Even though there are other strong contenders, in my opinion the Jackson Karma is possibly the best performing river runner/creek boat ever designed to date.
I know that proclaiming a boat as the best ever will incite outcries from competing manufactures, and boaters defending whatever brand they paddle, work for, or are sponsored by. Nevertheless, even though there are contenders, there is always a best. In my humble, unsponsored, but years of experience opinion… the Karma is it. Let me explain why.
First, a little profile is necessary. Presumably, my 34 years of kayaking class III to V+ might be considered beneficial for analyzing kayak designs and performance. Additionally, I have personally owned at least seventeen boats from seven different brands over the years, and have had the opportunity to paddle dozens of others throughout the evolution of boat designs. During all of those years I experienced the performance differences being pursued by their designers. At times I would have proclaimed Perception, Dagger, Prijon, Pyrahna, Wave Sport, and, for the past several years, Jackson Kayaks as the superior design manufacturer (and customer service provider). Which, I’m sure their market share dominance is an obvious indication of that. The essential fact is that I can buy any brand I desire, but I always do so by choosing the best performance.
Next, I must mention that I currently own a Villain S (have owned it since first introduced), did own a Karma M (for a dozen or more days of paddling last season, loved it, but sold it thinking it was a little big for me), and recently bought a Karma S. Also, I have a Liquid Logic Stomper 80 provided to me for my job as a River Ranger. So, I feel I can make a strong comparison of the performance between these boats, as well as to the others I’ve enjoyed over the years. But before I do, I will reveal right now that I had held the Villain as the gold standard before the Karma, and the Stomper I consider far inferior to both in comparison.
So, since Jackson boats are the greatest, what are the differences and the deal with deciding which is best between a Villain S, Karma M, and Karma S for me? Well, when the Villain S first hit the market several years ago, I instantly saw that its design would vastly surpass my previously favorite creeker at that time, the Habitat 74, and I had to have one. I was not disappointed … after I customized the outfitting to fit me. At about 80 gallons the Villain S was the biggest volume modern boat I had ever owned. It initially felt huge on me. You see, I’m 5’5”, weigh 155 pounds, and I had been accustomed to paddling in 65, 68, 73, and 74 gallon creek boats as designs progressed. So jumping up to 80 gallons seemed huge and, indeed, was a challenge for me to dial in a precise fit.
Outfitting and finding the “sweet spot” is something that is critical for any boat, but I think especially for Jackson Kayaks (as they truly are superior performance designs). By “sweet spot” I mean locating the seat and legs positioning where they bring out the boat’s obvious best stability and activate its performance character. It’s where boating differs from paddling. The boat does the work. It responds superbly to your initiating it with your legs, instead of muscling it with paddling effort. When found, the sweet spot inspires confidence.
Although the Jackson creek boat cockpits may ideally work for larger people than me, big volume boats generally require that I do substantial custom outfitting (something that long tenured boaters are accustomed to doing). I find that I have to build up thigh hooks to glue in and prefer to sculpt my own hip pads. However, I can’t emphasize enough that the “Jackson’s bulk head and back bands are the absolute best in the industry”. They are the easiest to precisely adjust, also safest, and I’ve never had a failure with the cord/clamp locks in any of the Jacksons I’ve owned.
Since my Villain S had been the “gold standard” for me, I reference it for comparison. So, what happened? The Karma happened.
One glance at the Karma and it was obvious that it was a radical new design. Like reading a rapid, it is easy to see its different lines compared to the semi-planning hull design of the Villain. Naturally, the two hull types perform differently. The Karma’s wide planning hull platform and tall flared sidewalls make the boat super stable and provides a more crisp responsiveness. Those tall sidewalls are the result of raising the parting line as high as possible where they meet the deck, which tends to make tricky currents less grabby, by being forced down under the boat, and also provide a huge secondary stability when on edge. The boat seems to practically hover across squirrely water. The unique hull and volume design makes the boat perform like a mixture of a stable battleship and a formula one race car. The boat “carves”! It arcs crisp, beautiful, eddy turns. It has a bit of an asymmetrical shape to punch through the water and its rocker profile allows the bow to rise up and over things quickly. While the stern is wide and thick, providing a unique stability that just seems to propel you right out of holes and away from drops. Plus, the boat is very light, very fast, rolls up effortlessly, and will boof like a champ.
When I owned my first Karma last year, the M (86 gallons), I was completely blown away with how cleanly it delivered me through many burly drops that I would anticipate a beat down might occur in. It was impressive that the boat was so much more stable than any others that I’ve experienced in the past.
So why have I owned both a Medium and a Small Karma, and kept my Villain S? Because, I am that size that falls near the bottom of the weight range for the Karma M and at the top of the range for the S, while the Villain S is in between.
When I bought the Karma M I had asked Stephen Wright which size he recommended for me. We are of similar size and he indicated I could enjoy either, but he recommended buying the M and advised that the second to last seat position (towards the stern) would be to my liking. He was pretty much right. Indeed, I found that was where the seat belonged for me, but the boat initially felt huge around me. So, I set out to do another massive custom outfitting job, similar to what I had to do in my Villain S, to make me feel secure in the even bigger 86 gallon Karma M. With that accomplished I loved the boat. As mentioned, I was blown away with how phenomenally stable it was, but yet it actually drove like a smaller boat. Additionally, I noticed that its performance was not affected by adding substantial extra gear weight in the stern. That wide, huge volume, stern seems to make it as stable as a rock. Needless to say, I was amazed by how incredibly solid the M felt. I will instantly recommend it for anyone of the 160-200 pound weight range.
Villain S next to the Karma S
However, the M was large for me and I had visions that if I were ever to get chundered it might be so large as to rag-doll me right out of any custom fitting I’d accomplished. Regardless, with the “M” I discovered just how great the Karma’s design is. But, being accustomed to smaller boats, I decided I might fit and still be confident in the smaller Karma “S”, which is 14 gallons smaller. So, I called the experts down at Four Corners River Sports for another purchase. They have the most awesome store and know boating better than any others.
It’s generally considered ideal to be more in the low to middle of a boat’s weight range, but I went into the Karma S purchase knowing that I would be at the top end of the weight range, that I would weigh it down in the water deeper, and that I might likely face a different kind of challenge with outfitting it for my size.
I read the JK website that suggested trying the two furthest back seat positions for starters. After all, that was the correct position for me in the M. However, upon trying the seat in the back two positions on my first few bitterly cold days boating with it, I was feeling stern heavy, less stable than in the M, and a bit confined and tense. I began to wonder if I was too big for the S. So, I went about having fun with my customizing ideas.
Here’s what I’ve done to my boat. I removed the nearly 3/4 inch thick seat pad and replaced it with a 1/8th inch pad, lowering my center of gravity and giving me more leg room. I sculpted my own hip pads and thigh hooks and installed them (I now have the original seat cushion and hip pads in brand new condition to reinstall if I ever choose to sell the boat). I also reduced the thickness of the knee pockets padding down from a ½ inch to 1/8th inch. In all I gained about an inch of height room inside for my legs to be at a more powerful and comfortable angle for my size. Remember, I am at the very top end of the size range for this 72 gallon boat. The fit is excellent for me now. Even though I’m at the top end of its recommended weight range, I love its comfort and performance.
Ken’s custom outfitting
Naturally, the smaller boat has made me feel more agile compared to the massive M size that I had superbly enjoyed previously. But, I was challenged with the task of identifying the ideal seat position for me in the S. It turned out that all the way forward is the best location for my weight in the S. Anyone in the bottom or middle of the recommended weight range will find the seat near the rear ideal (like it was for me in the M), because of the substantial volume in the stern of these boats.
I was able to confirm this seat position theory one day when a petite gal, who had been demoing a Mamba that day, asked to try out my boat. I suspected my forward seat position was not going to be appropriate for her 117 pound stature and I wanted to adjust it before she got in, but she insisted I not bother since we were the same height. Sure enough, within her short test drive it was evident that she was fighting to steer it, looked and felt frustratingly unstable, and nervously wanted out. I had anticipated this and apologized for allowing her to prove me right. I then convinced her to let me move the seat to the rear (which requires no tools and only takes about thirty seconds to adjust) and give it another chance. She got back in and … Shazaam! An instant smile came upon her face as she felt naturally stable and confidently paddled up towards the top of the eddy, tracked a ferry across the river with ease, arced beautiful and effortless turns in and out of an eddy, and darted back across to where I stood observing. She was relaxed, smiling, and expressed that she wanted to buy a Karma S then. Again, it proved just how critical seat placement is, especially in these high-performance Jackson boats.
So, time now for some bottom line comparisons. There is a big jump in size from the Karma S to the M … Fourteen gallons! That leaves a guy like me deciding between being at the bottom end of a recommended weight range or being at the very top end. As you may know, the smaller Jackson team guys, which probably paddle 300+ days a year and make everything seem easy, generally choose the M size for their big water preference. Naturally, because the M is longer, wider, and taller, it’s going to be even more stable than the smaller S. Nonetheless, after having owned both an M and the S, I have found the S to my preferred liking. For my size, after customizing the outfitting, the S has proven to be perfectly large enough for me, is more secure fitting, is more agile, and is incredibly stable. It will be even more so for anyone smaller than me. The only thing the smaller S size doesn’t afford me (at my 155 lbs.) is the luxury of hauling loads of expedition gear in it. For that I would be better off in the M. The fact is that the Karma series is the top boat design. Choosing the appropriate size is the only question.
As far as offering size recommendations, it’s obvious to go to the next larger size if you already weigh near the top end of a recommended range and intend to usually haul much additional gear weight. Otherwise choose the smaller if you are in the low to middle of the weight range, or not intending to boat with much additional gear weight. Regardless of which size selected, you should know that all of the Karma boats actually drive like they’re smaller. Their performance is smooth, accurate, delightful, and super stable … providing fun and confidence.
My conclusion: I confess that I like the Karma even more than my very much loved Villain S or any of the other kayaks that I’ve experienced during the past 34 years of boat designs. Jackson has designed in the absolute best performance with the Karma. To fully appreciate their top performance, I’ve enjoyed doing custom outfitting and gained great insight into dialing in the boat’s sweet spot. It is without a doubt that when I look at boats like the Shiva, Burn, and Recon … while all good boats … I find the Karma’s asymmetrical shape, perfect rocker and sidewall profile, light weight, and superior performance to be the complete best design out there. Jackson has put it all together better than the others. In my opinion, the Karma can provide river runners and creek boaters the highest level of confidence and success. The boat is the best! My advice is to visit Four Corners River Sports to buy a Karma and then go enjoy the rivers with greater confidence and fun. Boat early, boat often, and enjoy good Karma. See you on the river.