The idea of marrying the smarting pain and public humiliation of the grade-school game of dodgeball to kayaking in the Hudson River might not be how some people would craft America's next great sport, but Randall Henricksen has merged the two worlds anyway.
The Manhattan-based owner of a kayak store on Pier 40 (off Houston Street and the West Side Highway), Henricksen is the proud inventor of Kayabi, a waterborne version of dodgeball in which the players are, yes, all in kayaks and can use their paddles as catapults and shields.
"When people hear the words 'kayak' and 'dodgeball' in the same sentence, their ears really perk up," Henricksen says.
That was certainly true for one British expat.
"It was one of the best, most unusual events I've done in New York City," says Toby Storie-Pugh, founder of the nonprofit Expedition Everest. "There, in the shadow of the Freedom Tower, chucking a ball around in the river. It was just mayhem for 45 minutes. It was quite surreal. You have to pinch yourself."
Anyone who's ever played dodgeball will quickly ease into the rules of Kayabi. The game pits two 10-person teams against each other in an 80-foot-long "field" set off with specially made floating borders—the relatively sheltered waters just south of Pier 40, in this case. The game lasts for six seven-minute periods, with the teams switching sides at halftime.
"The intensity grows with each period," Henricksen says. "By sixth period spirits are high."
Each team designates "throwers" and "chasers"—as you might have guessed, the throwers are responsible for scoring points off the opposing team, while the chasers collect ammunition and relay them to the throwers. That setup eliminates one of the biggest criticisms of dodgeball: that it devolves into a situation where one or two naturally gifted bullies are simply pelting the weaklings.
"It really diminishes the advantage of being really athletic, and gives the less athletic a real role, letting them both play together in a way that is fun, and where everybody finds their position," Henricksen says. "And the less aggressive always become a little more daring as the game goes on." It also helps that, unlike dodgeball, players who get hit aren't out of the game, giving everyone an equal chance to play, and making for scores that are regularly in the hundreds.
"The kayaks remove any advantage that you get, if you're worried about bullying," says Bryan D'Alessandro, co-founder of the company United Purpose, a fan and occasional participant. "Everyone's a fish out of water."
Players score points by hitting players on the opposite team with semi-deflated playground balls that they can throw by hand or lob with their paddles. They get one point for hitting an opposing player or his or her kayak. If the target catches the ball, he or she gets the point instead. If he or she deflects the ball with the paddle, no one gets any points. Someone who hits a target who was off-sides gets two points. A ball is "dead" once it hits the water—i.e., no ricochets off the water— and there can be as many as 20 balls in play at one time.
"I thought it would be a bit of a laugh, but it was a surprisingly tough workout," says Storie-Pugh, who turned out to be a natural thrower. "It was all about quick movements, forwards and backwards; we had to calm down and pace ourselves after the first 10 minutes."
But it wasn't the exertion that worried D'Alessandro.
"Probably the biggest fear I had was the water, just because it's New York," he says. Once he was assured the river is much cleaner than it used to be, he jumped into a kayak and found himself picking up the game quickly.
"The element of strategy became evident really quickly, which led to team-building and working together—we had people with all different skillsets going at it," he says. "But it was being in Manhattan, surrounded by skyscrapers while sitting in the water … you've got this incredible connection to nature. The contrast between that and the chaos of the city was really cool." Henricksen hopes those kind of experiences will prove that Kayabi has the potential to become a global phenomenon.
"We see it taking off in a way that we'll be conducting national and international tournaments," he says. "We see it in marinas and colleges. We will have leagues for sure, and we're also going to be selling franchises starting in September."
D'Alessandro says it's an ambitious goal, but one that may actually have sea legs. "When I first heard about it, I thought, 'Why bring these sports that seem completely unrelated, even ridiculous, together?'" he says. "Do I think it's going to end up in the Olympics? No. But could it be a fun, popular game in beach towns and places with docks and marinas and water culture? Definitely."
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