Passing of a Paddling Visionary
A tribute to Noah Kayaks founder Vladimir Vanha
In 1996, while watching my cousin, Homer, race a World Cup slalom event outside Prague in the Czech Republic, I met up with boat designer Vladimir Vanha, founder of Noah Kayaks. He took us to his home, an unassuming and relatively dilapidated affair, and then took us inside his ranch-style garage, which reeked of plastics and resin. Inside were boats in various stages of design and disrepair—all of which, I’m positive, were ahead of their time, just like Vladimir.
That’s the way it was with all of Vladimir’s boats. While Vladimir passed away on December 6, 2006, on his 56th birthday from complications related to cancer, his original Jetti was revolutionary, the first of the short boats to ever hit the market. The new line he was tinkering with would likely be even more so.
He was the epitome of eccentric. He preached about his boats’ plastic being aligned with the cosmos to offer a centerpoint of cosmic energy. He refused any medical treatment for his cancer. “He had a prophecy,” says Jan Novotný, editor of the Czech Republic’s Hydro Magazin. “He said that if he survives his birthday he would make it…and he nearly did.”
What he did was touch the lives of boaters everywhere, from paddlers in the Southeast–where his U.S. operation was based before it burned down–to such industry players as Prijon importer Landis Arnold and Dagger founder Joe Pulliam. Noted whitewater paddler Shaun Baker even paddled his boats for their revolutionary handling.
For more on his passing and visionary contributions to today’s paddling world, read the following testimonials below from paddlesports peers.
Ken Kastorff (founder, Endless River Adventures, www.endlessriveradventures.com)
The first time I ever saw Vladimir Vanha, he was standing next to two Noah kayaks that he was trying to sell in front of the Nantahala Outdoor Center’s reservations office. It was 1975 and Vladimir had recently defected from communist Czechoslovakia. He had come to race his newly designed slalom kayak in the Southeastern slalom race 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 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—all this when the hot slalom boats were still the Lettman Mark 6 and the Phoenix Slipper. No one had even thought the slalom process through enough to think about dunking ends under poles. I remember listening to Vladimir’s enthusiastic Czech accent as he explained to anyone who would listen the advantages of his new design. Unfortunately, as would happen many times in the future, Vladimir’s designs were so far ahead of our time that kayakers just weren’t ready to give them a reasonable try.”
Following are just a few of the innovations that came from Vladimir’s Noah Company:
Materials. Vladamir 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).
B<Boat Design: The Jetti, AQ and AQII. One of his most radical designs was the Noah Jetti, which 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 didn’t crack. Then Vladimir came out with the Jetti, which was less than ten feet long 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 wasn’t until Vladimir 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 couldn’t believe how comfortable it 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.
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 produced 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. Some kayakers were convinced it 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 too weird for them so they’d never give it a chance. But those who did loved the boat. Arlo Kleinrath took one out to Colorado and won one of the first rodeos on the Numbers of the Arkansas River and years later Richard Oldenquist repeated that same feat in a Jetti on the Ocoee.
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 (back when you knew the twenty other people who had run it)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. 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 for Vladimir, but he never gave up and would find a way to come back even after disaster. Take the AQ—Vladamir’s second whitewater 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 his brother was using to redesign a seat for a new boat. Vladmir 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 perfectly flat hull and a sharp chine. It unfortunately never went any where because it was twenty years ahead of it’s 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 didn’t 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 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. Vladamir 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.
Stan Chladek (fellow Czech, expedition sea kayaker, and founder, Great River Outfitters)
“He was still optimistic, up until his last days. His designs were revolutionary. He was the first one to make short kayaks, which worked for surfing and creeks. I met him in the early ‘80s when I was C-2ing the Cheat River with my wife, Emma. Then I went on an expedition to Peru with him in 1984. He took his Jetti, and everyone was amazed at how short it was. It was such a crazy-looking boat. Though he had a horrible experience on the Urubamba, people started paddling it and loved how it handled.
“He was slightly eccentric and spiritual. He claimed there was some cosmic power in his boats, and often conjured up spirits through my dog, Sasha. On the Peru trip, he ate whatever food he could find and never got sick, until toward the end of the trip. Then he got deathly ill, and went to a Shaman in Cusco who put tomato juice all over his body, and then covered him in newspapers covered in goat urine. That didn’t work either.
“He went from rotomolding to blowmolding, and came up with two other great designs, the Aeroquatic and Stratoquatic, and then his factory burned in the late ‘80s, and 500 boats melted into a big blob. Then he moved to Georgia and finally back to the Czech Republic
“We all owe him so much–if it wasn’t for him, we’d still be in Mirages. Some memories of my days in his boats: Lava South clean in a Jeti in ‘85, (after hitting the wall in ‘83) Throne ‘85 Middle of Crystal ‘85 Green Narrows ‘88 Atomic Ferry at Atom Bomb Falls, 1600 cfs iron Ring hands Lava hands Wenatchee rodeo ‘88 Costa Rica ‘88, dawn-patrol first descent of that river that dumps into the General above Elephant–me, Mary & Rafa bagged it while the guests were still sleeping in camp!Christmas Day, smoking Davey Hearn at Rocky Island (he couldn’t hit the backsurf–hah) and endless days on the Ocoee with the Jeti warriors–KB, Ken, Homer, Arlo, Angus….This is what comes to me in 5 minutes of recollecting. These were the finest days of my life. Thank you ,Vladimir.” –Eric Neis
“The last time we talked on the phone, his health was not good, and I remembered all the toxic fumes he inhaled over his boat building career. Just the hit we both got building 10 water polo boats was more than enough for me. He was still working on custom boats in a small shop in a converted grain mill next to a stream, he said.
Looking back on it Vladimir saw a way that transformed the sport. A few other “short boats” had been built, but Vladimir saw that Short Boats were “the way” rather than an “alternative” to try out. And unlike now where everyone seems focused on what the best paddlers need, Vladimir was focused on what the new paddler needs. A shorter boat with soft easy to control edges was just that – something that made entering the sport easy and fun. We shall always appreciate his contributions, and I hope we don’t forget his wisdom in making friendly introductions to the sport.
–Landis Arnold, Prijon/Wildwasser Sport USA