Review: Wavesport Transformer Kayaks, Part 1
Part 1 of our close-up look at the most asked-about kayaks of OR2002.

Wavesport's 2002 Sensation

Few would argue that Wavesport's Transformer series of kayaks is 2002's most talked-about new paddling platform. From the moment the rumors first started surfacing, the idea of "interchangable tips" conjoured up all sorts of images. Did the tips snap over the bow and stern like the protective endcaps used for creeking and kayak polo? Did the entire bow and/or stern somehow attach to a central cockpit area? How could it possibly be strong enough? How could it possibly be watertight?

Figure 1

A few "sneak peeks" emerged during Summer 2002 and the rumors started to solidify. Finally, at the Outdoor Retailer 2002 convention in Salt Lake City, Wavesport formally unveiled the Transformers. I attended Eric Jackson's first presentation at the show and reported on it here on BoaterTalk. I can honestly say that, while at OR2002, I received more inquiries about the Transformer from BoaterTalk members than any other product.

But as we all know, nothing equals a hands-on review. At OR2002 I spoke with Kelcey Nichols of Backbone Media - Wavesport's marketing firm - and she promised to get me a review kayak once they were available. We stayed in touch during the next few months while Wavesport finalized the molds and worked toward regular production.

Finally, Kelcey put me together with Wavesport's regional rep for my area, Ted Keyes, and he made it happen. In fact, he went the extra mile and provided TWO Transformers, a T2 and a T3, so we'd be able to fit a larger range of paddlers. Figure 1 shows the T2 (yellow) and T3 (orange) used during this review.

Normally, when reviewing whitewater products, I do an "Engineering" style examination of the product and its features and then separately comment on how it performs in actual use. The Transformer has so many new and different things to cover that I'm going to integrate those two threads in this review. Instead of a "Lab" section and a "Use" section, we'll both examine and discuss each aspect of the kayak in one continuous thread.

I have not included a lot of "overall" exterior photos of the Transformer, it's hull, and so forth. Those are commonly available on the Web and in Wavesport's promotional literature. The images in this review emphasize the views and perspectives that you otherwise can't see unless you're there in person.

We have a lot of material to cover. Let's get started!

So You've Just Bought a Transformer...

When I received the T2 and T3 their protective shipping wrap had already been removed, so I can't comment on it. However, I can say that these two kayaks were the most perfect specimens of rotomolded plastic I've ever seen. None of the usual "shipping scratches" were present. None of the expected "store rash" scuffs and dings were there. They were mirror smooth, with sharp edges and nicely finished parting lines. Unlike some other kayaks I've reviewed (and owned), I didn't have to reassemble things to get them right. Screws were tight, components properly installed, even the decals were straight. Everything about the first impression shouted "QUALITY".

The Transformer comes with its "bumper" tips installed. (Shipping with the bumpers installed keeps the kayak at its minimum length.) The other two sets of tips are in a ZipLoc bag behind the seat. Another ZipLoc bag contains a complete fit kit, the usual paperwork, and even a Phillips screwdriver for changing the tips.

Figure 2 Figure 3

These closeups of the bow (Figure 2) and stern (Figure 3) illustrate the quality of the artistic designs, and of the plastic molding that realizes them.

The bow and stern have a few things in common. Their extreme ends are identical, which permits any of the six tips to be installed on either the bow or the stern. The graphics are similar - but if you look closely in Figures 2 and 3 you'll notice that the big Wavesport logos are "reversed" (raised on the bow, inset on the stern). The side graphics flow into the grab handles quite nicely, too.

The two screws nearest the bow retain the footbrace rail. Farther back, two more screws hold the footbrace cam buckle in place. In my original examination of the Transformer at OR2002, I openly worried about these two cam buckle screws and their potential for being "knucklebusters" when your hand is holding the front grab handle. I'm happy to report that those fears were unfounded... in all the time I handled these kayaks I never once found the location of those screws to be a problem.

I have a love-hate relationship with those grab handles and their non-standard orientation and location. I love them for picking up the kayak. They're especially nice when "buddy portaging" a pair of kayaks with another paddler. But they're not so great when providing a handhold to a swimmer. Being far away from the ends (and thus farther out of the water) makes them more difficult to grab for the swimmer. And from the paddler's perspective, they put the swimmer's leverage point higher and thus give him more impact on the handling of the kayak. This is probably a minor point with what is supposed to be a pure playboat, but I've chased my share of swimmers near play areas and I didn't like this aspect of the grab handles.

Getting the Water Out

Figure 4 Figure 5

The drain plug is another love-hate aspect of the Transformer design. I really like the "two position" plug. Figure 4 shows its first position, while Figure 5 shows the second extended position. In the first position, water flows but is impeded somewhat by the plug itself. Pulling the plug out to the second position gets it out of the way sufficiently to permit faster draining of large amounts of water. Once the boat is empty, the arrow-shaped retainer easily pops back into the kayak.

But what I don't like about the drain plug is the material from which it is made. The entire plug is molded as one piece of a rubbery compound. Think of a very stiff pencil eraser and you'll get the general idea. This is great for ensuring a watertight seal with the rotomolded plastic (note that the plug threads directly into the deck), but is an enormous pain for removing and reinserting the drain plug. The sticky rubber threads make for a very tight fit, which means you need to apply a lot of torque - while at the same time the rubbery top bends and twists as you apply more force! Several times I just left the drain plug partially inserted so I could get back on the water.

Possible solutions for the drain plug include 1) very slightly larger threads in the deck, 2) very slightly smaller threads on the plug, or 3) a more traditional drain plug arrangement (of which there are several popular variations).

One idea which occurred to me after I had returned the Transformers: Apply a very small amount of something like Vaseline to the threads. Water-soluble options like KY Jelly would wash right off, and you'd have to be careful that petroleum-based choices wouldn't damage the deck or the plug. But something is definitely needed to made that drain plug more user friendly.

"Nice Tips You've Got There!"

OK, I won't hold back any longer. Let's take a look at the most fabled aspect of the Transformer's design: Those interchangable tips.

Figure 6 Figure 7

Figure 6 shows the bow with the tip removed. Those three stainless threaded inserts flare out within the plastic so they can't pull out - at least not without seriously damaging the plastic. I've heard it suggested that the plastic in this area is "thinner" than normal, and some have expressed concern that the Transformer might be "weak" in this area. I don't have an ultrasonic thickness gauge at my ready disposal, but the plastic here sure seems strong enough to me.

Figure 7 shows the "bumper" tips and their mounting hardware. The bumpers differ from the medium and long tips in that metal washers are molded into the bumpers themselves, as opposed to being separate pieces. You can see the metal washers in the photo's top bumper; they are recessed from both surfaces and thus don't actually contact the kayak itself.

Stainless steel Phillips-head screws are used to secure the tips to the recessed threaded inserts shown in Figure 6. As mentioned earlier, bow and stern present identical mounting surfaces with identical threaded inserts. Exactly six screws - just enough - are provided with the Transformer. If you are planning some tip exchanges at the river (why does that sound like a dirty joke?), I'd plan a stop at the hardware store to pick up some backup stainless screws.

Figure 8 Figure 9

Figure 8 shows the medium and long tips. As mentioned, these differ from the short "bumpers" in the way that their reinforcing washers are installed. While the bumper washers are molded directly into the bumpers, Figure 8 shows how the washers for the longer tips are actually separate from the tip material. I'm not sure this is intentional; since Wavesport includes exactly six screws, they could have cut the number of washers from twelve to six and still provided sufficient hardware to mount any combination of tips.

I suspect Wavesport intends for the washers to be retained in the tips. That's not how it works out, though. When I first opened the ZipLoc bag containing the medium and long tips, some (but not all) of the washers were already loose in the bag. Figure 9 hints as to why: The shape of the washers doesn't really contribute to retention within the tips. Indeed, the washers really want to fall out, and it took some care to keep them in place when swapping tips on the kayaks. Unlike the screws, these washers aren't standard off-the-shelf items at every corner hardware store. I'd hate to lose them while on a trip. Perhaps that explains why Wavesport included "twice as many" washers as is strictly necessary - they're already providing spares in case you lose some! [grin]

Going back to Figure 8, you can see various orientations of the tips. The upper left tip is the "top" view, while the lower left is the "bottom" view. The rightmost tip is "front-on" to illustrate how the washers sit (or don't sit!) in their recesses, and the tip to its left is tilted at an angle to provide yet another perspective.

Regarding the concerns regarding tip strength: Relax, I don't think it's an issue. The bumpers are essentially indestructible; the medium and long tips only slightly less so. The stainless steel inserts, screws, and washers are serious pieces of hardware which are not going to fail with any normal amount of stress. As for the tips themselves, they remind me of hockey puck material - just slightly more flexible and with a width-to-thickness ratio that permits them to bend a bit more than your average hockey puck.

Will the tips show nicks and dings from impacts with solid objects? Sure - but so will the hull plastic, on these or any other kayaks. The real question is whether the tips reduce the overall strength of the kayak taken in total. In my estimation, the answer is No.

Speaking of flexibility, Eric Jackson claims that the medium and long tips provide a "kick" when engaged in green water. Presumably the tip, when first engaged, bends a bit and thus stores potential energy before the primary mass of the kayak starts to react to the new force. Once the kayak's whole mass begins to move, the theory is that the tip "flicks" back to its original shape and converts that potential energy back to kinetic energy to help move the kayak. It's a wonderful theory, but none of our reviewers were even close to the skill levels necessary to discern such rarified subtleties.

On a more practical level for mere mortals, however, the tips definitely did make a difference in the performance and handling of the kayak. The neat thing about this approach is that the tips add surface area without adding much weight. Total newbies, intermediates, and advanced paddlers were all able to notice a difference based on tip selection.

The bumpers are the most forgiving of the tips. While the medium and long tips carry the substantial rocker of the hull itself, they still present a larger surface area to the upstream portions of waves and holes. With the bumpers, there's nothing out there to catch unintentionally. This proved useful for working on wavespins where technique was still in question, because the bumper-equipped Transformer simply wouldn't catch its ends.

When it was time to go vertical, though, the bumpers (if you'll pardon the pun) "came up short". From bow stalls to flatwheels to active cartwheels to enders and related moves, the longer tips made a difference across the board. Interestingly, the difference seemed more noticeable during the initiation of such moves as opposed to maintaining stability during the move; this suggests that once you get some momentum going the additional stability plays a lesser role. But you can't achieve momentum unless you can initiate the move in the first place, and the longer tips definitely made a difference there.

The one vertical move which might be easier with the bumpers is the flatwater loop. No one had enough time with the Transformer to get a flatwater loop out of it, but "floops" are made a lot easier with a shorter kayak - and the additional surface area of the longer tips would actually hinder the release of the bow and the passage of the stern as the move progressed.

This review will defer to others for an analysis of the Transformer's ability in aerial moves like the Blunt and Helix, because such moves are beyond the skill of our reviewers. (Hey, at least we're honest about it.)

Click here to proceed to Part 2 of this review.

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