Nearly two years ago I predicted TPU IKs could be the next step and wrote:
[synthetic rubber is good but] … Packrafts, meanwhile, are mostly made from TPU (as well as PVC), a different sort of polymer coating which has many of the benefits of synthetic rubber: odour-free, smooth texture, light, UV resistant, supple (crease-free), not environmentally toxic. But, like PVC, it too can be heat welded. Since Alpacka got the ball rolling, there are now loads of brands banging out TPU packrafts. In this time the fabric and seam technology have proved themselves to be as durable as PVC or rubber, and capable of running higher pressures too. As someone on the internet observed: ‘Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU) is the link between rubber and plastic’.
Now that TPU packrafts are well proven, it could be time to ditch PVC and make TPU IKs, assuming the costs can be bearable. The benefits are principally nothing less than a huge reduction in weight.
Aquaglide Cirrus TPU IK On the face of it the new Cirrus IKs seem to be copies of Aquaglide’s three PVC Chelen models (120, 140, 155) – never seen one but they look to be a decent hybrid. The PVC ‘155’ 15-footer weighs a hefty 42 lbs (19kg) and I bet will fill a large suitcase. Although that weight’s unverified, it actually compares well with other long hybrid PVC IKs and even my old 4.5-m Seawave at 17kg. But unlike a Nitrilon rubber Seawave, in my experience the rolled-up bulk of big PVC IKs can be off putting.
The press release claims the new Cirrus 150 will weigh just 18 lbs (8.1kg); a staggering <50% reduction on the PVC Chelan. Price is said to be $1700, $400 more than the 155 Chelan which today goes for £1150 in the UK. The boat is 15 feet (4.57m) long, 35 inches (89cm) wide and claims to handle 600 lbs (272kg). You won’t need a wheel suitcase (left; Sandbanks) to cart a Cirrus around.
According to the video above, the tubes are double-coated70D nylon TPU. This sounds low compared to a packraft’s typical 210D hull, but remember denier is thread weight not coated fabric thickness (’70 x the weight of silk’). In the UK IronRaft sell 70D TPU and this MYO chap used it too. It’s at the very lightest end of the scale; 70D PU-coated nylon is what Supai use, though I’m not sure you can compare PU coating with TPU. The fact that the Cirrus will be double coated (most packrafts are now single coated) ought to provide extra support (more rigidity/less sag) without needing to resort to seam-straining higher pressures. One good thing about PVC is that it’s innately stiff once pumped up – good for performance if not packability.
In the vid you can spot the floor pressure is rated at 0.41 bar (5.9psi) and the sides take a healthy 0.21 (3psi) which ought to be enough to give a rigid form without ruptures.
Unlike the Chelan, there appear to be no ‘have-your-cake-and-eat-it’ closeable self-bailing ports which I suspect have dubious value outside of white water paddling to which a 15-foot IK is ill suited. You just get the usual drain port in the back when flipping the boat over will achieve the same purpose. The floor is removable too according to a video comment; a huge benefit for quick rinsing, drying and cleaning. And we’re told the whole boat fits into the shoulder drybag as pictured below.
Price was always an issue with more sophisticated and less widely-used TPU, but now everything everywhere has become expensive, perhaps this matters less? Radical economic analysis apart, let’s hope this starts a trend towards more TPU IKs for folk who want the benefits of a lightweight tandem packraft like my current Sigma TXL, but in spacious and faster IK form.
Let’s end with something else I wrote two years ago:
A few years ago I predicted that full drop-stitch IKs would become the new thing. This has happened and has driven IK design and sales a long way forward. But, PVC aside, I’m still not convinced by the boxy profiles and packed bulk of FD-S IKs. Until FD-S forms can evolve (as the Itiwit X500 has shown), I think hybrid, drop-stitch floors (D-SF) are certainly the way to go, if an IK is to stay undecked, unlike the X500.
There will always be a demand for cheap vinyl or PVC IKs but I predict the next big thing in high-end IKs will be TPU, including removable D-S floors in TPU. TPU is now well proven with packrafts and blends the heat-welding benefits of PVC with nearly all the better attributes of ‘hypalons’.
Thanks to a couple of IK&P followers who spotted and passed on news of Aquaglide’s new Cirrus range of hybrid TPU IKs.
At under £450 on amazon UK today* and actually in stock too, the bold new graphics on the 2022 Aqua Marina Steam 412 hybrid (DS-F) does seem a lot of IK for your money in the longer, solo/double category we’re into here at IK&P. Fyi: a ‘hybrid’ is an IK with a stiff, flat drop-stitch floor (DS-F; ideally removable), but with conventional, lower pressure round side tubes (right). In my limited experience it’s a better solution than most FDS, all-dropstich IKs. *experimental affiliate link
What they say The STEAM series is one of the best inflatable touring kayaks on the market. The combination of superior hull speed, outstanding durability and tracking capabilities make this kayak best in class. Both STEAM-312 and STEAM-412 mix Aqua Marina super-tough reinforced PVC material and rigid drop-stitched DWF floor. These ultra-stiff materials in the STEAM’s construction make a portable air-kayak so rigid that performs just as good as a traditional hard shell kayak. A perfect choice for long distance adventures and mild river running.
Length is – you guessed it – a spacious and potentially nippy 4.12 metres or 13.6′; width is a reasonable 90cm or 34″, plus a claimed 15.5kg (34.2 lbs) for the boat in the bag with a stated payload of 180 kilos.
Oddly, the stated pressures of 1.4 psi (0.01 bar) for the side tubes are barely more than a vinyl Intex or Sevy cheapie (or lower end Aqua M IKs). The 4.3psi (0.3 bar) in the 7cm DS floor (AM call it a ‘deck’) is also about as low as DS can be – a Grabner all-tube IK will run the same psi. I wondered if they meant 0.14 bar / 2 psi? It seems not according to the official website and the Steam product manual (snapshot below). It makes you think the construction may not be up to it, or that they’ve stated hyper-conservative/warranty covering values in case users over-inflate. After all, the sidetubes have proper ‘raft’ or iSUP valves capable of ten times that figure. Oh well, PVC fabric is inherently stiff so you’d hope that ought to make a reasonably rigid boat.
It has to be said the so-called “… Inflatable V-shape keel design…” is not evident in any online imagery that I could find (left, last year’s model) or in the video below. The floor looks as flat as a iSUP board (which Aqua M also make) with two, mid-positioned skegs. Most IKs manage with one at the back, but you can remove them or use just one. A V-shaped keel (like the Optimal FDS) would eliminate the need for skegs, so it could all be just marketing babble.
Best of all, this is not another shell & bladder but a ‘tubeless’ IK, so with the removable floor, cleaning and quick drying ought to be as easy as it gets on an IK. Many IK-ers soon learn the value of this.
The foam footrest tubes have a couple of positions, with the seats positioned on velcro strips. And the closeable bailing ports (see inset above) mean you can take a bit of wave splash over sides without swamping the boat, as the video below demonstrates. But two heavier persons plus gear could also mean you end up sitting in (or hauling) water as the floor is only 7cm thick. Paddling would reveal all, but the ports are closeable.
All in all those ports, the length and tubeless build for four-fifty quid could be a great way of getting into IKs. It comes with a pump, carry sack and a spare dry bag. Add paddles and some water. At worst you open it up on delivery, pump it up in the sitting and realise you’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake. Amazon returns are dead easy.
I’ve been looking forward to getting back to Dorset’s amazing chalk pinnacles near Studland which we paddled in the Seawave one calm morning back in 2019. Today the tide was right and the sun was out; it was just a bit chilly and on the windy side; a good day to see how my Sigma TXL might perform at sea.
A couple of paddlechums were also up for a pre-dawn departure; Barry rode down with his similar MRS Nomad S1, while Nimbus – yet to fully embrace inflatable paddlecraft – brought his 17-foot, plastic P&H Scorpio sea kayak (left). Even at ~30 kilos, it was a proper boat for the conditions and we imagined he’d run rings round our packrafts.
Early all-day parking is a problem at Studland as the car parks don’t officially open till 9am and anywhere else you’ll get towed and Twitter-shamed. But we slipped into Knoll Beach parking at 8 and were on the water before 9am. By this time a one-metre tide was about 90 minutes after HW, and we set off into a steady onshore 12-mph northeasterly which would stop Barry and me running away with ourselves. By the time we turned the right angle at the Point for the run SSW along the cliffs, we ought to be able to put up our sails to catch up with Nimbus, except I forgot my WindPaddle. Oh well, I’d just have to paddle the full four miles and get medevaced out.
The tides at Swanage aren’t the classic sine wave. Every other tide rises and falls normally, but in between is a mini low and high. Who knows how or why but I suppose the reservoir of Poole Harbour, plus the English Channel funnel have something to do with dampening every other surge. Either way, the range was only a metre today and is hardly ever more than two down here; not enough volume to raise any strong currents. Nimbus later calculated a southerly flow of around 1mph which may help explain our higher than expected packraft speeds.
Part of the reason I got the longer TXL was to try more coastal packrafting, even if the extra bulk and weight (actually only 450g more than my previous Rebel 2K) might set me back on overnighters. This is not a paddle I’d have attempted in my backheavy 2K, even with a deck; it’s just too slow to be enjoyable. But having owned a 2.9-m Nomad S1 like Barry’s, I was fairly sure the TXL’s near identical length, buoyancy and similar ‘footprint’ would make a difference. There is something about sitting in the middle, not the back end of a boat, that makes it feel more reassuring. Unlike my Thames paddle a week earlier, I decided not to fit the TXL’s inflatable floor pad in search of a better glide. As things were, in today’s wind and chop the stability from a lower seating position would be more important.
It was about 1.5 miles to the arches at Old Harry’s headland, so I set off directly across the bay, hoping for flatter conditions further out. That wasn’t the case; the odd wave was breaking, but the TXL moved across the water purposefully. Sure, it rolled, pitched and yawed in the side waves, but sat down low I felt completely at ease, maybe even more than in my Seawave IK? Barry was clearly having the same bouncy fun in his MRS and I’d assumed the P&H would have raced off, if for no other reason than to maintain stability. But later Nimbus said the Scorpio felt a little on edge in the high-frequency chop and couldn’t have gone much faster than us on this stage.
You’d think the two long, light packrafts’ would have been blown about, but the central, kayak-like position and added buoyancy made them easy to control (with skegs fitted) and the high sides kept most of the water out. I picked up maybe a litre over a mile and a half and didn’t miss a deck at all (though I did appreciate the drysuit).
Even with photo faffing, we reached the stacks of Old Harry in about half an hour, and it hadn’t felt like any more of a struggle than in an IK. It was really quite a revelation how well the TXL (and Nomad) were performing with just an extra 50cm or 20% in the waterline over a regula packraft. The lightness of the boats must have something to do with it. Round the outside of the Point the wind and tide were fighting it out in a tidal race. It made me realise how well timed our visit in the Seawave had been three years ago. We’d arrived here in much calmer conditions but also around mid-tide with a less nasty looking race. Going round the outside today may well have been doable but set aside unpredictable currents, waves can also stand up and break out of nowhere. It was more fun to slip through on the remnants of the outgoing tide between the mainland and Old Harry’s stack. Next time I come here, I’ll make sure to arrive at the top half of the tide so all the arches can be threaded.
After a bit of promo filming for the new book, we turned 120° to the southwest and expected to have the wind behind us, but it remained a case of dealing with sidewaves plus cliff rebounds, so we kept out to sea. Despite the packrafts jigging about like popcorn in a hot pan, we managed to make progress south along the cliffs, the Scorpio now edging ahead.
After being jostled around, Barry decided to air up his AirSail, but even with two of us, pumping it up properly in the chop proved too tricky. For easy deployment on the water, the sprung-hooped Packsail (like the old WindPaddle) is a much better idea, even if it’s more bulky to carry.
We rounded Ballard Point where the cliffs turned into Swanage Bay, and with the wind now on our backs, the GPS recorded 6kph (see graph below). As usual though, it didn’t feel that fast as the boat squirrelled around from the stern. I thought about moving myself further back (relatively easily done in the TXL unlike the fixed solo Nomad) so the lightened bow trailed downwind, but it wasn’t really that bad, it just felt sloppy. Sailor Barry was now keeping up with Nim until we all rolled up on Swanage Beach, aired down the packboats and made a beeline for the cafe for a superb Full Swanage Breakfast.
The cafe let us leave the boat among their bins out back, but I was overruled on walking the four miles back over Ballard Downs back to Knoll Beach. Barry clearly had a liking for taxis which I consider more of an emergency service. “It is not the Packrafting Way!” I squealed as he put a bag over my head and shoved me in the back. Nimbus kept a diplomatic silence. Back at Knoll Beach, Barry roared off on his motorbike while Nim and I wandered back the way we’d paddled to check out at Old Harry’s from above. The tide was now at its extended low period and the wind had swung to the southeast, sheltering Studland Bay. Down below, a lone kayaker was just setting off. “That looks fun, a. We should try that sometime.”
Judging by this outing, the TXL has proved to be just what I’d hoped: a dependably agile coastal cruiser with all the other benefits of a packraft. More sea paddles to come.
Miraculously, a sunny spell spanned the Easter bank holiday weekend so I took the new TXL down the Thames for its maiden voyage. At Putney I caught the remains of a spring tide but dithered too much so only had a hour until it turned at London Bridge and pushed back up the river. Nevermind, I’ll get as far as I get and hop out anywhere there are some steps or a ladder. With a packraft it’s easily done.
Floor pad and skeg This is a similar run I did a couple of months ago in the dead of the Covid winter with the Revo, but this time I remembered to air up the floor pad good and hard. I’m expecting the 2.8-m long, hard-floored TXL to be nippy, and so it is. Setting off the boat skates across the water so that you can ‘paddle – pause/glide – paddle’ like in a kayak, not spin like a food mixer to keep moving. I fit the skeg but notice from the pix that most of it is out of the water. Don’t think the 2K was like that, but it’s submerged enough to track well. I did wonder why it wasn’t on the flat of the floor for full effect. Perhaps, as with the Nomad S1, it’s not strictly necessary. Something to try next time. As mentioned, I do plan to fit a second skeg on the front to see how that affects crosswinds and sailing.
Seat They advise using the foam seat block with the floor pad. It feels a bit of an afterthought, adds packed bulk and, as others have reported, is not so comfortable. After 20 minutes I was getting a sore coccyx which was only going to get worse.
Mid-river I shuffled over the twice-as-large inflatable seatbase but soon found it wobbled around on the hard floor pad (like trying to stand on a soft football) in a way these seats don’t when sat on regular packraft floors. This must be why the block seatbase is supplied but the foam is too hard for flatwater cruising. I aired the seatbase right down (easily done in situ) until I was nearly sitting on the floor, but in rougher waters there would still be a wobble and anyway, by then your butt and heels are nearly level like sitting on an iSup board; not an ideal paddling posture.
Overall, the raised position on the floor pad does aid good paddling as you can clear the fat sidetubes with the paddle more easily. Sat higher, I would expect stability in rougher water to suffer; at that time you’d want either thigh straps – or just sit yourself lower by easily airing down the floor pad. The backrest is easily adjusted in the boat too, and is held up by thin bungies so it’s easy to shift it up your back if it slips.
For the moment I feel the seat set up in MRS Nomad was a better affair. Partly because I felt it was part suspended/supported from tabs halfway up the side tubes like a hammock, not sat directly on the floor. That means your body weight is spread broadly along on the side tubes, not pressing down solely into the floor, created sagging. And also the flat foam backrest if fitted was better *and I may do the same with TXL). But, at around half-a-metre square, the TXL seat base is much bigger than previous packraft seatbases I’ve used. Without the floor pad, this broad base may nearly replicate the advantageous load-spreading effect of a Nomad-style side-tab suspended seatbase. An underwater picture will tell all, but I like to think the TXL may be as functional and not much slower without the floor. After all the floor-less Nomad was nippy enough. Since then I think the TXL works well without the floor – or I’ve yet to detect unambiguous advantages.
The TXL’s raised floor jams you less well into the boat sides which is 4cm wider than the Nomad. I quite like a jammed-in feeling but recognise that with a floor pad, added height requires a bit more boat width to maintain stability. Meanwhile, up front there’s plenty of room for feet side by side, unlike in the pointy ended Nomad.
There are a few more evaluations to do with the TXL but it looks promising. Comfortable, supportive seating I know can be an issue with IKs so using the floor pad I’m confident I will either get used to it, find a better seatbase and backrest or find that the pad is not essential for shorter paddles. Fyi, I have now become very used to using the Flextail electric pump to air up the boat (and the floor), before finishing off with the handpump. It can vacuum shrink the boat too, for compact packing, but rolling up is as quick. As you can see the handy BowBag fits on like it should, too.
Anfibio Vertex Tour paddle Anfibio sent me their new, four-part, multi-adjustable Vertex Tour paddle to try. It weighs just 890g on my scales, same as my old carbon Aqua Bound Manta Ray, with same-sized blades. A simple lever clamp allows you to set any offset the carbon shaft left or right, as well as vary the length 15cm between 210 and 225cm which is something new to me. Theoretically I can see using the full length with a backwind or a strong current and a short paddle for battling into the wind in ‘low gear’.
Each piece is 63cm long. The all-round shaft felt a bit thinner than normal, and sure enough, measured up around 29mm ø compared to my 32mm Werners which suit my hands better. Smaller handed persons will prefer the Vertex. The middle clamps up firmly but there was a bit of slack at the paddles; we’re talking less than half a millimetre here but it’s enough to rattle and be noticeable as you release the pressure on lifting the blade out. Does it make difference to non-competitive propulsion? Not really and better too loose than too tight. I wrapped some thin, smooth tape round the ends to eliminate the slack. The Vertex costs €125 – that’s a lot of light and fully adjustable paddle for your money. More here.
An hour and a half before sunrise and I am in the midst of a twitter storm. Up above me unseen in the trees the neighbourhood avians are performing their dawn chorus a little ahead of schedule. I’d been planning to try out a prototype Anfibio Revo for weeks, waiting for a sunny day while failing to pull off more ambitious test venues. In the end they wanted it back so it feel to a transit of the dreary old Thames through London.
But walking to the station it was clearly far from the predicted freezing night leading to clear skies till noon. No frost glittered on car bodies nor stars twinkled above. Oh well, it’s 6.30am and I’m at the station. I may as well go through with it. Not done the Thames in a packraft before, so there’s that.
At Putney jetty energetic young rowers were hauling out their cheesecutters from the sheds while I fumbled with the Anfibio Revo’s floor pad. At a glance the Revo looks bigger than my 2K so it might be a bit faster. It’s a self-bailer with an unusual drain funnel under the seat (like some Gumotex canoes) rather than the usual lines of holes along the floor’s edge (like the ROBfin; another stillborn test). An 8-mile run along the Thames wasn’t going to tax the self-bailing, but for flatwater the dangling funnel can be pulled in and rolled up like a dry bag to stop the boat filling up.
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.
Sea Eagle’s Fast Track 465 (4.65m) is a high-end PVC IK has been around for several years, one of the earliest ‘hybrid’ IKs combining a removable dropstitch (DS) floor and conventional side tubes. It sits alongside their dumpy, all-tube SE cheapies, more whitewatery Explorers, and the all-DS, fixed-floor Razorlites. They even make a full-DS canoe. From the side the 465FT is a sleek looking IK with slender 24cm side tubes and the distinctive frontal keel under the bow to keep it on track (and which Gumotex have vaguely copied on the Rush models). Quoted weights vary as usual: from 17kg to a ‘hull weight’ of 20kg on the official US website. For a 15.25-foot PVC IK, 44lbs sounds about right.
Sea Eagles only sell these boats in ready-to-paddle packages which include a paddle/s and a pump as well as the usual wrap-around carry bag and repair kit. They start at $1600 or £1299, though in the US are regularly discounted by nearly 30%. When you read scathing ‘reviews’ of otherwise perfectly good IKs panned for not coming with a pump or paddles (even if that was clear at purchase), you can see why SE do this. Just don’t expect a stiff and light paddle. Upgrades include seats with proper backrests, as well as better paddles, three-seat combos and even rowing and motor rigs. And one thing that sets SE apart is the phenomenal 180-day return period and three-year warranty – at least for US customers.
Though you’ll struggle to see any evidence of this, the DS floor is removable, so it should be easy to clean and dry the boat. Assuming the floor comes out easily, the hull still has somewhat redundant closeable floor drains. Some outlets claim these to be self-bailing ports. There’s a big difference between the two: the former helps drain inaccessible cavities to help dry the boat without removing the floor; the latter allows waves that pour over the sides to drain away via holes in the floor – ideal for whitewater or surf. Such boats need thick floors to sit you high above the drain ports so the kayak doesn’t have water sloshing across the floor and soaking your butt. The 465 (and similar Aquaglide Chelan) doesn’t have a thick floor, though if you’re light you can give it a go. As it is, any 15-foot IK will be a handful in whitewater or surf conditions.
Oddly, the 2014 manual still online suggests you put the same 3.2 psi (0.2 bar) in the DS floor as the tubeless side tubes. Later models have ‘max 8-10 psi labels at the valves, but there is no way you’ll reach that pressure with the archaic foot pump supplied in some base packages. Then again, the couple in the video below inflated their 465 by foot pump. They represent perhaps the recreational core of SE’s customers: prepared to spend four figures but not that bothered about performance or equipment.
One thing that seems to be missing from online images are footrests. For all but the most undemanding recreational paddlers (which may be most of SE owners) a solid footrest to brace off makes a huge difference to paddling efficiency, while also stopping you sliding down the seat. It can have benefits to stability too, although at 91cm wide (36″) that won’t be a problem on the FT as some might find with the FDS Razorlites. Some D-rings could easily be glued on, but for what you pay, it’s odd to not see them included. They’re not even an accessory part. the drainpipe/strap idea I use on my IKs would work fine here.
What they call Deluxe seats are comfy looking vinyl blobs which sit you 5 inches up and clip to the hull sides (as well as the seat base). But because the backs are inflated (via Boston valves), they’ll have little support to lean on because low-psi inflatable backrests tend to crumple under pressure. Non-inflatable foam-board‘tall back’ seats (found on most other Chinese-made IKs) are supplied in pricier packages will have better back support, except the base is thinner. A slab of foam underneath will see to that, but without footrests you may not notice the benefits.
The innovative Needleknife frontal keel is inflated via a raft valve accessed by a hole in the front floor. Flat, DS-floored boats need some help here, and it does appear to greatly improve tracking, especially while not adversely affecting turning. If that’s the case you do wonder if a long, low slip-on plastic skeg, or just a keel strake as of the Chelan 155, might not work as well with less assembly complication. Perhaps the Needleknife’s softer profile works better, especially in sidewinds where the keel (and low sides) is said to deflect the boat less. There is a large slip-on skeg which is now more swept back, but could still be a bit on the long side. Luckily it’s easily replaced or shortened, but the boat will need some sort of skeg to track well.
Aquaglide is a US brand producing over a dozen Chinese-made IKs as well as iSUP boards and even floating waterparks. It’s been around for a few years, but their high-spec Chelan range, particularly the spacious 155 (formerly Chelan HB Tandem XL) has now been designated an IK of Interest. Like the similar Sea Eagle FastTrack 465, or bladdered Kokopelli Moki, UK Chelan prices are unapologetically high: from £970 up to £1130 for the 4.6-m 155. In the range’s three models, the numbers loosely relate to their length in feet; the actual stats are in the table below. These figures are copied off the internet, so accuracy cannot be guaranteed and anyway, sources vary.
All Chelans feature a 6psiremovable DS floor with conventional 3psitubeless PVC side tubes – what’s becoming known as a hybrid IK. Hybrids are usually more stable than the slimmer, boxy Full Dropstitch (FDS) IKs, because the round side tubes make them wider, but higher pressures add rigidity which can compensate for reduced performance. It’s a shame there are no pressure release valves, but they’re easily added in the sides if you paddle in hot climates. The relatively low 6psi in the floor – and the fact that’s it’s fully in the water – makes it less vulnerable to passive heating and ruptured panels. With 10-inch tubes and at a yard or 91.5cm wide, the 155 has a Length Width Factor of 5.03. By comparison, the similar Sea Eagle 465 is 5.1. Both are pretty low (more square) compared to the table here, but for many other reasons, an IK with a higher rating (ie: long and thin) may not necessarily be more efficient. I find most IKs over-wide, but nervous beginners may feel differently.
Chelan side tubes have no bladders (same Sea Eagles and all rubber IKs) which helps explain the high price, and they’re all made of Duratex PVC which they’ve managed to print on to give a sleek, distinctive look to the 2021 models. As you can read in the Comments, it took a while to clarify, but all Aquaglides featuring drop stitch floors are removable. This includes the Blackfoot, Chelan, Chinook and Navarro ranges. Actual new owner Dave Klein (see Comments and video below) assured me his new 155’s floor was removable. It’s odd that it’s not mentioned in the blurb, shown in the imagery or even explained in the pdf manual under cleaning and maintenance. This is an important and beneficial feature as it eases cleaning and speeds up drying.
The 7 so-called ‘closable floor drains‘ are also odd, when the one at the back will do. If they’re just to drain the boat once on land, are seven – or indeed any – really needed? Especially as we now know the floor comes out easily. Just flip the boat over and let it drip dry. Many FDS IKs come with these multiple stern floor drains to help shed water and, more importantly, the grit, from inaccessible side cavities between the floor and sides (left). But the floor comes out on a Chelan so it’s not such an issue. The suspicion is that they might be a self-bailing feature and, although again, you won’t see it in the bullet-point blurb, the manual does say:
This product can be used in self-bailing mode. In this case, all cockpit drains should remain open. Some water will enter boat in self-bailing mode but will not accumulate.
Or to quote the video below
… [open drains] allow the boat to be paddled in rough water, surf or white water
In other words, the Chelans could be called optionally self-bailing which sounds like the best of both worlds. As mentioned, the blurb wisely steers clear of bragging about this, too much because, chances are for most people it won’t work so well. A boat is either designed to be self bailing – in which case it simply has bailing holes below an extra thick floor like the ROBfin I tried or AG’s Mackenzie range – or it isn’t. The heavier the load (or the smaller and less buoyant the model) the more the boat will fill up with water which will slow it down and become annoying as the water swills about. (On much slimmer hardshell sea kayaks this in-hull sloshing can lead to critical instability). The optional-bailing element may explain the unusually thick seat bases to ensure you’re not sitting in water.
The now improved, or higher-spec seats were a complaint on earlier models for their lack of back support – it’s a common issue with all IKs. They’re now positioned on velcro floor bands, like the Kokopelli Moki we tried. This is the quickest way to adjust seat positions for a level trim. There are small pockets along the seatbase’s front edge and on the backrest, and they’re braced off the sidetube tops. As mentioned, at five inches the bases are unusually fat. But you don’t have to inflate them fully, even if a taller seatbase makes paddling more comfortable; the 36-inch width Chelan has stability to spare.
Footrests use the same velcro bands to get the positioning just right. Not a bad way of doing it, providing that tube isn’t too squidgy.
One of the best things on the Chelans is the attention to detail: handles at each end plus the sides, loads and loads of attachment points along the floor and side tubes, as well as Molle webbing which is becoming a thing on all sorts of outdoor gear now, and the usual deck bungies. Plus there’s an accessory mount floor plate for fishing gear or a GPS. I could do with one of those and it’s one of the side benefits of flat and firm DS floors. There’s even a beer cancup holder. I suppose it was only a matter of time before an IK got those.
They sure have made a meal of the skeg fitting which uses a tiny and easily lost screw bolt and backing nut (left and right) which reminds me of the rubbish old Gumotex alloy skeg. Why complicate things like this when there are so many easy-to-use, no-loose-parts slide-in skegs around (as on the Moki). Up front there is a shallow keel strake to protect the floor from wear and help with tracking. A better way of doing it than Sea Eagle’s bulky DS keel. You do wonder if the 155 might be as hard to turn as the Moki was.
The whole boat all folds down into a huge, 170-litre back pack. The 155 may not be that heavy at 19kg, but like many PVC boats, it sure has a lot of bulk.
Advanced Elements’ hybrid AirFusion EVO (AE1042) is a good looking PU-skinned IK that slipped under my radar for a year or two. It replaced AE’s AirFusion Elite (right) which used two low-pressure side bladders (four in total) stacked one over the other, and an alloy keel rod along a plain, single-skin PVC shell. Like a folding kayak there is no inflatable floor. The EVO version (above) looks similar, but replaced the four bladders with a pair of PVC dropstitch panels running a much higher 6psi (0.41bar), but the shell is now much more supple PU. Both methods keep the boat slim, and bow and stern alloy ‘C’ ribs are tensioned by a long slot-in keel rod, like a thick tent pole.
On some older, low-psi AE’s these ‘backbones’ are optional, but on the AirFusion it’s part of the design. This rod gives the AirFusion a V-shaped hull (above) a bit like the inflatable AirBone keel on some FDS Kzone IKs, and also adds tension between the bow and stern which the dropstitch sides can’t do alone.
The AirFusion EVO is the opposite of most ‘hybrid (part dropstitch) IKs which combine DS floors with round tube sides. Such boats, like the Gumotex Rush, or Aquaglide Chelan are rigid but, with round side tubes, end up wider and so, more stable.
The new EVO retains the low-pressure thwarts (air bags, below left) which help push the deck rod up so water runs off, push the sides and the floor rod out to make the skin taught, and up front, give something for your feet to push against (assuming the span is correct for you; there’s some adjustment in the seat). There are additional small airbags at the bow and stern to firm up the wave-cutting plastic mouldings there. As you can see, they’re as sharp as a hardshell sea kayak. The coaming (deck rim) is inflatable too, as is the seat base. And the EVO’s seat’s backrest has been made taller for better support.
The AE1042 is all wrapped in a PU shell – yes, you read that right; it’s not cheaper, stiffer and possibly heavier PVC. That makes it a sort of ‘shell & bladder’ IK with the drying issues that entails; made a little harder by the fixed deck. As with the bow and stern ribs, the DS panels are fixed with velcro but are pre-positioned out of the box. They can be easily removed (or even just part-deflated inside and separated from the shell) for a deep dry and clean.
Numbers are a very light 14.5kg/32lbs; 4m long x 61cm wide (13′ x 24″). Because of the lack of an inflatable floor, the capacity is a modest 106kg (235lbs) and, as the air bag thwarts take up interior space, like the all-DS AirVolution, this ends more of a day boat than an overnight camping tourer. But that is what most people want in an IK.
At 24 inches wide this is also one of the narrowest IKs around, similar to Itiwit’s 25-inch X500. That means it should also be fast, but the X500 is known to be tippy (it’s worse for larger paddlers). You’d think the AirFusion might be the same, but without an inflatable floor you sit a few inches lower (as in a hardshell kayak) which greatly aids stability. Certainly online reviews don’t mention the AirFusion’s tippiness as much as the X500 which runs 10psi. (Dropping the pressure a bit can improve things at the cost of outright performance.)
The integrated rear plastic moulding can take a skeg which is optional (or ‘free’ from some outlets). This is not your usual slot-in sharks-fin under the boat, but a rudder-like pivoting blade (below left) which can be lifted and dropped as needed on a loop cord.
I tried a similar MYO rudder set up but ended up a lot of unavoidable but annoying ancillary rigging. But I’ve often thought of adding something like this skeg to my own IKs to eliminate scraping in shallow water, or especially when beaching a loaded boat which needs to be rested on a rock your mate’s boat (above right) if the under-skeg is not be be stressed. I looked briefly on eBay but couldn’t see a similar but cheaper pivoting skeg direct from China. They must be out there of cough up 80 sovs for the AE one. You may get by without the skeg on the AirFusion as the V-floor also includes shallow strakes (inch-high keel strips) which will aid tracking while not getting in the way when on land or in shallows. A couple of reviewers have mentioned this PU shell is easily holed when scraping. Maybe they went a bit too far to get the weight low, but a quick bit of tape easily fixes that as the skin is separate from the pressured D-S panels. The 2021 EVO has had an added panel of PU welded along the keel line where most wear occurs
Assembly does seem quite a faff compared to simply inflating three chambers (read the manual here or watch the vid below), but as with all things, you’ll get the hang of it. Remember, you’ll have the same alloy-framed folding kayak worries with salt and grit getting into the anodised alloy tube joints after sandy or saltwater paddles. The assembly video below shot on a sandy beach made me wince a bit.
But as with a folding kayak, it may all be worth it if performance is responsive once on the water. Some photos do show a saggy, creased shell (left) – you’d think they could have made a better fit, or more likely this boat could do with a few more psi. And the sides are quite tall and slabby (also typical of a FDS IK) which will make it susceptible to side winds, especially without a skeg. That’s the case with most IKs, but you’d think with a single skin floor and a deck, it could be nice and low, like a Feathercraft.
With all the rods it looks as bulky as PVC DS or bladder IKs, but at under 15kg it certainly is light for a 4-m boat and appears to zip along. The back deck has an integrated velcro hatch / rolltop drybag and you have your usual bungy deck lines to stash a paddle while having a breather. In the US the AirVolution EVO goes for $1200; that works out as £1200 in the UK, plus a $/£40 pump which will need three nozzles for the raft, Boston and twist lock valves. That’s still nearly twice the price of the X500 or a FDS IK like the Shipwreck, but there are no other boats quite like this. Here an owner’s review.