"I breathe plastics," says Adam Masters. "It's in my genetic code." The Asheville-based creator of the Bellyak — a strange-looking face-first kayak that you ride on your belly — could just as easily have said he was born breathing white water.
His father, Bill Masters, founded Perception Kayaks in the early '70s, revolutionizing the industry from a factory in Easley, S.C., by replacing pricey fiberglass models with affordable plastic boats. Although the elder Masters sold the company in 1999, his son may be poised to shake up the kayaking world once again.
"Bellyak is sort of the anti-SUP," Masters says, speaking somewhat ironically from atop a stand-up paddleboard. "I paddled traditional kayaks for years until one day I tried lying down on my kayak and noticed how maneuverable it was."
For Masters, the aha moment came after a hurricane in 2004 left the creek in his backyard overflowing. The raging current flowed through a tunnel of rhododendrons, forcing Masters to lie down to make his way down the long stretch. "I was like, 'Holy shit, that was awesome,' like riding down the river on a surfboard," he recalls.
However, there was one problem. Master's center of gravity was too high on the boat. He went home and hacked at his kayak with a jigsaw, cutting the top out until it formed a basin he could lie face down inside. He then filled the sides with foam and duct tape until he had the original Bellyak prototype.
Over the next five years, Masters slowly perfected his idea, eventually settling on a flat-bottomed boat that could easily cut through the water, but with ridges that provide stability when a rider leans or turns. He studied surfboard shapers' forums, learning how to apply and shape epoxy resin.
After constructing 24 home-built models — he calls them "Frankenboats" — Masters settled on the perfect design and hired a 3-D-modeling expert to create a digital mold that could be used to create plastic models. Last July, he quit his realtor job for good and ordered his first batch of Bellyaks from a plastics maker in Georgia. Today, the boats' parts are created almost entirely within a three-hour radius of Asheville.
"There's a simplicity and versatility to this boat that I think is really appealing," Masters says. "It's a dynamic, high-performance water toy."
Matt Faust, a local surf kayaker, has tried out the Bellyak and says he sees the potential, especially for beginners and children.
"If the surf dumps you, you just fall out, so it's a lot safer than a kayak," explains Faust, who winds down from long shifts as an ICU nurse with kayaking sessions. "It doesn't have that steep learning curve that kayaking does, so it's something I'd use for a family day at the beach."
Still, some serious kayakers have scoffed at the idea of lying on your stomach and paddling with your hands. Masters admits that the idea's origins stemmed partially from losing interest in the risks associated with paddling Class V rapids.
"It's not meant to replace kayaking, by any means, but what's awesome about the Bellyak is that you can take it on a Class III and have a Class V experience and increase the thrill without increasing the risk," he explains. "In Class V whitewater, you've got to have your game on all the time, and if you slip up, you can die. After a while, I didn't really dig those odds."
On the Bellyak, river stretches that were once relatively benign become a "playground of awesome," says Masters, who compares the face-first sport to "kayaking without a condom on."
In just a few months on the market, Masters has shipped sizeable orders to Australia, Ireland, and the Gulf Coast, where outfitters are adding Bellyaks to their fleets of rental boats. The company had a presence at the East Coast Paddlesports and Outdoor Festival in April, where they worked to bring Bellyaks to the Charleston market. Because the eight-foot-long boats glide through the water similarly to a longboard, they're an alternative to surfing or bodyboarding that Masters hopes will catch on in the Lowcountry's waves.
"Conceptually, people get this really quickly, because it's just like swimming with a kayak under you," Masters says. "You're not trapped inside anything and you don't have to learn how to stand up. Once you're comfortable, you can ride on your knees, ride sitting down, or start to learn tricks."
Masters has already taken paralyzed soldiers out through the Wounded Warrior program, giving them the chance to get back out on the water in a non-threatening format.
Because a rider's body is entirely out of the water, the core workout is much like that of paddling a surfboard, with the legs doing little more than bracing when riding in the prone position. That means that even on days with sloppy crap waves, it's possible to get a workout and a good ride. In the fickle Class II swells of the Lowcountry, that may be the Bellyak's biggest advantage.