While the extra seat height makes a big difference on waves, the Rock Star’s extra volume and short length shine when hole boating.
I don’t think I’ve ever gotten so much “pop” on loops in other boats, not even in acclaimed boats like the Project X. I think this has to do not only with the increased volume, but the way that a lot of the boat’s volume is distributed toward the bow. This forward-shifted volume distribution really gives the paddler a lot of buoyancy when plugging into a hole’s crease.
I also appreciate the Rock Star’s short 5’10’’ length. This comes into play when spinning or back surfing in the trough of a hole. The short, thick stern avoids pearling easily and doesn’t get stuck in the dreaded “endless side surf of doom” that inevitably ends up in a violent window shade.
Overall, the Rock Star performs better in a hole than any other boat that I have paddled to date.
So far this review has read like a love letter, but there are some things to be wary of with the Rock Star. Although Jackson primarily markets the boat as made for the play-park, they do assert that the boat will also perform well when paddling downstream. But if you are not completely on your game while running rivers in the Rock Star, it will punish you. Here’s why:
The added seat height, which helps initiate big tricks on waves, does not do the paddler any favors when you are not surfing. Sitting so high up makes the boat feel tippy and unpredictable. In addition, the short stern that was so nice while surfing gets caught easily on eddy lines and in big holes. This is a major negative for me personally. I spend a lot of time paddling my playboat downriver, since I don’t live in a region with good park-and-play. On my home run, the Skykomish, I can relax and enjoy myself more in less-aggressive boats like the All Star or Project X.
Once you flip over, the real trouble can start; this boat is not easy to roll. I’ve seen quite a few very experienced paddlers carp their rolls during their first time out with the Rock Star. In fact, one class V paddler I know decided to stop paddling the Rock Star on day two of the Grand Canyon, because it was such a challenge. I definitely recommend trying out your roll in the pool or in your favorite calm eddy before taking the Rock Star out on the river.
Fit / Comfort
The Rock Star is equipped with Jackson’s non-traditional outfitting system. Some love it, some hate it. Personally, I find the “Happy Feet,” “Happy Cheeks,” “Happy Thruster,” and the back-band to be very comfortable, but not altogether durable.
In my experience with many Jackson boats, the “Happy Feet” (an airbag/bean bag that shapes to your feet) are the most likely component to fail in this whole system. But they are comfortable and convenient while they last, and easily replaceable with foam blocks if you don’t feel like shelling out cash for a new one. In the end, this outfitting system lets me customize my boat’s fit on a daily basis with little effort.
One of the greatest things for me about the Rock Star’s fit is the foot room. It has a lot of room in the bow because so much volume is packed into a short length. In fact, there is so much room up there that I can wear my creeking shoes (Size 9.5, Five Ten Water Tennie) in the Rock Star. I keep my playboats outfitted tightly, so I usually have trouble fitting my feet into a playboat even when I am wearing a barefoot shoe like Vibram 5-fingers. Although paddlers with larger feet will likely have to wear lower-profile booties instead of creek shoes, this does show that there is a lot of room up there.
Although Jackson’s specs would place me in the middle of the height / size range for the size medium boat, I feel like at 5’10”, 170, I am at the smaller end of the paddlers who would fit in this boat. The boat is wide, and I could see it being even tougher to roll for paddlers with shorter torsos and arms.
This leaves smaller paddlers (under 5’8″) who want the Rock Star’s performance in a tricky situation, as the size medium boat might be too wide while the size small (49 gallons) is too small for many folks. If you’re a smaller person with great technique who can learn how to handle the Rock Star, I think the additional volume of the size medium is advantageous to get an enormous amount of “pop” in loops. Otherwise, you might just have to learn to live with the wide hull or go with another model of boat and insert some extra seat padding to achieve the Rock Star’s leverage.
The Rock Star is the ultimate example of a boat that has major tradeoffs. While geared toward park and play, it is still meant to be a one-boat quiver that will also perform when paddling downstream.
In my opinion, the Rock Star is the absolute best in show for a dedicated park-and-play boat. But its excellent performance on waves and in holes comes at the expense of its river running performance. Not only did I have a steep learning curve with it, the fact that I have seen other class V boaters refuse to paddle it speaks to its nature as a sort of “beast that must be tamed.” I did get used to the Rock Star’s demanding nature for going down river, but it took me several days to make the necessary technique adjustments—namely, to always keep my body centered while paddling, and coming up forward on my roll.
For less experienced paddlers looking for a more forgiving park and play boat or a do-it-all play boat, there are a variety of better options out there. In my experience, the Jackson All Star series or Wave Sport Project X are similar in many ways to the Rock Star, but do not include some of its most aggressive design features, (raised seat height, short stern length, and high volume) making them more forgiving freestyle kayaks for the learning paddler.