After a decade or so are packrafts finally becoming a thing? Better known for their Slackrafts, especially Downunder (where Jeff dragged his Bestway Outdoorsman down the Fitzroy one time) check out the new for ’22 Bestway Hydro-Force Wayfarer packraft. You can mute the jaunty music as there’s not much you can tell from the short vid. A glancing close-up shows ‘fabric’ with distinctive embossed vinyl dimples – so not a fabric as such, just thick Inflatashield™ plastic? But do I see proper raft valves not just Bostons, as well as twin hull chambers (like a ROBfin) and an inflatable floor – possibly a separate mat? You’d surely need PVC fabric for those sorts of potential pressures. It certainly looks like it skims and yaws across the water more than a 1-psi-slackraft blob. It might even be a self-bailer. Bestway moving into PVC packrafts? It happened with Decathlon so why not. Expect Intex to follow soon and before you know it the mystique of exotic packrafts will be just a dream.
As it was with kayaks, so it is with packrafts. AE are the first to produce a solo and two-person packraft with a removable dropstitch floor.
For years packrafters have used the idea of shoving in sleeping mats as floors, and right now Anfibio sell slot-in Multimats to fit some of their boats. The idea is improved rigidity for a better glide, insulation for your legs in very cold conditions as well as raising your seating position for better visibility and paddle draw, stability notwithstanding.
One problem with a regular packraft’s plain floor sheet is that the weight of the paddler sags downwards (as above), making a wear-prone low point in shallow rivers as well as not doing wonders to a packraft’s glide, such as it is. Being at the heavier end of the human spectrum, one pre-emptive solution I used on my Alpackas was a double layer of floor fabric or ‘buttpatch’, as Alpacka called them. It meant I could scrape through shallow rapids, knowing the 840D floor was a little more protected withg another sheet of 840D. This is a bit less of an issue these days when packraft sterns are longer which means the solo paddler is more centrally seated and less back-heavy
The DS floors on the AE Packlite+ packrafts eliminate this sag with all the benefits stated above. And being a separate panel, you can choose to use it or not, if weight and bulk matters. The DS floor’s pressure is 4-6psi, clearly enough to stand up and paddle the raft like a board at 1.5mph. It also makes getting in easier, in that you can stand on the firm floor (left).
Despite the orange Prop65 warning label usually associated with PVC (for sales in California), these new packrafts are made from 210D TPU. Interestingly, the hull uses a high-pressure raft valve as opposed to the more common Boston valves, but this is probably to simplify inflation as the DS floor must use a valve like this, so they may as well be doubled up. It should mean the hull can hold a bit more pressure to make a really rigid boat. The boats also have about 14/20 attachment loops, carry handles and even a 530-cm TiZip for in-hull storage. Nice touch. Plus you get carry bag and barrel pump and the longer boat gets a skeg. Just as with IKs, I think a DS floor’s main benefit will be on longer packrafts like the tandem which could be used solo to make a fast boat similar to the MRS Nomad.
The Packlite+ AE3037 costs $899 and weighs 6.1kg, or 13.4 lbs (KG) and as little as 3.2kg with no floor or seat. It’s 99cm wide (39″) and 221cm long (7.25′).
The tandem Packlite+ XL AE3038 goes for $1199, weighs from 8.3kg ( 18.3 lbs) down to 4.4kg. It’s also 99cm wide (39″) and 3m (9.9′) long.
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
Maximum load 231kg
Three year warranty
Price: £769 [at time of review]. Early 2022: £849.00 sale £619.00
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.
Monday was the calm after the first big storm of autumn, a sunny day to packraft 8 miles along the Medway from Tonbridge to Yalding station. With recent heavy rains, I was expecting a noticeable current on the usually placid Medway whose flow is constrained by numerous locks.
I’ve been caught out on this river before by massively dropped water levels (usually during winter maintenance), so I remembered to check the river status on the website. Oddly it claimed all was normal, but the Medway was clearly up to the grass and I wondered if the five canoe chutes downstream may be closed. Oh well, each lock or weir has a handy low-level jetty so a little portaging will be some extra exercise. It wasn’t till I got back home that I saw they’d issued the warning you see above left.
The noise of the thundering weir at Tonbridge Town Lock put me on edge, and as I set off across the carpet of white scum the over-loaded weir had generated, I was mindful of the latest in a series of revelations about how much raw sewage gets dumped directly into English rivers and coasts by water treatment plants (it’s said fines are cheaper than treatment). A week ago it’s said public outrage had forced the government to reverse a vote against regulating raw sewage dumping. In fact, it seems intensive livestock production is a greater threat to healthy, biodiverse rivers. A few months ago activist George Monbiot exposed how the Wye (which we packrafted last spring) was choking to death from the effluent produced by cattle, pig and chicken installations in its catchment area. The brown, flood-charged brown waters swirling around me now took on a different meaning.
The Medway was moving like a proper unfettered river at a pace I’d not seen before. Small eddies, boils and whorls spun up to the surface at each bend or constriction, and occasionally the boat got pushed or pulled about.
On arriving at Eldridge Lock, the very shallow-gradient chute had burst its banks, so to speak, and was twice as wide as normal, with the metal edges of the channel hidden in the brown murk. A little taken aback, I was too focussed on keeping the packraft in line to take a photo. Once down, the powerful eddies belting out of the churning weir right alongside the chute took a bit of digging to get across, before carrying on downstream through the frothed-up scum. As a longer boat could have got crossed up and flipped over in the unconstrained chute, you’d think think they’d have closed it.
Downriver, the gate was closed on the Porters Lock chute, which appeared the same as normal and perfectly straightforward. With the base of the chute separated from the adjacent weir’s turbulence, I slipped under the bar, as I’ve done before, and shot the chute with ease.
The next two chutes at the similar East- and Oak Weir Locks were also unflooded if flowing briskly within their sides. But the gates were too low to slip under, so I rolled out of the boat and carried it down to the jetty.
With the strong current and a helpful back breeze, I got to the final chute at Sluice Weir in what felt like no time. Branches and other debris obscured the entry point which, even at the best of times, is difficult to nose up to to check the chute was clear without getting sucked in.
Because you never know what may be jammed half way down the chute until you tip over the edge, I decided to cross over to the jetty on the other bank and have a look before hurtling down.
Just as well as, although the chute was clear and running shallow within it sides, the thundering weir alongside span a back eddy clockwise right into the placid drop zone. The packraft would have almost certainly skimmed over to the flow, but as I was right by the put-back-in jetty, the ‘dare’ didn’t seem worth the risk. Messing about near weirs can end badly. Maybe it was a matter of timing on the day, but it seemed ironic that two potentially dodgy chutes were open, while the three straightforward ones were closed.
All that remained was the last mile or two to Yalding Weir and on down the short, deadwater canal to Hampton Lock for a wipe, roll up and the 14:40 back to London.
Once we were let out in the Covid summer of 2020, we did a very nice coastal walk from Hastings to Rye along the Sussex coast. Hot, but not so windy, it would have been just right for paddling. Today conditions were similar for a westbound transit from Rye back towards Hastings. High Water (and a spring tide too) was at a very reasonable noon in Rye, with a forecast of 8-14mph from the east and a bit of a kick at 3pm. I was hoping for the upper limit and a bit of splashy sport, so brought the WindPaddle I’d used on the packraft last month in Scotland in much stronger winds.
It’s only a 10-minute walk from Rye station to a boat ramp on the quay where the water was still inching up the concrete as I pumped up the Gumotex.
I was taking a gamble trying my untested new rudder set up. Because I expected it to play up, I fitted the stock skeg so I could lift a problematic rudder and carry on as normal without coming shore. To be without a rudder or skeg with a backwind at sea would not be ideal. Being the ever recirculating goldfish, I forgot to try out my sail stick mount idea.
Rye hasn’t been on the coast since 1287 or so when, along with gradual land reclamation, the biggest of a series of 13th-century storms filled the adjacent marshy inlet with silt and shingle which finished off semi-abandoned Old Winchelsea and radically redrew the low-lying coastline where the Kent and Sussex borders meet. It was the same in Pevensey to the west. The gif on the left from this interesting regional website shows how the coastline of southeast England was transformed in the late medieval era. Where the Rother river once flowed directly east to enter the sea at New Romney, the filled-in bay saw it diverted south below the old hill town of Rye, now stranded two miles from the sea. The then important port of Winchelsea was rebuilt on its present site in 1288, but eventual silting saw both it and Rye’s maritime importance decline. What this area may lack in epic spaces common to the north and west of Britain, it gains in fascinating history. 1066 and all that.
I set off along the River Brede which wraps around Rye’s south side like a moat, and soon joins the Rother. It’s about 5km to the open sea.
I’m into the wind but the grass banks are under water and the wind turbines are spinning merrily; all good signs.
Rye Harbour. The tide is high and I’m moving on.
In 45 minutes I reach the old breakwater opposite Camber Sands where I recall bucket & spading as a child. The sea looks depressingly flat.
Seals at the river mouth (a few days later).
It’s nearly 10km to the distant cliffs, a two-hour haul. And with the breeze from behind, I’m soon streaming with sweat. I’m not sure my water will last.
Going with the Flow A few years ago while planning Newhaven to Brighton, I learned an odd thing about Sussex and Kent tides. For the last two hours of the incoming (eastbound) flood, the tide keeps rising but reverses westbound along the English coast as it backs up at the Straight of Dover and spills back down the sides. That makes HW is around the same time in Folkestone, and 140 miles to the west, past the Isle of Wight, but HW at all the places in between lags behind. Tidal steams are not that strong here – wind will have much more of a bearing on paddling – but this means you get only four hours eastboundflow with the flood tide and prevailing southwest winds. But if you time your run with a warm easterly off the continent and go westbound– as I did on this occasion – you get a much longer run with the tidal current; eight hours or more; maybe 45km all the way to Eastbourne. The question is: can you paddle that long.
A breeze picks up so I flick up the sail. I check my GPS and am doing 3-4kph, while I can paddle at around 5-6kph. Then the breeze drops away. I wasn’t really planning to paddle the full 30+ clicks to Cooden station, but I can always get off at Hastings, a few stops before.
At least the rudder seems to working as it should, though any quick response is dulled a little by the skeg. A rudder’s not really needed in these conditions, though it compensates for me being blown gradually onshore. I’m trying a rudder lift-line only, not a rudder lowering line as well. But once in the boat I find I can’t turn enough to even see the lifted rudder to flick it down with the paddle, so I’ll probably fit a drop-line later.
I creep along the expanse of Winchelsea Beach. It’s hot work in a backwind. Eventually I reach the start of the cliffs where the coast turns more east-west, putting the wind directly behind me. But paddling at effectively wind speed, there is no cooling effect. More familiar with paddling at the other end of Britain, I’m not used to 27°C.
Then, as predicted, around 3pm the breeze picks up and I can get the sail up.
Paddling half a mile from the shore, initially it was hard to know if I’m moving and at what speed. So waking up the GPS screen was a handy way of telling if the sailing speed was worthwhile. With the odd gust I reach nearly 7kph, but average less than 5kph, a bit slower than paddling, but I’m not dripping like a leaky tap or needing to drink. In fact I could nearly doze off.
The cliffs inch by. This is the sea end of the Wealden sandstone formation, less high and steep than the better known chalky Seven Sisters to the west, or Dover’s white cliffs to the northeast. Both chalk cliffs are part of the same formation or bed, but when the land was squeezed and uplifted to the dome or hump was eroded away to expose the older sandstone below. This is what they call the Weald, and near Tunbridge Wells, East Grinstead and Frant, the weathered sandstone ridge produces small outcrops where I started rock climbing as a teenager (right).
I pass the Stade, the east end of Hastings where the cliffs drop back down. A few souls are enjoying the last day of summer on the shingle beach.
I keep going to the pier and decide to have a leisurely take out there. It’s gone 4pm so another 10km to get the train 6.15 from Cooden would be a rush.
Landfall by Hastings pier. Compared to the fabulous Summer Isles, for me these southeast coast paddles lack drama and interest, but are easy to reach if tomorrow’s weather looks good. We walked Hastings to Rye again a day or two later; it took about the same time and was more enjoyable (though it was cooler). The rudder foot pivot worked fine, though needed a bit of re-tensioning at the pier. Next time I can confidently leave the skeg off, though I can see a rudder would only be needed when sailing or paddling in windier conditions. That is all I have to say for now.
After doing so well with their budget IKs, Itiwit, Decathlon’s paddle sports brand, have entered the packraft market with the TPU Itiwit Adventure 500 Packraft. Complete with a 50-cm TiZip for in-hull storage, thigh straps and a ‘bikerafting’ deck, you pay 500€, were it available. The boat was launched online in August 2021, then withdrawn, some claimed due to safety issues (see below). It was online again in the UK when I wrote this in September. Now the UK Decathlon page is a ‘404’ again, although the boat appears online in European stores, ostensibly unchanged, but still unavailable. Rated at WW2, above left it looks mostly black but is actually ‘Dusty green / Blood orange’, as the action shots below clearly show. There’s an online manual here.
As with hardshells (especially sea kayakers) vs inflatables), there can be a certain ‘know-all’ snobbery, evident here too when a huge outfit like Decathlon – known for their keenly priced, own-brand outdoor gear – barge in on the cottage industry of packrafting. Those scoffers may like to look at Itiwit’s X500 IK; no one else has even got close to making an FDS IK like that, so it’s a mistake to assume Decathlon only bang out cheap crap for the masses. I doubt Itiwit sell many X500s, but from £260, I bet their wide-as-a-door budget IKs are the best selling budget inflatables in the UK, if not Europe. River-pootling, dog-in-the-boat recreationalists absolutely love them. Packrafts being pretty similar, the ‘Adventure 500’ will be popular too (as often, Itiwit are vague or inconsistent about model names.). At Decathlon you get a lot for your money and they are also helpfully on hand to clarify the difference between rafting and packrafting.
Size is 230cm x 90cm which is near identical to my Rebel 2K and a do-it-all packrafting standard, even if the image above left above suggests it’s some 13cm longer, assuming the width is 90cm. The claimed weight comes in at a hefty 3.8kg; that’s PVC packraft territory though includes all the kit shown left. There is no mention of TPU denier, tube diameter or internal dimensions, though they’re probably standard too. One reviewer even doubts it is TPU.
The carry bag doubles as a dry bag (like Gumotex IKs) but also works as the inflation bag via a tube. Three uses; quite clever if not weight minimalising. The packraft (and the bag?) has a regular Boston valve like Itiwit IKs, so you’d then use that tube or the boat valve to top up by mouth. Give it all you got: a firm boat responds much better on the water.
The bag and both valves state: ‘Maximal Pressure 1 psi / 0/07 bar‘ which is almost down to slackraft level, but there’s no way of telling when you reach that pressure. Like most well-made TPU packrafts, it ought to be able take a more than that and unless you’re Tarzan, you can’t over-inflate a packraft with your lungs. Left in the sun out of the water, dark green may heat up and raise internal pressures quicker than much lighter colours, though packrafts stretch better than IKs. I’ve not heard of a proper packraft blowing a seam due to overheating, unlike countless cheap PVC IKs. Meanwhile, the conformity label (below right) states a more realistic 1.5psi / 0.1 bar.
The hull’s raised lashing/carry straps look fairly chunky and will be easy to grab from the water. But despite what is claimed, the ‘deck’ can’t keep out splashes over the bow; they’ll just stream right into your lap, even if it does appear to make a good platform for a bike. Good on Itiwit for recognising the appeal of bikerafting (on social media, at least). It will all help potential buyers ‘get’ packrafting.
The inclusion of thigh straps (badly translated as ‘knee pads’) seems odd, given the boat’s profile and implied WW2 use. It suggests Itiwit misunderstood the product, or tried to be a bit too clever with added features. Thighstraps definitely help when using any inflatable beyond Grade 2 white water – ie: when some skill and technique must be applied alongside raw nerve. But realistically, you’d need a proper sealed deck or a self-bailer to tackle such conditions. This boat will be swamped after the first couple of rapids.
It was pointed out that the small sprung-gate snaplinks aka: karabiners (‘biners’ or ‘krabs’) used to attach the straps to the hull are an entrapment hazard. Rock climbing practice has long recommended using screw-gate (locking) krabs on the climber’s harness, even if loads of sprung-gate (open) krabs are dangling off it, attaching the gear. Below from the manual: orange krabs at the front, black by the seat. Rationale unknown, but may become so on seeing the actual boat.
A few years ago I recall Alpacka’s founder was reluctant to introduce any type of thigh strap (however attached) to her growing range of white-water packrafts. Iirc, Alpacka even experimented (unsuccessfully) with strap-free knee blocks. A hardshell creek boat has them under the deck to help triangulate your body and transform control from the hips. For gnarly white-water, surf and not least rolling, straps are pretty much essential on appropriately decked (or bailed) IKs and packrafts. Elsewhere they’re just not needed as unlike an IK (not least a boxy FDS), a packraft is a cozy fit round the hips and against the back and feet, providing bracing and connection like a well-laced running shoe. While inadvertently getting your pfd straps hooked to the Itiwit’s mini sprung-gate krab is faintly possible while getting rolled around in a Grade-4 stopper, it’s much more likely with full-size krabs. Thigh straps are the bigger entrapment hazard, as is any loose, foot-trapping rigging on a boat, on top of the many other ways of coming to grief on eaux vivant. In more sedate flatwater paddling scenarios, regular open krabs are a handy way of quickly securing stuff; my boats have several, though I find myself using corrosion-free SoftTies more and more. Go ahead and fit screw-gate/locking krabs or a chunky re-usable SoftTie; your entrapment risk will not be eliminated if you get in trouble. For normal packrafting, I’d simply remove the straps to reduce the clutter.
Though not mentioned, there’s a line of adjustment tabs on the floor, possibly footrest mounts for shorter folk? But no backrest, which are largely redundant on a packraft anyway. Under the deck is some tensionable elastic cord to stash your carry bag up out of the way once on the water. Nice touch, or another entrapment hazard? Lord oh lord, what a minefield!
There’s also what looks like a whole lot of buoyancy at either end, though they rate it at 125kg; boater with gear. Then again – unlike with IKs – when’s the last time anyone ever rated a packraft’s buoyancy? It’s such a vague metric and as it is, I’m not sure I’ve ever come close to 125 kilos; camping with a bike may push it to that limit. More impressions when/if one turns up at my local Decathlon store.
One problem I’ve had sailing my Seawave is the sail tends to sway ever more violently from side to side when the wind gets too strong. This is not just a problem with the WP disc sail I now use (left); it was the same with the Pacific Action V-Sail I used on my Incept K40 in northwest Australia a few years ago. Unable to transfer the wind energy into forward motion, it instead spills over the sides in a flapping frenzy.
It’s well know these downwind sails (especially smaller ones) have a limit of about 15-20 mph beyond which they flip out. But lazily hooking up the WP to my Seawave’s decklines introduces a lot of slack (left) which may exacerbated the swaying. It was only when trying the similar AirSail and later my WP on my packraft in Scotland (at one point with gusts as strong as Australia) that I realised lashing the sail mounts close to the hull eliminated the swaying. At least on a broader bowed packraft.
Out sailing the Seawave the other day, I belatedly succeeded in tensioning the decklines on the water with some ever versatile SoftTies (right). As you can see left, that worked OK but annoyingly it wasn’t as windy as I’d hoped, and not enough to get the WP in a flap.
I’d forgotten to try my stick idea. Whether you use the deck cover on not, you can fix a transverse stick securely under the Seawave bow’s velcro flap and, with another couple of those nifty SoftTies, closely fix the WP to the stick. (I’ll be keeping an eye out for a nice bit of ally tube to replace the weathered old bamboo). Required work and added weight: negligible and it may work on other IKs, too. Something to try for next time.
Nicely shot vid with drone footage of an Ozzie father and son’s tough, 250-km paddle and portage through Alaska’s Brookes Ranges in a pair of Advance Elements Expedition Elites. After getting dropped off at Summit Lake on the Continental Divide (see map, right), they followed the Koyukuk River south, with a plan to climb the 7500′ Mt Doonerak, Alaska’s ‘Matterhorn’, not far from the river and 20 miles west of the Dalton Highway. With extra gear piled high on the decks, you do wonder if this made the 4-metre Elites unstable in what looked like relatively easy but shallow white water. That led to a couple of capsizes and the loss of the crucial sat phone. Other dramas ensue.
Rather like sails where I Made My Own, lost interest, then returned with a proper WindPaddle, after five years I’ve come back to the idea of fitting a rudder to Seawave 2. Mostly, this was inspired by a much simpler pivoting footrest tube idea from fellow Seawaver Jules, replacing cumbersome and bulky foot pedals. A rudder ought to make the Seawave more useable in a slightly greater range of conditions, including sailing which I tried again recently.
I could have bought the Gumotex rudder kit for just £219, but as always it’s more fun to piss about for hours and days on the pretext of saving money and conjuring up small improvements. IKs sit higher than hardshell kayaks, so I coughed up 25 quid for the longest rudder mechanism I could find on ebay: 510mm. It weighs 550g. The stern-mounted rudder plate started as a slab of was a chopping board, then became an aluminium plate additionally located with velcropads, as Jules and Gumotex use. I found secure clamping of the rudder mounting plate to be important to stop it turning on its axis. There is perhaps more torque on the mount than might be expected when a rudder blade tries to turn a 4.5-m boat. As you’ll see I ended up making a Mk 3.1 rudder mount in a mixture of soft and hard chopping board, as well as a Mk 3.2 in aluminium. There’s a 20g weight difference. Another bright idea idea Jules had was running the rudder lines out of the way under the deck velcroflap and inside thin tubing. That largely eliminates any exposed lines. I also liked his idea of controlling the rudder by pivoting a drainpipe footrest tube from the centre, eliminating the need for cumbersome foot pedals. Overall the whole mechanism: rudder, mount and clamp (220g), cords and tube (50g), adds up to less than a kilo and under £50 (some bits I had already). Eliminating foot pedals was the main saving in weight and bulk.
Mk3 Rudder for Seawave 2
Ebay rudder assembly from £20
Piece of HDPE chopping board, 3mm x 400mm x 60mm, aluminium bar, or similar
Hand clamping knob and nut
6 metres of PVC (or PTFE) pipe with 5mm internal diameter
11 metres of 2mm Dyneema cord
4-inch ø x 30cm plastic drainpipefootrest (if not used already)
2 metres of 25mm strap
A few mini snaplinks, fish snaps or similar
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Knob for rudder lift, cinch locks and clamcleats
Footrest I already use a drainpipe as a fixed footrest. At 25cm wide, another 5cm would still fit between the Seawave’s sidetubes and may give a bit more finesse and leverage to rudder steering. If this proves the case with mine, it’s an easy swap. Drill and/or hot-knife in two adjacent slots in the middle and feed the strap through. You must fix the footrest to the strap so there’s no slippage. A big knot inside will do. Thread the strap’s loose ends through the stock footrest attachments buckles on the boat’s floor. You can now easily re-position the footrest tube forward or back for tandem or other sized paddlers. This is handy whether you use a rudder or not. While fine in the straight line along the hull top, putting a bend in the soft PVC tubing down the insides of the hull caused too much drag on the lines. So to avoid wear on the grey Hypalon, I just chopped the PVC tube back and stuck on some tape. (As you can see I need to add another strip for the tandem position). It’s probable the harder PTFE tubing Jules used causes less stiction, but having the rudder line exposed near the footrest-pivot make adjusting clamcleats and cinch locks easier.
I stumbled on quite a fast and easy way to fine tune or readjust the footrest pedal tension: inline clam cleats (or cam cleats or rope locks) which I came across during my V-Sail experiments years ago. Feed the line through as shown below; centre both rudder and footrest, then cinch up and you should be good to go. Once you’ve established the right line length through the cleat for a certain fixed position, it can help to ‘memory mark‘ the cord (as I did in red). Though I bet once I get on the water and use the rudder a bit, they’ll go off alignment, so probably better to wait till then.
You need enough rudder line slack to slide the whole pedal-footrest forward about a foot when paddling two-up. Loose ends can be tidied away with cinch locks. Eleven metres of Dyneema cord is enough to do this job on a Seawave, including a single rudder lifting line. (To push and drop the rudder too you’ll need another 3m.)
Rudder mountplate The 10mm red chopping board I bought was actually quite bendy (LDPE, not HDPE?) compared to other bits I realised I had all along. The less play in the rudder system the more responsive it will be; an IK’s stern mounting is mushy enough. This time round I copied Gumotex’s idea of using small velcro pads to stop the rudder twisting on it’s pivot-clamp axis. Initially lacking stick-on velcro, I glued plain velcro, using the PU glue from the Gumotex repair kit. For one-part glue, it seemed to fix the velcro pretty well but if not, some sticky-back came in the post.
I knew from last time I made a rudder the under-plate shape helps eliminate pivoting of the mount, but you can draw out the truncated triangle by simply tracing the converging top seams at the stern, then make the under-plate from whatever you got. I used a bit of plywood: jam it in snugly, mark the point under the stock drain hole, remove and drill. I glued and taped a nut to the back of the ply and added a bit of string to help pull the under-plate out.
I would have rather made the rudder top mount plate from ally but with little more than a hacksaw and a kitchen stool, lacked the tools to do a neat job. Then, while waiting for parts to arrive, I realised it was possible to buy ‘aluminium bar off cuts’ on ebay (right). Using the word ‘bar’ was the key. This place, or others like it, sell various sizes, including 3mm x 400 x 60mm for 7 quid.
I’m pretty sure most kayak rudders come with a 48-mm pivot pin of 9mm ø. Or was it originally 3/8″s, which is 9.5mm? The pin slips into a 10mm gudgeon swivel sleeve/tube. Some hardshells have this tube moulded in the stern; on an IK it must be built into the rudder mount plate. Above left, you can see Jules (as well as Gumotex) integrate a gudgeon swivel tube into the end of the mount plate; a tricky thing to do accurately with a just a hand drill, though Jules’ thick plate makes it a bit easier. On my Mark 3.1 white HDPE mount, I glued layers of the old red LDPE into a block of plastic, then drilled a 10mm hole which works OK.
When it comes to an ally rudder mount, online you’ll find stainless steel kayak rudder pivot ‘C’ brackets for a fiver. They weigh 57g and are usually screwed to the vertical stern of a hardshell, replicating the gudgeon tube. Even though they’re only a fiver, it seems impossible to buy these from anywhere else but the Far East, and it would be more than a fiver’s work to fabricate that shape from hard stainless steel. I bought a pair anyway; they arrived in a fortnight, but hole diameters (not stated in the advert) were 11mm, meaning 2mm of play with my rudder pin which feels too much. Oh China, your poor manufacturing tolerances let me down! So I glued on some 10mm washers to eliminate the slack. I’d have been better off making something after all. It had occurred to me I could have bent my 400-mm piece of 3mm ally into a full ‘C’, either curved round a pole, or bent on an edge at two right angles, as up above left in cardboard. Tweak the alignment and precisely drill two 10mm holes and the rudder swivel mount and plate are all one piece. In fact, that 3mm alloy plate I bought was pretty stiff, so I settled on a simple L bend (and without a vice, even that wasn’t perfect), then glued and bolted on the Chinese ‘C’ bracket.
Rudder pulley Rudder blades have a hole in the back so the pulley can lift and lower the rudder near a shore. For the moment I’ve decided to keep things simple and only use a single lift line, not a doubled-up line (another 3m of cord needed; 14m total) to lower the rudder as well. I intend to use the paddle to reach back and flip the rudder into the water. If that is a poor idea, I can easily add a two-way rudder line. On packing up I realised this line needs to be in two sections if the rudder and plate are to be easily removable when rolling up the boat. The join can be at the back near the plate. As you can see I ran out of Dyneema and used an orange shoelace.
I fitted the lift line along the sides, using the deck support rib tabs and running through spare bits of tubing to avoid wear and aid smooth running. I fitted a tension-adjustable knob at the hand end of the lift line on the left, though anything will do. Pull forward six inches to lift the rudder. Flip the rudder back down with the paddle blade.
Does that flat, 4mm front edge of the rudder blade need chamfering to cut through the water, or am I other-thinking it? Who knows but watever you do, keep the skeg handy in case the rudder plays up.