Belly up

JOHN COUTLAKIS/The Asheville Citizen-Times

Callan Welder demonstrates Adam Masters’ invention, the Bellyak, at Ledges Park on the French Broad River In Asheville, N.C. Bellyak is a noun – a type of boat and a sport. Set to hit the Asheville and worldwide market, the Bellyak is a kayak that you ride on your belly.

Asheville Citizen-Times


Adam Masters’ mind is like a runaway whitewater rapid.

Chugging and churning, foaming and frothing. It won’t settle down, and it’s always racing to find the perfect line through the rocks and the roiling water that surround him.

So it’s no surprise that at age 32, the Asheville entrepreneur who has spent a lifetime exploring, crafting and designing new adventures for himself, has created not only a new invention, but a new sport and a new word for the English language: bellyak.

Bellyak is a noun – a type of boat and a sport. Set to hit the Asheville and worldwide market, the bellyak is a kayak that you ride on your belly.

“It’s like swimming, with a kayak under your belly,” said Masters, who lives on a farm in Marshall, N.C., with his wife of a year, Anna Woodruff-Masters, 31. The two founded Bellyak, which is headquartered just north of Asheville.

“Nobody has done anything like this. What I love about this, when you kayak a lot, you get to a point when you get to class 5 whitewater,” Masters said. “You have to maintain a certain edge, and the risk-to-reward ratio gets a little different. To increase the excitement, you have to increase your risk.

“You can take a Bellyak, a super-intimate way of riding the river, and (calmer waters) like the French Broad River, the Tuckasegee, all of sudden they become more fun. The experience is so dynamic. You can ride on your knees, on your butt, you can lay down and take a nap.”

He already has die-hard devotees of the Bellyak, and a new business, Asheville Adventure Rentals, that will be the exclusive carrier in Asheville of the new boats, which Masters believes are destined to be the next big wave in whitewater sports, which include kayaking and canoeing.

According to the 2012 Outdoor Foundation Outdoor Recreation Topline Report, participation in recreational kayaking is up nearly 32 percent in the last three years, and whitewater kayaking is up more than 24 percent. As a brand-new sport, bellyaking fits somewhere in between these two sports.

Masters grew up in Easley, S.C., with a father, Bill Masters, who started Perception Kayak in 1975.

“Perception grew to become the largest kayak manufacturer in the world,” Adam Masters said. “It was sold in 1998. ... I have always been around the manufacturing side of it, around the water, but was never a professional kayaker.”

One day in 2004, Masters was kayaking down a backyard creek after a flood in Sunset, S.C. He was trying to maneuver through a class II curl, but the space was too narrow to use a paddle.

So he covered the boat’s cockpit with a spray skirt and duct tape, hugged the boat tight to his belly and launched forward, using his hands as a paddle.

“I laid on top of my kayak to get my center of gravity lower,” he said. “That’s where bellyak was born.”

“With bellyak and bodyboating, there’s no spray skirt, no paddle to manage and no feeling of being ‘trapped’ in a boat,” he said. “It’s a high-fun, low-risk way for anyone to get on the water, have fun and get an amazing workout.”

He said he “got the bellyak bug” again in 2010, started tinkering, cutting up kayaks and searching the Internet for insights into building a surfboard-kayak hybrid prototype.

His uncle, Allen Stancil, was a designer at Perception for 30 years and was one of the founders of LiquidLogic kayaks. Masters’ right hand has been his wife, Woodruff-Masters.

“I grew up around here, taking raft trips down the river,” Woodruff-Masters said. “But I’m not a kayaker. Bellyak has been my version of getting out in the middle of the river without having to learn how to kayak.”

She said the learning curve for bellyaking is much lower than that for whitewater kayaking, where paddlers are snapped inside a tippy boat and must learn how to “wet exit” when they inevitably turn upside down.

“Bellyaking seems crazy and daring, but in a kayak, you’re in a spray skirt, you have to learn how to roll,” she said. “The Bellyak can be more accessible. We’re going for a different market niche – older people, younger people, women.”

To ride a Bellyak, you only need to be “moderately” athletic, know how to read lines – or safe passages – down a river, wear a helmet, life jacket and special webbed paddle gloves. Proficient bodyboaters can ride the Bellyak on their knees or in a sitting position, Adam Masters said.

Callan Welder, 33, a lifelong friend of Woodruff-Masters, is a recreational kayaker who now is a bellyak devotee.

“I kayaked for four to five years but never got really good,” said Welder, who lives in Marshall. “I had a fear of getting caught upside down in the rapids.”

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