Tested: Sandbanks Style Optimal inflatable kayak review

See also:
Full drop-stitch inflatable kayaks main page
Advanced Elements AirVolution (similar design)

In a line
Stable, good looking and good value two-chamber full dropstitch IK.

• Reassuringly stable but not too slow
• Easy to get in and out
• Everything in the bag bar a buoyancy aid
• Effortless two-way Bravo SUP pump
• Capacious wheelie-rucksack bag
• Three-year warranty

• Usual budget paddles; a bit short too
• Minimal underdeck storage
• Thin, hard seatbases
• Floor-mounted backrest supports
• No footrests
• No repair kit included/listed online

What They Say
The Optimal is an inflatable, crossover kayak that truly excels in any water and is designed to feel just like a solid kayak and not compromise on performance. The Optimal will help inspire confidence in with a balanced rocker profile for speed on the flat and manoeuvrability in whitewater. The V-shaped hull is designed for stability and also helps the Optimal cut through the water effortlessly. The rounded stern sheds water easily, making it forgiving in moving water. There are luggage straps at the front and rear so it has plenty of room for dry bags and gear for your day on the water.  

  • Inflated: 427cm long x 89cm wide (14′ x 35″)
  • Deflated 105cm x 58cm x 30cm
  • Kayak 19kg
  • Maximum load 231kg
  • Three year warranty
  • Price: £769 [at time of review]

Thanks to Sandbanks Style for the boat loan

On the Quay

Based by Poole Harbour, established iSUP-board brand Sandbanks Style now offer a couple of full dropstitch (FDS) inflatable kayaks: three-panel ‘Explorer’ similar to the Shipwreck Arrowstream I tested, and this two-panel Optimal, also in solo and tandem lengths. The Optimal resembles (but is not a clone of) Advanced Elements’ AirVolution – as far as I know the first to use this design in 2020. The AquaTec Ottawa Pro (scroll down the linked page) is a similar design and can be found priced more closely to the Sandbanks.

These types of FDS IKs use two slightly folded dropstitch panels wrapped in a PVC envelope; a ‘clamshell’ design which creates a low cavity under each deck. The upper panel is more of an elongated ring; the aperture forming the cockpit you sit inside. It’s similar to Perception’s Prodigy 145 hardshell (right), a kayak design favoured by recreational paddlers who prefer IK-like ease of access over a fixed deck, but don’t want a tippier and more wind-prone canoe.

All tandem Sandbanks kayaks come with a pair of four-part 220cm paddles, a two-way, two-litre Bravo 100 SUP pump, a skeg and a huge wheeled bag to carry it all. The whole package for the Optimal double weighs nearly 27 kilos with room to spare in the bag. The rolled up boat itself seemed less bulky, or at least folded up more compactly than the Shipwreck. The turquoise/white PVC did have a nice, pliant texture which may have had something to do with it. The quality and feel of PVC varies greatly.

Inflation took about 7 minutes to reach an indicated 12psi on the pump’s gauge, which matched the reading on my handheld manometer. Using the 65-cm high pump means less stooping and was initially so effortless I thought I hadn’t plugged it in correctly. For the floor I flicked the switch to down-pumping only, but for the top chamber, with a better stance (left) I was able to reach full pressure using faster but more effortful up-and-down (two-way) pumping. I didn’t notice a deflation port on the pump to help suck the boat down for repacking, which is a shame. This is clearly a gangly iSUP pump which isn’t expected to be taken on the water.

Once inflated the top and bottom panels press together along the edges, sealing off a cavity with the outer hull envelope that wraps around the two panels (see graphic above). In this way it’s similar to my Seawave, making a side channel where water and debris can collect. The Optimal’s two panels may press together but water and debris got in the channel too. But, compared to most three-panel FDS IKs, you can directly access this part of the boat for proper cleaning.
Measuring up the inflated boat gave the dimensions below; at 440cm (14′ 5″) a bit longer, wider and heavier than what appears on Sandbanks’ website. Dividing length by width gives an LxW ratio of 4.78 which, compared to the table here prioritises stability over speed, though other factors, not least hull shape and rigidity as well as wind and waves, will influence the latter.

Thanks to glue-free heat-welding the whole high-pressure assembly is very clean with no untoward creases or anomalies. Only the black plastic end-cones stayed a bit deformed. I also noticed that after inflation the floor protruded a couple of inches on one side. But by the time I got back, a little hull flexing had realigned the two panels correctly. Underneath you’ll notice a ‘blister’ in the dropstitch (above right). This isn’t a flaw as some have thought, it’s opposite the floor panel’s inflation valve where there is no stitching.

Straight away you can see it’s not just two flat slabs of dropstitch, but a floor somehow folded up into a shallow ‘V’ to make a keel line (left) which, combined with the deep skeg, ought to ensure the Optimal paddles arrow-straight. The top panel has a similar downturn like the AE AirVolution, to ensure water run off the decks. These ‘clamshell’ angles create a space underneath each deck, but they’re too low to be of much use for storage.

At over 2.3 metres or 7.5 feet long and up to 50cm wide, the cockpit feels roomy for two adults. There are four D-rings on the floor for the backrest straps (but see below), with a four more rings up on the sides to counter-tension the backrests.
A side benefit of the cockpit’s overhanging side rim is you can easily pick up and carry the boat. If there are two of you, use the nicely padded carry handles at each end.

The floor’s shallow V is reflected inside, so any water will pool along the centre line and, depending on the boat’s trim, will run back towards the drain plug hole at the back of the floor. In my opinion this a bafflingly redundant and marginally effective gimmick that gets copied from boat to boat. Either flip the boat over to drain, or position the drain in the stern cone
A rear paddler could benefit from the back deck edge to lean on, and the front paddler might be able to use the edge of the front deck as a footrest. You might shove a folded bag under either deck, otherwise gear will have to go under the paddlers’ knees or on top of each deck, using the bungy cords. It’s a commonly seen and inexpensive ‘feature’ on IKs, but I’ve never thought it a great place to lash gear that’s hard to access once on the water. As it is, used solo, there would be enough room to stash a camping load low on the wide floor.

Seats are the usual light, stiff foam items, with four, two-point straps and brass-coated? clips to keep the backrest upright and get your position just right. The floor mounted D-rings for the forward straps would be better positioned on the sides, like the rear strap mounts, putting them in line with the direction of tension. Otherwise the backrest tends to pull down as you rest against it.

Thanks to these long straps I was able to fit the seat in the optimal rear-of-centre position for solo paddling, using all four of the higher D-rings on the sides, resulting in good back support. I knew the main problem would be the lack of a footrest and the ~inch-thick seatbase sat on a hard, 12psi floor; within an hour the backside and legs would be numb and the back sore from slouching. (I notice Sandbanks’ three-panel Explorers do come with footrests.) Expecting this, I’d brought an inflatable packraft seatbase to try-out, as well as a strap to rig up a footrest off the floor D-rings. Pushing off a some kind of footrest stops you sliding down the seat, so enabling a proper upright paddling posture.

The 220cm four-part, alloy shaft paddle weighs around 950g and has three blade-angle adjustment holes about 45° either side of flat. It will do the job in calm conditions, but the soft plastic blade easily deforms. Expecting a mushy budget paddle, I brought my own Werner paddle.

Underneath the stern goes the slot-and-peg skeg. At 20cm high, combined with the V hull, the Optimal ought to track like a TGV.
There’s no conformity label stating recommended pressures, payloads, CE stamp and so on, but I noticed a serial number (‘HIN’) at the back. This was a used boat, but there was no repair kit in the wheelie bag pocket, nor is a kit listed online, but the Optimal comes with a three-year warranty.

On the Water

Putting in at Salterns jetty on the northeast shore of Poole harbour, I had various plans for my test paddle. Maybe a five-mile run out through the narrow harbour mouth to Old Harry Rocks which I’ve been keen to revisit. Or at the very least, a lap around Brownsea Island; about the same distance.
But on the day a chilly, 20mph NNW wind reduced my options. Even a quick crossing to Brownsea would have made getting back tricky in an unfamiliar boat, especially as the peak of a spring tide would be running southeast with the wind by the early afternoon.

So I set off into the wind, heading towards Poole. Taking it on the nose with the Werner paddle was an effort, but with no fetch, the water surface was only a little ruffled and the Optimal cut through at a up to 4kph. But as soon as I turned a little off the wind the front was pushed round and required a lot of correcting (as would any buoyant and tall-sided IK on a day like today).
I reached the shelter of another marina where above me the wind whistled merrily through a forest of masts, and the orange windsock waggled about a few degrees below horizontal.

Here I decided to rig up a footrest strap to help brace myself in the seat and improve my draw, then set out with the four-part paddle. I could feel the blades flexing as soon as I left the shelter of the marina and had to dig in, and also found the 220-cm length a bit short; at 92cm or three feet, the Optimal is as wide as a packraft. These budget four-parters with riveted-on blades are great for beginners and mellow paddles, but over time the joints will loosen up, creating even more slack. After a few minutes I swapped back to my stiff Werner.

The wind flattened the water with no chop to speak of, so I tried paddling across the wind – tricky in any paddle boat. The deep skeg meant the bow pivoted downwind, requiring masses of correction. Better to know this now than when trying to get back from Brownsea Island with a train to catch, so I put that idea to bed. Any IK would have struggled to hold it’s line broadside to the gusting 20mph wind, but if the plastic skeg was trimmed to half its length I suspect the hull would be more balanced across the wind, while not sacrificing any tracking. This goes for any of the current crop of IKs with these overlong slot-in skegs. A spare skeg might cost a tenner, so the experiment poses little risk.

Turning the boat back into the wind was a huge effort; I was having to yank on my paddle from the middle to get it to turn. Once back on line I carried on up to some buoys and tried the boat downwind where it held it’s line well; the deep skeg and the flat water meant little weathercocking (back end coming round). As with any kayak, wavier conditions which momentarily lifted the skeg out of the water would have been a different matter.

I headed for a park on the north side of the harbour to hop out and see how the Optimal handled without the skeg. Coming back downwind, the boat tracked no worse than my unskeged Seawave might have done. You can’t paddle quite as hard while maintaining a straight line, but you can easily weave tight figure-of-eights in and out of some buoys. On a river with a current the added manoeuvrability (and clearance) without a skeg might be a better set-up.

I also inflated my packraft seatbase (left) to see if the raised position and air cushion would be more comfortable. But on the hard seatbase and floor, it merely wobbled around like a jelly and made things worse. I know from similar accessory pads for motorbikes that you want just enough air to support your weight, but on a surface with no give it just didn’t work. A better solution would be to add a foam block similar to what came with the Arrowstream (but which on that boat I couldn’t use as the raised height made it unstable).

The wind was blowing me in the right direction anyway, but I decided to take back control and slip into what maps call the Blue Lagoon, an inlet ringed by houses with private jetties. Maybe ‘Blue Lagoon’ was cooked up by estate agents; it’s dais this side of Poole Harbour has the highest density of Britain’s most expensive houses.

Appropriately, the tide dropping through the bay’s narrow entrance made accessing the Blue Lagoon tricky. I squeezed in along the edge of the current which was a good demonstration the boat’s agility and responsiveness. But once inside things were already getting too shallow, so I backed out and threw myself into the modest tidal race then ferried across it just to see if I could. Maybe the lack of a skeg (but with the footbrace) made this sort of manoeuvre easier.

I refitted the skeg and drifted south round to the lee side of my Salterns marina put in where all was calm as long as I kept close to the wall. Overall, with a skeg was better but as said, I’d try chopping a spare down by half.

After ticking off a few selfies with the camera balanced on a buoy, I only just made it back round the corner to the jetty against the funnelled tide and wind, then bounced over the clapotis to where the sea had already dropped a foot, exposing Poole Harbour’s notorious mudflats. As newbs on a foggy day back in 2005, we’d got caught out on one of my very first IK paddles in a Gumotex Safari. Tides? Mud? Oh, I see.

Once on shore the Optimal rolled up into the bag easily, though having both valves at the same end would make purging the air in one roll easier (or having a pump with a suction port). Had I the chance, I’d have rinsed it by resting the bow up on something, open the stern drain and then deflate the floor. This ought to give you access to the otherwise sealed-off side cavities where debris and water collect and, as I noted, sliminess had developed. Then hose from the top and most of it will flush out the drain hole before a wipe down.

It was a shame not being able to get stuck into a proper paddle to somewhere, but enjoyed my brief spin on the Optimal. For £769 – about £150 less than similar, heavily discounted Ottawa Pro doubles you might find online, and nearly half the price of the AE AirVolution, the Optimal is a solid double FDS which would work well solo once you add a footrest tube (easily done using the floor D-rings). Budget paddles and thin seats are what you’d expect at this price – as it is, comfortable seats are an issue with many IKs. But the boat looks well made and the pump is easily up to the job. Plus you’re buying from an actual UK shop you can go and visit, not some shouty, sell-it-all web-based entity with flakey customer service.

As FDS IKs go, I prefer the two-panel ‘clamshell’ design. It feels more sophisticated, or is dynamically no worse than the the masses of three-chamber FDSs which sell for a bit less. The crux is stability which most recreational IK users rightly prioritise (or soon learn to). The Optimal may have that to excess, but as I also found on that first paddle in 2005, better too much than not enough.

3 thoughts on “Tested: Sandbanks Style Optimal inflatable kayak review

  1. griffoutdoors

    Great review. Interesting explanation of the 2 panel vs 3 panel drop stitch construction. How did you find the 2 panel design of the Sandbanks differed from the 3 panel in terms of stability, etc (I think you said the Shipwreck kayak you previously tested was of the 3 panel design)?

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    Reply
    1. Chris S Post author

      Thanks. Much more stable than the Shipwreck, but that 3P was getting on for half as wide at the waterline. That should mean it’s quicker.
      Some 3Ps can be much wider of course, but, apart from lost storage capacity low down, I think 2P is the way to go for most users wanting FDS.

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