The Road to 2012 OR: Testing and the Next Generation

I’m now back in the USA, and I cannot describe the joy of being with my family. The heart-warming, sunshine of a smile of my daughter as she gleams at me; the uncontrolled passion of my son as he holds his kayaking line, and the comforting companionship of my wife’s embrace were a welcomed feeling after a month of detachment.

I got a lot accomplished in Thailand and now it is time for the testing phase. I love the period in the process where my art is transformed into a product; merging design, functionality and style with an emphasis on durability. And then, the true test:  how does it all work in the water?

This phase in the year also happens to correspond with the events season when the paddling community comes together to celebrate our rivers and our sport.  I learn a lot during this time, watching the next generation of paddlers and making note of their habits and preferences.  Kayaking is a sport that has changed relatively quickly over the past decade.   By spending quality time with the paddling community during this time, I am able to predict future trends and preferences, keeping Bomber Gear on the cutting edge every year.

Product testing and traveling to paddling events during this phase is not only a great time for me to learn more about my products and the paddling community, but it is also an ideal time to share the river with a next generation paddler, my son, Kai. One of the greatest joys in life is being on the water with my boy. Now a solid class IV paddler, he learned to roll at age six, and for the past four years he has been pushing the envelope of what a kid his age and size can paddle.  He is the youngest by far to paddle most of the rivers we have done. Paddling with my son is both rewarding and extremely stressful.  My own life is no longer the greatest consideration at hand.  When I think of my memories between the ages of 6 and 10 years old, I find myself recalling very little. I wonder how much he will remember and how this will impact his life. I have pondered on that often.

Week one of testing begins with five laps on the Nantahala River’s Cascades, and I was very encouraged by how well the pieces performed.  Sure, a few small changes are required, as usual. All my designs are a work in progress, as I can’t help but to constantly contemplate ways to make them better – it’s in my nature.  I am a paddler at heart, and getting to test the product I have created gives my soul fulfillment.  This is one of the core reasons I got into designing.  I get to experience firsthand the design application of my art.  It’s truly an expression of function in extreme sports.

An uneventful day of testing on a class IV run turned to class V stress quickly as Kai decided to take the lead and call the lines on the last two laps.  Thankfully, cheers of gratification follow clean lines, and while I have yet to see my son make a serious mistake on the river, I continually reassure him that we paddlers are all between swims. He looks at me in disbelief.

Week two of testing takes us down to Alabama for the Alabama Mountain Games. This is a unique event that not only includes freestyle, but also includes a “hucking” competition where paddlers do tricks off a 25 foot waterfall, including cartwheels, barrel rolls and loops. In my 20 years of experience at paddling events, this is the only one I know of to host a competition quite like this. My son and I look forward to this event all year.

Kai ran the waterfall many times that day, but the run that will stick with me for the rest of my life was truly unforgettable. We lined up to run the drop together – I wanted a picture of both us in the air together. As Kai and I charged side by side off the edge of the waterfall, I saw out of the corner of my eye that he had flipped completely over at the top of the lip. He threw his body over and pulled off a complete air screw coming down the face of the drop.  I was astounded, as he had only watched other paddlers do this trick but had never been taught how or attempted it himself.  I can’t help but be proud of him.

As the founder and designer of Bomber Gear, I don’t just create the product.  I test the product as work and I test the product in play.  And I am inspired by the next generation of paddlers, boats and equipment. What is possible now was just not merely ten years ago. If I am going to create the best product in the industry, I have to keep up with the paddling trends and preferences of the next generation of paddlers.  Lucky for me, I have one living in my house who is more than willing to travel to events and help me test products, too.  At the core of it all, I am just a paddler with a passion for design. And now I am honored to pass that on to my son.

Stay fluid,

Rick Franken