink on!