Saying Goodbye to a Friend
By Ken Kastorff
December 30, 2006
It was with sadness that I learned that one of kayakings most influential design pioneers passed away recently–Vladimir Vanha.
The first time I ever saw Vladimir Vanha he was standing next to two Noah kayaks he was trying to sell in front of the Nantahala Outdoor Center’s reservations office. The year was either 1975 or 76 and Vladimir had recently defected from communist Czechoslovakia. He had come to race his newly designed slalom kayak in one of the spring slalom races–only to find out that because he hadn’t pre-registered he wouldn’t be able to race.
His slalom boat looked like something out of a future Star Wars movie. It was extremely low volume and was capable of sinking its ends under slalom poles. It had foot bumps to enable the paddler to have enough room for their feet. You have to remember that at this time the hot slalom boats were still kayaks like the Lettman Mark 6. No one had even thought the slalom process through enough to think about dunking ends under poles. I remember listening to Vladimirs enthusiastic Czech accent as he explained to anyone who would listen to the advantages of his new design. Unfortunately, as would happen many times in the future, Vladimirs designs were so far ahead of their time that kayakers just werent ready to give them a reasonable try. Following are just a few of the innovations that came fromVladimirs Noah Company:
Materials. Vladimir was one of the first designers to start using Vinyl ester resin. Most companies in the 70s were still using Polyester resin. Polyester resin didn’t have the bonding strength or the abrasion resistance that Vinyl ester resin did.
Ergonomics. He was way ahead of his time in ergonomics. I can remember him working over two weeks just to make a kayak seat that was up to his standards. It was the most comfortable seat ever put in a kayak (okay, I might be a bit prejudice given it was molded off of my own butt).
Boat Design: The Jetti, AQ and AQII. There were several fiberglass designs (like the Triton) that eventually led up to one of the most radical designs to come from Vanha, and that was the Noah Jetti. Not many people realize that the name Jetti came from the idea of having a boat short enough to travel on an airplane. Up to this time paddlers would take out the walls and fold boats into thirds, then upon arrival they would heat the kayaks up and hope the creases didnt crack the boat. Then Vladimir came out with the Jetti. The original Jetti was less than ten feet long at a time when most boats were still twelve to thirteen feet long.
I can still remember my reluctance to even try a Jetti the first time I saw one. It was not untilVladimir almost got on his knees and begged me to just give it a try did I finally get a prototype from his shop to take to the lake. My reaction after I a)sat in the boat and b)rolled it was nothing less than astonishment. I could not believe how comfortable the boat was. And the design was such that the boat almost rolled its self. Just the ergonomics set you up to be able to execute a hipsnap so much better than any boat on the market: a very comfortable seat, set low in the boat, placing your knees out to the side of the boat under comfortable contoured thigh braces. This arrangement gave incredible control to every paddling situation.
I had a student at the time that was having trouble rolling so I switched boats with him. His first roll was so easy it was incredible. And the look on his face was great! We quickly moved from the lake to the river. His first try surfing at Surfing Rapid on the Nantahala Riverproduced a well-controlled surf with the boat easily carving back and forth on the wave. When he finally did eventually flip while playing he rolled with no effort at all. That was all I needed to see! By the end of that day, I had my first Jetti and continued to paddle it for several years to come. Oh there were kayakers out there that were convinced that the Jetti was too slow and that if you fell into a hole you’d never escape. When it really came down to it though, I believe it just looked to weird for them so they never would give it a chance. But those who did paddle the boat loved it. Arlo Kleinrath took one out to Colorado and won one of the first rodeos on the Numbers of the Arkansas River; years later Richard Oldenquist repeated that same feat in a Jetti on the Ocoee River at Hell Hole.
The Jetti also became the boat of choice for many of us when it came to steep creek paddling. My first trips down the Narrows of the Green River (and this was back when you knew the twenty other people who had done run this run) were in a Jetti Grande. At the same time many of us also paddled Jettis on big water like the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. The boat was a surfing machine on any river you put it on and was always predictable and user friendly–something unusual at the time.
The Jetti design would have lasted many more years had Vladimir not lost the design rights to it. Vladamir was the Tesla of boat design. Like many other brilliant entrepreneurs he was a brilliant designer, but he was not the smartest business man. Brilliance oft times pairs with eccentricity! This pairing would haunt Vladimir throughout his life. He was always under funded and consequently, would make deals with the devil if necessary to survive and fund his work. I can remember him telling me one day that he had somewhere near ten credit cards maxed out to fund the molding of a given design. It was always a struggle forVladimir, but he never gave up and would find a way to come back even after disaster.
Take the AQ, Vladimirs second plastic whitewater kayak design. No sooner had his newly designed blow molded shipment of AQ kayaks arrived at his workshop in western North Carolina than they were destroyed in a fire caused by spontaneous ignition from chemicals being used to do some work in the shop. Vladimir showed up at the NOC store the next day with baggies of burnt plastic powder with notes on them, freeze dried kayaks, just add water. And like a phoenix, Noah boats rose again with the redesigned AQ–the AQII.
I doubt that many would know that Vladimir designed the first planning hull kayak. It was called a Krakatoa, and was designed in the early 80s. The Krakatoa was about eight feet long, had a flat hull and a sharp flat chine. It unfortunately never went any where because it was twenty years ahead of its time. Imagine where the sport of kayaking would be today if only it had been given a chance.
Vladimir eventually returned to Czechoslovakia in the later part of his life. Part of his decision came from being disillusioned with the American dream. And I am sure he eventually just got home sick for his country. His departure left a void in terms of characters in our sport! Take his embracement of the concept of ‘freedom’ in the States. He came here because of a belief of freedom that was not to be found in a communist country. But he never understood small things such as the fact that freedom did not mean you could drive as fast as you wanted. He thought that he had the constitutional right to drive at any speed he desired. After some rather humorous driving incidences, his friends affectionately referred to him as “The Mad Czech.” When he finally ran out of drivers licenses (I think he had one in just about every state in the south) and new disguises to avoid capture by the local police, he finally decided that his idea of freedom just did not exist in North Carolina and it was time to return home.
Even after returning home to the Czech Republic he still continued to come out with some great designs like the SQ line. It was after these designs and his return home to Europe that I eventually lost track of Vladimir. I am sure he continued to come up with great designs right up to the end. Vladimir Vanha will be missed by all of us he touched with his brilliance and his humor and his willingness to challenge all of us in the industry with his forward thinking.