Submitted by: Ben Hawthorne | December, 2015.
The Raptor has been ZET’s flagship design for several years now. As the company's first production model, the Raptor has enjoyed a huge wave of success, particularly in Europe due to their availability, until recently. The reasons behind this success range in part from ZET's outstanding warranty and customer service (one of the first European kayak manufactures to use a direct distribution model) to their superior durability and comfortable outfitting. I've paddled the Raptor for the last 3 years now, on everything from low volume Scottish ditches, to huge Chilean big water, and everywhere I’ve taken the Raptor, it has shone. But in my opinion, the bottom line reason for the Raptor’s success is that it’s simply a great boat, with care and attention having been paid to every aspect of its design. Read on and I’ll tell you a bit more about why I state this.
Disclaimer: When I say “In depth” I mean it, as this is quite a long review :)
Now I’ll admit, the first time I saw a ZET boat I wasn’t that impressed. The plastic simply isn’t as shiny and bright looking as other manufacturers. First impressions can be deceptive however. The reason that some kayaks have a shiny, gloss finish to the plastic is that they are flame treated after coming out of the mould. This buffs the plastic up, but is also an added manufacturing cost applied to the selling price of the boat. ZET don't do this, thus saving you money (when applied to purchasing a ZET in the EU). Secondly, bright colours in plastic require lots of dye that fundamentally weakens the plastic’s composite strength. The darker the colour, the weaker the plastic is as a general rule of thumb. Again, ZET try to use as little dye as possible in their plastic in order to produce the strongest possible kayaks. If you’re more worried about appearance than performance, maybe that’s not important, but if you’re serious about your creeking then you want the toughest boat you can get. This is why ZET delivers.
The real standout thing about ZET’s plastic is the variable thickness technology used during the moulding process. Don't ask me how they do this (if I knew I’d be a plastics expert), but whilst rotationally-moulding the boats ZET is able to ensure that specific areas of the hull are made thicker, such as in the nose, main base and side walls. Meanwhile less necessary spots such as the top deck are made thinner. This produces a stronger, stiffer kayak hull without increasing the overall weight of the boat.
ZET also use the best plastic composite available, specifically selected for use in kayaks (strong and light). How tough is it? After paddling the Raptor over 3 years, I’ve taken hits in her that should have broken ME, never mind the kayak. And I’ve still barely even scratched it up. I’ve also seen (and paddled) some of the first boats ZET produced. Now 5 years old and subjected to continuous use by several top paddlers on some of the world’s hardest rivers. Not only are these boats still going strong, the hulls have yet to even show any sort of visible oil canning. In short, ZET’s plastic is the best I’ve ever come across.
On first appearance, I figured ZET's outfitting looked somewhat cheap and industrial and nothing like the “floating armchairs” that other manufacturers aim to produce. What matters though is how good it all works. Once again, ZET delivers in spades.
Starting with the metal grab loops - the way all boats should be, and like all the hardware found in the boat - adjustable with a single hex key. This might not seem too important, but believe me, when you’re in a remote gorge and need to tighten something, its good to know you only need one cheap, lightweight tool rather than a wide variety of different tools.
Pillars: When taking boats out of the mould, most manufacturers cut out the plastic sheet that forms over the cockpit area and toss it away. Not ZET. They take this plastic and creatively fold it down into the boat to create the mounts for the hip pads and seat as well as forming the front and rear step-out pillars. This removes the need for extra holes in the hull and reduces the amount of extra parts (that tend to add weight or come loose and break). This design further provides a solid platform that ensures the structural foam pillars remain in place - a massive safety factor to consider. This additionally helps in the event of a swim as well since it’s incredibly difficult for the pillars to be knocked out of the boat, thus helping to retain the hull’s structural integrity should your boat happen to get pinned without you. What it means for the seat is that it is well fixed in place with a system that is easy to adjust and difficult to break. In the case of using a foam foot-blocked model, there are no holes in the hull other than the cockpit opening and drain plug, thus no leaks and no stress points that inevitably crack or get bigger over time. Meanwhile, models with adjustable footrests require 4 mounting bolt holes to be drilled in the hull. A far cry still from what other manufacturers will do to secure their outfitting.
Moving onto the seat, what you see is a single piece of closed cell foam sitting flush to the bottom of the boat. It's lightweight, comfortable, impossible to break, and above all, it's warm. Seriously - my butt is the warmest it’s ever been while paddling my Raptor. This for me makes a massive difference during those late season/winter paddling missions. The other special thing here is the so-called “X-frame” construction of the seat and hull stiffener (for lack of a better word). Whilst other manufacturers opt for simple plastic plates that do nothing for hull integrity, ZET uses a tubular frame that properly supports the whole seating area of the hull. This is the largest single area of plastic on a kayak, and if not properly supported, it has a tendency to buckle over time leading to oil-canning weaknesses and eventual cracking. How many boats have you seen with that tell tale “boof bump” under the seat? Well again, ZET boats don’t do this and thus remain in great shape far longer than most other kayaks.
The ample back band is solid and comfortable and adjusts using high quality metal ratchets mounted over your knees. This works great and doesn’t impede ones ability to get into the stern of the boat, a big problem for many other designs during multi-day missions.
As previously mentioned, ZET boats are available with 2 footrest options, either a standard adjustable bulkhead or with fitted foam foot-blocks. The adjustable bulkhead option is solid and works great. I personally prefer the foam version seeing as it’s a fair bit lighter and leaves no holes in the hull.
To note: There were a couple of aspects of ZET’s original outfitting that caused problems for some people. In general, the shape of the original thigh braces weren’t the most aggressive. Aside from being very adjustable and made of lightweight closed cell foam that again is warm and comfortable and impossible to break, they didn’t cover enough of the knee as preferred by some advanced boaters. ZET have remedied this for 2016 and I’m really looking forward to seeing the results. By all accounts it’s suppose to be a big improvement over the old design. Ditto for the hip pads, which despite being tough and well made, they were not the most figure hugging. Again ZET have addressed this for 2016.
Having used it and abused it, I believe ZET's outfitting is simply the best available. If you want further testimony, ask Min Magar of Paddle Nepal. He has a fleet of kayaks in Pokhara, all bought second hand from western paddlers visiting the country. His boats are used day in, day out by his staff, kayakers and clients on some of the world’s most challenging whitewater. The Nepalese kayakers are the world’s experts in keeping boats going long after other paddlers would have turned them into plant pots, and spare parts just aren’t available there. Simply put, ZET kayaks don’t break. The outfitting doesn’t break and as such, they keep going strong while other boats become toast. Don’t believe me? Offer to sell your ZET boat to Min and watch his face light up :)
OK, so we’ve already established that ZET's outfitting and plastic is some of the best available, but none of this matters if the boat doesn’t deliver on the water right? There are plenty of great looking, comfortable kayak designs on the marker that are just not very good kayaks. So how does the Raptor fare on the river?
At 8'4” long, the Raptor is a short, modern performance creek boat. It has a smooth rocker profile helping to retain its water-line length making it very fast for its size. As ZET likes to say, if you’re in one on any sort of narrow rapid, make sure you’re at the front of the group ;)
With a volume of 80 gal, it’s considered nowadays to be more of a medium sized creeker. I’m 5'11” / 180lbs and have always felt the Raptor’s specs fit me really well. For anyone heavier than me, or who is particularly interested in multi-day use (ie: carrying lots of gear), the Raptor might be a bit squirrelly for ya. In this case, ZET’s larger DIRECTOR would be a more suited option. That being said, I know a guy slightly bigger than me who pulled off a 28-day mission out of his Raptor.
For the hull, the Raptor has what I would term a semi-displacement shape. That is to say, it’s almost flat in areas, but not quite. This allows for the boat to surf really well and use river features to get around easily without handing out huge hits after boofing flat. The volume distribution is also really well balanced front to back. As a result, the boat loves to skip out of danger after landing drops. For this reason, I’ve rarely ever back looped in my Raptor! Furthermore, when driven, hull’s shape punches holes really nicely. I’ve found the rails to be pretty spot-on for what I want in a creeker (ie: strong enough to be responsive, while not being trippy). I especially prefer a boat with some edge on big water and for this reason the Raptor is awesome in high volume. Equally so, I hate for a kayak to be too edgy for slide features. Again, the Raptor’s hull shape delivers.
Being a performance oriented boat, the Raptor does need to be driven around the river. So if you prefer drifting down rapids from the back seat, the Raptor will be sure to kick you in the ass. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a forgiving boat, but much more suited for paddlers who take on a more aggressive paddling style. Paddlers with any sort of slalom background will particularly love it.
The rocker profile isn’t as extreme as some other designs therefore it can take a little time to figure out the timing of your boof stroke. I’m not saying the Raptor is difficult to boof, it’s just not as easy as some of the more auto-boofing boats out there. Generally speaking, you will need to work a little to keep the bow up. If you can do this, the Raptor is out right awesome. Personally, I prefer a kayak that requires me to provide some input. Boats that do everything for you get boring fast!
As said before, I’ve paddled the Raptor for 3 years now. I love it to death and I think you will to. From the plastic to the handling, ZET have put serious thought and quality design elements into every aspect of their kayaks, and it really shows. But being on the ZET team, I can be biased right?
Full disclosure time: I hate to brag (even humble bragging), but having been in the whitewater industry for several years now, I’ve been offered some really good deals on other boats and have other sponsors preferring I paddle for them. I’ve tried most other boats on the market, some of which I really liked. So when I began moving back to Canada I considered getting something other than another ZET. But then I thought, why? If it was about the money, perhaps I would. But I genuinely believe ZET kayaks are the best on the market for all the reasons I’ve outlined in this personal review. I don’t want or need to paddle anything else, simple as that.
Ben Hawtorne, ZET Canada Team Alumni.