Alpacka v cheap PVC dinghy [video]

A few months ago, in the bleak Kentish winter, we paddled the part-frozen Medway River from Tonbridge to Yalding. Me in my Alpacka Llama packraft, Steve in his slick Feathercraft Big Kahuna kayak. You can check out the report and vid here, but the short version was he got hypothermia waiting for me so towed me to the end in a bid to warm himself up.
Now it’s a lovely warm Spring here in the UK and we returned to the Medway in new boats: me in my 2011 Alpacka Yak with my old Llama strapped over the bow for back-up. Steve in his new Intex Sea Hawk II bought off amazon for £31.49 plus shipping and free buyer relocation program. Here’s an amazon review which 6 of 7 people found helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Quality, 27 July 2010 By SF (England)
This review is for: INTEX SEA HAWK 2 This boat is very good quality, certainly much better than anything normally seen in seaside shops. It is made from thick vinyl and has safety chambers. Big enough for 2 adults. Recommended.
There you have it. Twenty and a half Sea Hawks for the price of one Yak. How bad can a cheap bloat be? My Yak weighs 3.3 kilos (7.3lbs) with seat, deck and pump. It’s 2.23m long, (so about the same as the Intex) but is 91cm wide – 8 inches less. Payload is say 130kg. More Yak stats here. 

                Intex Sea Hawk II
  • Weight                   6kg with pump
  • Outer length         2.36m (93″)
  • Inner length          ~160cm (63″)
  • Outer width          1.14m (45″)
  • Inner width           ~40cm (16″)
  • Payload                  200kg (441lbs) claimed
  • Rolled up bulk      Similar  to Alpacka

The Sea Hawk comes with rather flimsy looking oars (not paddles), rollocks, fishing rod holders, oar clip holders on the side, a front handle, but no seat. I imagine a rower sits against the front end facing backwards while the rear passenger merrily casts their rod. To paddle it packraft style requires raising a seat at the back so your paddle can reach the water easily. As you see in the vid above, this was easily done.
It’s easy to scoff (and in the vid, we do) but the Hawk is not the lame slab of 
plastic pool toy crap you might imagine. Like the amazon reviewer says, it’s pretty thick vinyl and interestingly, the hull is composed of two concentric chambers: an inner one as if it was grafted in from a smaller boat, with an exterior chamber welded around it. If you’re going to have two chambers for security on an inflatable, this is by far the best way to achieve it compared to some left-and-right chambered packrafts. Should an inner or outer chamber fail (could happen…) it leaves a less buoyant but still symmetrically stable and rowable boat. If you look closely at the picture below right showing the hole, you’ll see the Intex does appear to be a fabric base (cross threads) covered in a vinyl coat.  An Alpacka is made from similar but tougher fabric which does not stretch under pressure and so is more robust.
The reason for the huge price difference must be that Alpackas are hand made in Colorado, while everything from The Intex Corp is squeezed out of a tube from their factory in Xiamen, China. I bet they sell well over a 1000 Sea Hawks to every Alpacka.
Pumping up time with the stoop-over hand pump of the hull chambers and inflatable floor is say 5-10 minutes (there are no PRVs). And sadly here was where our review came to a premature end. Once on the water Steve’s outer chamber soon drooped and it wasn’t just down to the cooling effect of the water. We paddled a mile upstream with him stopping occasionally to re-pump until we got to Sluice Weir Lock. Here he tracked down the hole – a nick on the top of the outer chamber from the hedge trimmer he’s used to remove the annoying rod holders. So while a blob of Aquaseal cured, we played around on the Sluice chute and when the time came, set up my Llama to tow the flaccid Sea Hawk home.
On the way up we’d established that not surprisingly the Yak was faster than the Hawk, but not by a huge amount – and anyway my paddle blades were much bigger than Steve’s. Tracking was no worse than an Alpacka and yawing maybe less pronounced. We never got to run it down the chute but apart from width, I’m sure it would have managed just as well as the packraft – the slide (see the vid or this) is easier than it looks and the Yak took on no water. I dont think the blue double in the vid got off so lightly. In the Class II rapids of the Ardeche this July it may take some effort to position the Sea Hawk where you’d like as you’re not jammed in for good control like on a Yak (or a proper kayak), but canoes manage fine and anyway, it’s an inflatable so can take the knocks.
A comfy, day-long seating-for-paddling arrangement would take some doing and unless you put it inside, packing a load securely to the Intex may be a challenge compared to Alpacka’s nifty system. Rollocks and other points could be used. Steve’s already on it.
So, not a hugely conclusive test that will dictate the development of inflatable water craft for years to come, but getting to the point, durability and function are what it’s all about, no? An Alpacka may not be 20 times lighter, tougher, faster or better outfitted than an Intex, but where it counts, even twice as good is worth the premium. Or so I like to think. I suspect if I had heard of Intexes before Alpackas I may have saved a lot of money and wasted a bit of time getting one. You’d imagine that you’d feel safer in an expensive boat, but I could have managed that Scotland trip last summer in the Intex. Roman D discusses vinyl in a recent post and has a vid attached of some goofy Aussies going for vinyl-suicideBest thing with the Intex: price and double chambers; best thing with the Yak: comfort/support, weight, load carrying and spray deck (better WW-abilty).
Ardeche (left) end of July will be the reckoning, but perhaps the bottom line should be this: if you’re drawn to the idea of packrafting and touring but can’t stomach spending over $1000 on an Alpacka, a PVC cheapie is a great way to get on the water for next to nothing.

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