Jackson has designed the Zen to be a performance river runner that is capable of tackling most grades of water. Having spent a great deal of time paddling the Liquid Logic Remix and Wavesport Diesel over the last couple of years I was interested in how the Zen would perform.I paddled the Zen 75 over the course of a couple of months in a number of different white water and flat-water location. I sit right within the middle of the recommended weight range.
Firstly to the outfitting. Jackson have taken a slightly different approach to outfitting and have avoided the use of ratchets and what some regard as an excessive amount of bolt holes. They have opted for a much more simple approach without losing comfort or adjustability. The outfitting on the Zen takes the form of Jacksons ‘Surelock’ cord and cleat backrest system. As someone relatively new to this kind of outfitting I must admit I had a number of concerns over how effective a rope and cleat system could actually be. The hip pads include a pocket system that allows you to add additional shims of foam or indeed anything else to achieve the required fit. I used a couple of the provided shims to get a nice snug fit. The footrest is the Uni-shock system that is also used in all of the Jackson creek boats.
The system is based around the ability to allow a small level of give if you were to piton the bow. This will help save ankles and knees during a large impact. Add to the fact that the system can be adjusted without any special tools without any parts to loose. It can be adjusted from the cockpit it all starts to look pretty impressive. It turns out that this is a super simple yet effective system and gets away from the issue that some other manufacturers have with rusty/corroding ratchets. It also saves a great deal of weight by reducing the number of weighty metal fittings. So despite my initial misgivings the system works really well.
Very much like a creek boat the Zen has multiple grab handles. There are handles bow and stern and a further two grab handles located on the back deck around mid way between the cockpit and stern.
The handles are a great shape and even when using them to carry a couple of boats over a long distance I didn’t find them overly uncomfortable. They are also very easy to clip a carabiner into should you ever need to.
The Zen has a pretty flat planning hull with a moderate rocker. The “edge” on the Zen are nice and progressive, they run for around half of the boats overall length and taper nicely towards the bow and stern.
The flared sides provide the Zen with a high level of secondary stability, this combined with the great outfitting makes the Zen always feel under control even when edged heavily for carving or turning. On that note the Zen carves and turns really well, pulling into tight eddies was straightforward and I never experienced any issues with the tail being grabbed by the current. This was even the case when I intentionally forced the Zen to lean the wrong the way.
Moving from a playboat or creeker to a river runner always amazes me as river runners tends to be significantly faster and this is certainly the case with the Zen. Point it in the direction you want and the Zen will go. It will hold the line really well and has a really good level of speed on both flat and moving water. I found no issue with drifting and falling downstream as I cut across the current from one eddy to another. The primary stability of the Zen is simply superb. For a river runner the Zen also boofs incredibly well. The Zen feels very composed in even the largest of water.
Essentially if you are not in the market for a full on creeker you may want to look at a river runner such as the Zen. This area of the market is one that I think a great number of paddlers overlook, as many tend to go for a creeker and/or a playboat. I have done just that for a number of years. But having returned to paddling river runners and appreciating the need of such a design type it is great to see Jackson putting a design into the mix. The Zen would be more than enough boat for most paddlers.