In a line Fast, light, well-made and great value European-made hybrid tandem, the Igla’s removable floor and stacked [twin] side tubes keep the width down while retaining stability.
With clear skies forecast I took the Igla for a quick spin down the tidal River Frome out of Wareham quay. Some 1150 years ago marauding Vikings besieged the Saxon port in a bid to establish a flat-pack furniture enterprise. The ever dependable Alfred the Great sent them ‘packing’.
The recent thaw and rains on top of an incoming spring tide saw water just lapping over the medieval quay’s kerb and nearby pub lawn which for me meant an easy put in. Once cooling in the water I gave the kayak a quick top up and realised the closeable PRVs are quite handy in that you can close them as they start purging at 0.25–3 bar and so maintain firm sidetubes. Today, with temperatures in single figures there’s little risk of overheating blowing the boat to smithereens. I need to track down my manometer to see what the pressures actually are.
After hopping in I did a bit of pre-emptive wobbling while holding onto the quayside to ascertain stability. I don’t want a repetition of the shaky Shipwreck FDS I tried a couple of winter’s ago. The Igla seems good; a bit more tippy than the super-stable Seawave but unlike many FDS IKs, the round side tubes give it a bit more beam at water level. I adjusted the footrest tube further forward but later realised I may have been sat a little too far forward for level trim. I get the feeling these rock-solid drop stitchers are a bit more sensitive to trim as there’s no sag in the floor.
I see now that floating on the water the bow and stern prows are just above water level. With these relatively water-slicing forms (for an IK) I wondered whether the Igla might manage without a skeg but decided not to risk it. You can’t fit/remove the twin-fin alloy skeg with the DS floor inflated, so I made a quick copy from a plastic container (below). My MYO skeg was a bit flimsy but setting off downstream the Igla tracked fine while turning as easily as the Seawave. It wouldn’t be hard for Zelgear to redesign the skeg and mounting to make it easily removable while still being secure. And while they’re at it they could make it in ABS plastic.
I’m pleased to report the six-point seat feels about as comfy and supportive as I’ve seen in an IK out of the bag. No need for the usual adaptations or outright swaps. Gumotex take note. It weighs only 700g but offers great support, even from the inflated backrest. And semi-deflated, there was no wobble from the seatbase on the hard DS floor. If you’re looking for a good IK seat, try and get one of these.
The slim footrest tube too works better than I thought, thanks to the hard floor, and with knees braces cinched up, I felt secure in the boat. It’s a tad less stable than my Seawave of the same width but not enough to bother you on flatwater, as least. The Mrs was walking along the south bank and I was going to ferry her over to the north side to walk back, but we got separated in the reeds so I headed back into the growing westerly before the spring tide turned on me too.
Before I did, I hopped out and pulled out my plastic skeg. Doing so soon established that like most IKs, the Igla did indeed benefit from a tracking fin. The boat was paddleable but micro-corrections were required to keep it on track; do nothing and the bow comes round. Again, very similar to my old Seawave and unlike the FDS Shipwreck which tracked fine without it’s huge skeg but could turn better, too. Bang on time, at 12.20 the tide turned and soon, helped by the run-off from the Purbeck Hills, the river was belting along under Wareham bridge. That’s good to know for later paddles out of here.
Having not paddled for months, that little outing wore me out, but I like the Igla. It looks good, performs well, has many useful fittings which other IKs don’t and, for a European-made boat, is a bargain at current prices. Add tax and shipping (if needed) and it still ought to come in at under a £grand. I’m looking forward to taking it out for a longer session into Poole Harbour and beyond.
This revised and updated third edition provides a guide to the entire South West’s coasts and islands. It is packed with great photography and detailed route maps, alongside descriptions and anecdotes unveiling the region’s rich tapestry of maritime scenery, wildlife, history, geology and culture April 2021; 272pp; Pesda Press
Review Although I’ve only done a couple of routes, this is a comprehensive handbook to safely plan a paddle along this complex but accessible and populated coastline. Or just browse through to get some ideas of what’s possible. Of the 50 suggested routes, 14 are grade ‘A’ for easy, 25 are ‘B’ and the other 11 are ‘C’, like Cape Cornwall, Lundy Island or the crossing to Scilly Isles which are a bit of ma reach for a solo paddler in an IK, even without a gale blowing. Any IK or even a packraft party could manage a B in ideal conditions – but of course even an A-grade paddle could get too lively at the wrong tide in nasty weather. That’s UK sea paddling for you: a lot of sitting about watching the weather forecast.
Suggested start and finish points are given with a postcode and OS map coordinates along with the given OS sheet. It would be nice to also have more easily copied and interpreted GPS decimal degrees (for example: 51.2025, -4.6777: tip of Lundy) which most people use these days over OS coordinates, even if they’re likely have OS maps in their phone or GPS. Nearby tidal ports are a way of calculating the time of the tide in your area, and there’s a detailed paragraph on tidal times and what might be happening where and at what stage of the tide and how fast it runs during stronger springs. Some of this information was probably collected from a Reeds Almanac (see below) so it’s one less thing to buy or consult. As it is, most of us will check and bookmark local tide times on a phone before reception gets lost. In particular the Pedsa book will point out where the water can get turbid at spring tides around headlands – important information you’ll struggle to find or interpret easily online and especially important in a less agile inflatable. A detailed description follows, you can tell most if not all the routes have actually been done by Mark Rainsley the author at least once, and that’s followed by Tide & Weather and Additional Information, all adding up to a thorough guide to what you’re taking on. In between you get boxed asides, most often describing terrible maritime tragedies or badly behaved smugglers which all chime with the author’s sometimes dark humour, as well as background reading: that’s the sort of guidebook we like!
One annoyance in search of a clean design is putting the captions of the many colour photos deep in the gutter of this thick and thick-papered book that’s about an inch in thickness. Along with the uncluttered colour maps, most of these photos work well in visualising the region described.
I can see myself using this much more than Pesda’s North West Sea Kayaking guide I bought years ago and hardly ever used (as I mostly paddled in one small area). Even if you just end up doing a handful of Southwest routes in your IK or P, you’ll set off well armed with what need to know and so won’t regret spending the typically discounted 16 quid. It’s a lot of book for that money.
It was sailer Barry who alerted me to the value of a ring-bound Reeds Almanac prior to our Jurassic paddle. I’ve heard of Reeds of course, but assumed it was strictly for yachtsmen. In print since 1932, there’s loads of little value or interest to a fairweather sea inflationeer – the most useful thing kayakers want to know are locally intensified tidal streams and the Pesda book covers that with more clarity on the included routes. Still, it’s reissued every year with annual tide predictions (easily found online anyway) so you can pick up a recent used edition, like the ‘Channel Almanac’ (south England and NW French coast only) for a fiver, ditch the tide and French pages, and learn all about harbour features, the meaning of buoyage and big-picture tidals streams in the Channel over the 12-hour span of a tide (below left).
We can all chuckle about IK vlogger Karl’s repeated attempts in practicing re-entering his IKs from a deep canal, but it is definitely something you should try to master before heading out onto open water in a new boat. And note, this means deep water: ie, not being able to stand on the bottom.
Karl is practising in benign, controlled circumstances: calm water and conditions; mate and banks at arm’s reach, warm and buoyant wetsuit. Even so, you can see how the effort and cold water soon wears him down, even in a small canal. Falling out in deep water too far from the shore usually happens in rougher more intimidating conditions.
In the video he tries two different IKs: his Gumotex Twist 2 and Story FDS – and reminds me of me when I was keen to learn new skills in my early years. I’m not at all surprised he found it impossible to re-enter the boxy, high-sided Story FDS. As I’ve seen done with hardshell sea kayaks, crawling up over the bow or stern can work, but good luck with that in choppy waters that just tipped you out.
One solution is a handily accessible paddle float: a blow up bag you slip and inflate over your paddle blade, a bit like water wings. This makes your paddle into a stable outrigger to remount the IK. With no float bag use a suitable drybag (left) or your pdf if desperate. This also needs practising if you’ve found you can’t re-enter you IK normally.
With his non-dropstitch Twist Karl nearly makes it. I found years ago in a similar Sunny that dipping down then launching up and over the side like a breaching salmon works, kicking hard as you go. You need that extra drive from your paddling legs to lift you up and over.
He notes his buoyant, wetsuit-clad legs get pulled under the boat. Too much buoyancy can make moving around difficult in the water. Lying flat on his front with legs behind and driving in from the side might work better. Swim in hard from the side and launch yourself across the boat like a Roman siege galleon. As with many athletic moves, once you get the knack it becomes easier because you know you’ve done it before. Of course, with someone else around to hold the far side of the boat or using their bow for added support, the whole drama becomes easier. In dodgy conditions not going out alone is the biggest lesson of all, but this is not always possible so we need to learn how to self rescue.
Good to see an FDS being used on a multi-day sea trip. The Needles look like a good day out; the same chalk formation as Dorset’s Swanage stacks, 15 miles to the west. My review of the same model ArrowStream here.
Broadly speaking, 3-panel FDS IKs are assembled by gluing the three DS planks into a wrap-around envelope of more PVC which holds the panels in a boat-like shape. Some floors areremovable, a bit like a footbed slips into a shoe. This makes the hull skin’s inner floor accessible for easy cleaning, rinsing and drying before storage: an important part of IK care. Not everyone may see drying as the deal breaker I make it out to be. Much depends on where you live in terms of climate and storage space.
Less goodbut almost universal with three-panels is a DS floor permanently glued to the floor skin but not fully sealed to the side panels. See the two images above: at the bow and stern where the tape stops, water and debris run down into the side cavities. A drain valve helps water to run out when flushing before deflating. Some boats feature several capped drains along the sides, which is either odd or a ‘more-looks-better’ marketing gimmick. After all, unless you’re an oligarch, your bath has only one plug hole. Don’t mistake these multiple drains as self-bailing ports, no matter what clueless vendors may claim or owners may think. Open the drains when afloat and the boat will part-fill with water. Until I realised this, I was baffled by these drains. So it seems were actual owners.
Such a boat is nearly as much of a pain to dry properly as the bladdered IKs I go on about. There will always be moisture in the long, inaccessible side cavities along the floor edge which you’ll struggle to dry properly. Proper rinsing and drying matter if you want your IK to last a long time, especially after you’ve been at sea when sand and other debris can get in the boat. Seawater causes mildew, staining, slime and odours. So does trapped organic matter, while in the long term, trapped grit might rub unseen against the soft PVC until it wears right through (this will probably take years).
A theoretical way to eliminate these issues is by fully sealing or ‘wallpapering over’ the floor gaps the bow and the stern as shown in green above. To drain and dry such fully sealed boats, you simply flip them over to shed the excess water, then deflate, spread out and wipe dry, just like the round-tube Grabner on the left. A boat modified like this would have no crud-trapping, moisture-retaining cavities. The flaw with this idea would be the air trapped in this sealed-off cavity would make the boat impossible to pack compactly: like trying to roll up a partially deflated inner tube. It needs a breather hole: a simple plug would work. Pull out the plug when deflating, plug up once inflated to keep water out. Fyi: this is all hypothetical but an Italian chap with a BIC FDS told me he had just this problem: gravel and grit collecting in the cavities. One solution of his was to stuff the openings each end with a dense sponge. Water may still get in but bigger grit won’t. Good idea. For the moment it seems most manufacturers are happy to settle on fitted floors with drains, just as some buyers are either oblivious to- or not bothered by this issue.
Actually there is a worse option: supposedly ‘self-bailing’ 3-panel FDS IKs which have little side cavities on the edge of the fitted floor and simple drain holes in the outer skin. There are no closable drain valves. A tellingly unused and unbranded FDS IK (left) I saw on eBay was like this. I had to check with the seller as there were no photos of the floor. Within an hour it sold for £700, but once on the water the new owner will find their boat filling up from below. It may only be a couple of inches, but that water will slosh back and forth as you paddle along, adding several kilos of weight and upsetting stability. You could easily tape up the holes in the outer skin, but this is why what look like FDS bargains come unbranded, badly designed and without guarantees. As said above: not everyone may see drying as the deal breaker I make it out to be. Much depends on where you live in terms of climate and storage space.
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.