What kind of a lunatic would throw himself over a giant waterfall in a flimsy piece of plastic not much bigger than a child’s toy? Stand up, Shaun Baker, an extreme kayaker from Maidenhead, Berkshire.
This nine-time British whitewater freestyle kayaking champion already holds the world record for the longest freefall over a waterfall. That was a drop of almost 65ft off the Aldeyjarfoss falls on the Skjalfandafljot, a glacial river in Iceland, in 1996. Now he is looking for even higher waterfalls to leap over. Indeed, he aims eventually to take on the big daddy of them all — Niagara.
No one has gone over the top of this 167ft monster in a kayak or canoe and survived. But Baker has a secret weapon to help him stay clear of the vertical torrent that forces any object caught up in large waterfalls under the surface — usually with fatal consequences for swimmers or canoeists. It’s a 330cc two-stroke engine. He has invented the world’s first jet kayak.
“I’m planning to run some huge, record-breaking waterfalls,” says Baker, 44. “The ones I had to walk away from in the past because I simply would not have been able to clear the rocks at the bottom. This time I can stop 10 metres from the edge, fire the engine up and get a ballistic burst of speed and just fly right over the top. Fifty metres downstream — that’s where I’m going to land — literally flying.”
Baker has already recorded a top speed of 25mph in his invention and believes the jet kayak will give him the extra acceleration to tackle higher, more dangerous falls for the first time.Before this can happen, however, there’s a lot of work to do, and I joined him alongside Bray Lake, not far from his home, as he made refinements to his motorised kayak in preparation for future record attempts.
You may remember him from an episode of Top Gear in 2006, when he raced his jet-propelled craft along an Icelandic lake against Richard Hammond on the bank in a Land Rover Tomcat 4×4. That original, rough-hewn creation has been through several refinements since.
It consists of a 6½ft-long kayak with a one-gallon tank of petrol (pre-mixed with some oil) and a flattened two-stroke engine crammed into the base. Two intakes at the top of the kayak suck in air to light the petrol/oil mix in the carburettor. The engine then powers a jet turbine — similar to the hydro jets used in jet skis — at the rear of the kayak, which sucks in water then fires it out of the back, sending the kayak surging forwards.
In the finished version, the jet kayak will be able to switch to compressed air canisters inside the craft when the air intakes are submerged. Baker perches above the steaming hot engine, with only a layer of aluminium and his wetsuit for protection. Speed is controlled by a throttle on the paddle.
Remarkably it is still officially classed as a kayak, albeit a powered one. “We talked to the International Canoe Federation to find out exactly what a kayak is and what it isn’t,” explains Baker. “You must use standard equipment, and you can’t have steering mechanisms, just paddles or leaning.”
The genesis of Baker’s remarkable craft came over Christmas lunch about four years ago. In 30 years of taking kayaks to places they don’t belong, he had ridden his conventional kayak off the highest dunes in the Sahara and clocked up more than 20 “first descents” of waterfalls. He had also piloted a standard plastic kayak down some of the world’s most demanding ski slopes at 39.1mph to break the kayak land-speed record.
He’d done it all and he was bored. Then, over Christmas pudding, a friend had an idea. “I was desperate to up the stakes, and he just said, ‘Well, remember what Evel Knievel did when he wanted to get better? He put a rocket on the back of his bike and tried to jump Snake River Canyon. We could build the fastest kayak ever made.’ Eureka!” explains Baker. “We quickly realised you didn’t actually need a rocket, thankfully.”
And so the jet kayak was conceived. Baker teaches kayaking and one of his pupils, who was studying engineering at Brunel University, created the initial design for his final-year dissertation — but Baker is the only person who has ever dared to ride it.
In 2007 he and his team took the craft to Dorney Lake, Windsor, the traditional training area for Eton college’s rowing club, and grabbed the world record for the fastest kayak paddled — a consistent 25mph over 100 metres.
He’s now looking for extra sponsorship — he estimates he needs £100,000 — to make his invention even faster. If all goes well, he could make a record-breaking leap of more than 100ft within the next year.
He won’t name which waterfalls he’s planning to tackle specifically “because there may be access problems”. Basically he may get into trouble. But, he says, to begin with he’s “looking at the rockier rivers in north Wales and Snowdonia”.
“Do I look worried?” he adds, looking extremely nervous. “There are two hazards you will encounter when descending from a large waterfall. The first is the rocks below, and the second is what we call the towback, which is where you are kept submerged by the undertow and will find it very difficult to emerge.
“As you paddle off the end of a waterfall, there is a moment where your centre of gravity reaches thin air, but the rear of the kayak is still buoyant and held by the water behind you. If you are going too slowly, you will start falling vertically. The faster you go, the closer you can keep the boat at a horizontal angle and gain some momentum to propel yourself forward and away from danger.
“There is another risk in going that fast, though, which is landing completely flat. It’s like jumping out of a third-storey window and landing on your backside in the driveway. Spinal compression is an injury I don’t want to experience again.”
Yet even with these horrors in mind, Baker is drawn irresistibly to the ultimate challenge of Niagara. These giant falls, which straddle the border between the United States and Canada, have never been conquered in this way, and if he is to succeed in his mission it will take years of planning.
Baker is already thinking through the logistics. “One guy tried it in a canoe when I was out there recently, and he was very confident, but he drowned. It’s been done in a barrel, and even then you’re getting underwater and you can sometimes be in there for hours. They build in an air supply, which obviously you can’t do in a kayak.
“You’d need to build in an aerofoil system so you can actually fly through the air, and from that sort of height — 160ft — you’d need it, trust me. If you get caught in the towback, you drown. That’s it. But yeah, it’s possible.”
Jet kayaking is not a comfortable sport. “It burns me all the time,” Baker admits. “My legs are resting inches from the engine and the pipe quite often melts through 5mm of wetsuit. But the ‘electrocutions’ are the worst. When we raced for Top Gear . . . I was getting water over my legs, which then sent the circuit through me instead of the spark plug. Tens of thousands of volts through my butt and out through my arms. It caused me to grip the throttle involuntarily, so I was going through an iceberg field at top speed — 25mph. I won, but these things kind of stay in your memory.”
Yet, for all its faults, Baker’s invention works. The assembled gang of engineers and crew alongside the banks of Bray Lake frown as he putters out onto the glassy water and revs the engine hard — “If that engine goes, it’s not just bits of metal we’ll be seeing, it’s bits of testicle,” I hear someone mutter. But with a roar, and a considerable bow wave, he sends ducks quacking indignantly to cheers of approval from a watching crowd