Updated October 2021
• Other IKs
• Full review: Shipwreck ArrowStream Full DS
• Guest review: Aqua Marina Tomahawk Air-K 375
• Paddling with a Yakkair Full HP2
• Preview: Advanced Elements AirVolution
• Preview: Decathlon X500
• Preview: Gumotex Thaya
• Preview: Gumotex Rush
• Preview: Advanced Elements AirFusion
• Preview: Aquaglide Chelan 155
• Buying direct from China
As predicted here years ago, eventually someone was going to find a way of making a decent inflatable kayak entirely from dropstitch panels. Something a bit more sophisticated than a SUP board or the three-plank bathtub, below left. As things stand, with a couple of innovative exceptions, most Full Dropstitch (FDS) IKs are made with three panels.
There’s more interest in FDS than ever, because buyers view them as superior to a traditional round tubed IK. But this technology is still in its infancy with a lot further to go. Certainly they’re miles better than just about any low-end, low-psi Sevylor or Intex, nor do they have the days-long drying issues of your Shell & Bladder IKs (but see below). And right now you can buy a two-seat, obscure-brand, China-made 3-panel FDS for just £600, including paddles and pump, or a SUP-with-a cockpit-cavity for under £300.
Some Solo/Tandem FDS IK specs
|52lbs 23.5kg||4.5m 14.5′||94cm |
|10 psi |
|BIC Yakkair |
|Sea Eagle |
|ZPro Drift||24.8 |
What is Dropstitch?
For the full story on dropstitch (DS) click this. Short version: a dense mass of non-stretch ‘space yarn’ is magically stitched between two fabric sheets at thousands of stitches per square metre.
The dimples you see on an inflated panel surface are the space yarn inside, under tension, a bit like on a mattress. Once the outside of the sheets are coated with PVC and sealed round the sides, on inflation you get a stiff, board-like panel. The huge popularity of much more easily made iSUP boards in recent years has helped advance DS technology, and an FDS can end up nearly as stiff as a hardshell while packing into a bag, like a regular IK, even if there’s more to a kayak than that.
When inflated via a raft valve, this panel can withstand much higher pressures than a normal round-tubed IK. We’re talking up to 15psi (1 bar) which is four times more than even the firmest tubed IKs. In fact, on an FDS IK, half that is plenty, as you’re not standing on it, like a SUP.
It is the ability to make a stiff form from an inflatable chamber which has long been the weak link with traditional tubed IKs, especially once lengths increase. Floors made of parallel tubes need I-beams in place of space yarn to make a flat, wide floor. But I-beams are expensive to assemble and – without pressure release valves (PRVs, more below) – are vulnerable to damage or rupture if over-pressurised through neglect or when left out in the hot sun.
Running 8-10psi, dropstitch technology eliminates the longitudinal sagging commonly experienced under a single paddler’s central weight in a longer, old-style boat (below). This rigidity enables sea kayak-like lengths of well over 4 metres (13′) which adds up to more room inside as well as a much better glide (less propulsion effort). It’s the same energy saving gained by pedalling a pushbike with properly inflated tyres.
Most full dropstitch (FDS) IKs are made of three flat panels, resembling a simple three-board wooden canoe (left).
On a regular IK, round side tubes up to 30cm in diameter take up a lot of space inside. DS panels are typically just 10cm/4″ thick while retaining all the benefits of tubed IKs: light weight and buoyancy. The only downside seems to be bulk: there’s up to four kilometres of space yarn in a typical 4.5-metre FDS. Add stiff PVC which is hard to roll up and an FDS ends up twice as bulky as a similar-sized tubeless rubber boat. Nevertheless, dropstitch is at least as effective as using metal frames to support saggy IKs. In my experience this is a poor solution.
Dropstitch in IKs actually started as easy-to-fit DS floors (derived from iSUP boards) with round side tubes retained. These are still popular and are now called hybrids; seen by some as the best of both worlds. But all the boats on this page are Full DS. See image below for the three types of IK: tubed (bladdered – can also be ‘tubeless’); DS floor (‘hybrid’) or Full 3-panel DS. There are also SUP FDS IKs; see below.
Floors: Read This
Broadly speaking, 3-panel FDS IKs are assembled by gluing the three DS planks into a wrap-around envelope of PVC which holds the panels in a boat-like shape and which offers additional protection from wear and abrasion.
Some floors are removable, a bit like a footbed slips into a shoe. This makes the hull skin’s inner floor accessible for easy cleaning, rinsing and drying before storage: an important part of IK care. Not everyone may see drying as the deal breaker I make it out to be. Much depends on where you live in terms of climate and storage space.
Less good but almost universal is a DS floor permanently glued to the floor skin but not fully sealed to the side panels. See the two images above: at the bow and stern where the tape stops, water and debris can get down in the cavities. A drain valve helps water to run out of the cavities when flushing before deflating. Some boats feature several capped drains along the sides, which is odd, or a ‘more-looks-better’ marketing gimmick as one will do, same as your bath has one plug hole.
These multiple drains are not self-bailing ports, no matter what clueless vendors may claim or owners may think. Open the drains when afloat and the boat will part-fill with water for sure. Until I realised this, I was baffled by these drains. So it seems were actual owners.
Bluewave Gliders are like this, so are Allroundmarin, Sea Eagle RazorLite, Tomahawk, KXone, Shipwreck and anything else with the telltale drain ports. Even hybrid IKs like the Aquaglide Chelan have multiple (but closeable) ‘self-bailing’/drain valves along the sides of the floor.
Such a boat is nearly as much of a pain to dry properly as the bladdered IKs I go on about. There will always be moisture in the long, inaccessible side tunnels along the floor edge which you will struggle to dry properly. Proper rinsing and drying matter if you want your IK to last a long time, especially after you’ve been at sea when sand and other debris can get in the boat. Seawater causes mildew, staining, odours, so does trapped organic matter, while in the long term, trapped grit might rub unseen against the soft PVC until it wears right through (this will probably take years).
A theoretical way to eliminate these issues is by fully sealing or ‘wallpapering over’ the floor gaps: usually the bow and the stern as shown in green above. To drain and dry such fully sealed boats, you simply flip them over to shed the excess water, then deflate, spread out and wipe dry, just like the round-tube Grabner on the left.
A boat modified like this would have no crud-trapping, moisture-retaining cavities. The flaw with this idea would be the air trapped in this sealed-off cavity would make the boat impossible to pack compactly: like trying to roll up a partially deflated inner tube. It needs a breather hole: a simple plug would work. Pull out the plug when deflating, plug up once inflated to keep water out.
Fyi: this is all hypothetical but an Italian chap with a BIC told me he had just this problem: gravel and grit collecting in the cavities. One solution of his was to stuff the openings with a dense sponge. Water may still get in but bigger grit won’t. Good idea.
For the moment it seems most manufacturers are happy to settle on removable floors or fitted floors with drains, just as some buyers are either oblivious or contented with bladdered IKs, despite their greater drying issues.
Actually their is a worse option: supposedly ‘self-bailing’ FDS IKs which have little side cavities on the edge of the fitted floor and simple drain holes in the outer skin. There are no closable drain valves.
The tellingly unused and unbranded FDS IK (left) I saw on eBay was like this. I had to check with the seller as there were no photos of the floor. Within an hour it sold for £700, but once on the water the new owner will find their boat filling up from below. It may only be a couple of inches, but that water will slosh back and forth as you paddle along, adding several kilos of weight and upsetting stability. You could easily tape up the holes in the outer skin, but this is why what look like FDS bargains come unbranded and without guarantees. No brand would risk doing it this way and get hammered by returns or negative customer feedback.
One benefit of having the floor panel separate above the PVC outer skin is you can stick a thin inflatable tube in there to give the hull more of a V-shape. The AirTrek FLex 465 by DS Kajak (and possibly the same-but-different KXone FLex) have these optional shallow inflatable keel tubes (‘AirBone‘) under the removable but clamped-down floor which you can easily inflate by mouth via a loose hose. It changes the hull shape from flat to V. More speed and a bit less stability is what they claim, and you can easily deflate the keel tube on the move if conditions get iffy.
An FDS IK’s barge-flat floor is one of its less good features, so this sounds like a clever idea. And as said, the floor is removable so everything can all be cleaned and dried easily. Sounds like a win-win to me. See the video below or here.
SUP IKs: the other type of FDS
In 2020 Advanced Elements came up with the AirVolution innovation (left): more or less wrapping two SUP planks together, the top one having a central cockpit aperture and set at a bit of an angle to make a tiny space between the two slabs and to help water run off.
Most others like Aquatec, Sandbanks and the inexpensive GoPlus are simply two sandwiched SUP panels with no cavity in between, and with a cockpit cavity built into the top panel. Each panel or chamber has its own raft valve.
Immediately these FDS SUP Sandwich IKs give an impression of greater stability compared to some of the slimmer, boxy FDSs above, but as a cost of interior storage. As a day tripper, that may not matter to you. You might even be able stand up in them and SUP along, if that appeals. They’ll be dead easy to get back aboard, that’s for sure.
Another good thing is that the two layers are sealed along the insides, leaving no annoying cavities to retain water and grit to complicate full drying. Just flip them over to drip-dry then wipe, or use the floor drain which some have if turning the kayak over is not possible.
Like the boxy FDSs, these two-chamber FDSs have next to no rocker (longitudinal curve, like a banana), but for swiftness and agility in choppy conditions you want to hope the floor somehow creates a bit of a boat-like profile. The AE AirVo’ on the left appears to have a less wide floor board, but that would work well enough and once wrapped in PVC ends up not much different in profile from my all-tube Seawave.
The orange GoPlus does have an upturned bow but is otherwise flat as a board. That boat has a single chamber hull with the cockpit cavity built in and a sheet floor, like a packraft. You then fit the separate DS floor panel. There’s no drain but it will be easy to clean and dry.
As with all IKs with DS floors, you’ll be fitting on a hard surface and so the seatbase becomes more important. A think bit of foam won’t be comfortable for long; an inflatable cushion or similarly soft foam will improve matters and also set you higher for a better paddling posture. raised seats can add instability, but at a yard wide at the water, that ought not be an issue with these SUP FDS IKs.
Tracking (going straight)
Just about all of these FDS IKs come with an easily fitted slot-in skeg or tracking fin that’s often as tall as Flipper’s flipper. Like a fixed keel or rudder, they help the boat go straight. Some even have more than one under the assumption that again, more must be better. A tall skeg will drag in the shallows and the boat can’t easily be sat on flat ground without stressing the fitting. But a skeg is easily trimmed – or you can buy a spare and cut it down for shallow paddles. More about skegs here.
FDS boats also feature rigid moulded bow and stern pieces (below right) to help slice through the water. This is typically a weak point on broad-nosed tubed IKs (below left).
Hardshells and conventional tubed IKs can also have a curved hull in both axes: laterally, and bow-to-stern-curve which is called rocker. The more banana-like the longitudinal profile the more rocker and the easier the boat turns and rides over waves.
With the formed bow and stern pieces, box-like profiles and plank-floors, an FDS IK has zero rocker, meaning these boats track well but are hard to turn without a rudder. Many owners report that they glide as straight as an arrow, a real problem with cheapo low-psi vinyl IKs with no skegs which sag, giving too much rocker. One French KXone owner admitrf that after a year of use… ‘It always wants to go straight, even without the skeg‘ and he’s thinking of installing a rudder. Another reviewer from the US says: ‘The 393 RL tracks very well, almost too well. I trimmed 3″ off the skeg for better clearance in shallow water and it still tracks straight and true. It’s easier to turn now as well, another nice improvement.’ Here’s another short review from the UK.
This was my experience too with a DS-floored Moki II and the FDS Shipwreck, but on the latter it was much improved by removing the skeg. The boat’s firm hull innately tracked well enough.
FDS IKs are still crude box shapes because, excepting the Decathlon X500, making anything other than flat DS boards is too complicated and expensive. The design and handling of these FDS IKs are limited by these constraints: high sides, flat floor, no rocker. Add the fact that the hard floor can make them as uncomfortable to sit on as a hardshell, but when adding a foam seatbase, stability can take a knock.
And the flat floor and box profile may make edging – leaning on one edge as you turn or to counterbalance on waves – trickier. You’d need thigh straps to do this, although I never got that technical with the Shipwreck. This Tomahawk owner said his boat’s initial (or ‘primary’) stability was a bit shaky, but once on edge was quite stable and took a lot to tip right over. This was on flat water. In more kinetic conditions things can happen too fast for you to react.
Pressure release valves
It’s notable that there are no PRVs on most of these FDS boats, presumably because the very high density of space-yarn means they can handle over-pressurisation better than an I-beam floor where the stresses are more concentrated. The two-panel 2020 AE AirVolution is one exception.
Otherwise, better branded FDS IKs have clear warnings at the valve not to exceed recommended pressures (left). Some claim DS panels without PRVs won’t last as long as I-beams with PRVs. Much will depend on the quality of the original manufacture/assembly, maintaining the correct pressure and where possible, leaving the boat in the water on hot days to keep things cool.
These boats’ smaller volumes also means they’re quicker to inflate than a regular IK, although the effort in reaching 10psi requires a barrel pump. Tall and slim barrels work better than short and fat: it’s this shape and not the volume which counts. A 4.4m FDS side panel can be filled to 10psi in just a minute; allow a bit more time for the floor.
Footrests & Decks
Not for the first time I see my ideas adopted by manufacturers ;-). In Sea Eagle’s and Airkajak’s case it’s a simple footrest tube with an adjustable strap which I came up with a years ago! It’s so much simpler and more versatile and effective than the mushy pillows still used by Gumotex. KXone and Gliders and Shipwreck use a padded strap. Would you have padded pedals on a pushbike?
In any type of kayak, a footrest helps you connect with the boat, execute efficient strokes and not slide down the seat as you do so. And as an IK doesn’t have the benefit of a hardshell deck to brace knees off, a solid footrest is all the more useful.
KXones may come with optional removable decks. Once you realise this boat is as rigid as a sea kayak, adding a deck (or at least some sort of deflector at the front) may be a good idea for managing bigger waves. A regular IK will bend up and over the waves; a stiffer FDS IK will cut through them and may swamp, especially if loaded.
IK World ran a comparison between her old style DS-floored Sea Eagle FastTrack and the 393 solo Razorlite, as well as giving a fuller review of the 393. You may like to scroll down and read some of the readers’ comments about issues and returns they’re having with early RazorLites (the very first FDS IK). She mentioned the FDS boat was less stable, but to me the stability of the yard-wide FastTrack is beyond the pale.
About 76cm on the 473 is still 30-inches and I felt quite safe in my 69cm-wide K40 right up to the point when it was coming in over the sides (thigh braces helped greatly, I admit). Then again, the 83cm-wide FDS Shipwreck is actually more like 60cm at the waterline where it counts, and I (quite heavy and tall) found the 6cm-thick seat base made me feel very tippy. Removing the foam from the seatbase resumed normal service.
You notice Sliders and the BIC are much wider than a Sea Eagle RL, for example. This is because they’re pitched as SUP- IKs, in that you can stand in the boat (left). With the popularity of iSUP boarding, this is a clever gimmick. But sit-down paddling performance will suffer. Me, I’d sooner have as slim a kayak as possible.
Good on all these brands for upping the game with their takes on FDS IKs. It’s a big step in making IKs less ‘bloat’ and more boat. Many people commonly mistake them for hardshells.
Having spent years looking at loads of images and videos of all these boats, at the moment the 20-kilo DS Kajak 465 is the one I’d choose, except the massive bulk of these things puts me off. The removable floor aids proper drying and cleaning, it’s no wider but half-a-foot longer than my Seawave, and graphics-wise, it doesn’t give me a migraine. But €1200 is a bit of a gamble. The Shipwreck ArrowStream which I did actually try (review here) was half the price at the time.
Spotted a mistake or have something to add? Your comments are welcome below.