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.
Shipwreck is the latest contender in self-branded full drop-stitch (FD-S) IKs customised in China to an importer’s specifications. With the ArrowStream – not a bad name – you get all the kit including two four-part paddles and a two-way barrel pump. The box it came in weighed a staggering 29.5kg – I could barely get up the stairs; it’s twice the volume of my Seawave 2. But once unwrapped, the whole kit: everything in the bag, weighs 25.4kg.
The bare boat itself is only 17.8kg, and with one seat and footrest, the splash vizors and the skeg comes in at 19.7kg on the water (plus pump and bag) according to my kitchen and suitcase scales. By comparison, had I kept the stock seat and footrest on my Seawave 2, it would have been 17.7 kg on the water, so that’s not as bad as the bulk – about 90cm x 70cm x 35cm boat alone in the bag – might suggest. According to my tape it’s 431cm long and 83cm wide. That gives it an LxW ratio of 5.19 which, compared to the table here is also pretty good. And don’t forget the maximum width is measured high up on the outward-angled sides; the actual width at the waterline is around 60cm or 23.6 inches – fairly slender by IK standards. More on that later. The big advantage with these slim, 10cm-thick side panels compared to round tubes is loads more space inside. The interior width is 45cm at floor level and 66cm at the top of the sides.
The seats include a hefty 9cm-thick seat base incorporating a firm, 6cm foam block which can be zipped out. I can see that foam feeling a bit hard sat on the hard, 10psi floor after a few hours, but it could be easily replaced with something softer or lower. Or you could even zip an inflatable cushion in there to reduce the packed volume. The backrest is tall and wide, with loads of tensioning straps to get the position and angle to your liking. You can reposition a solo seat in the middle, a big benefit with any open tandem IK.
The footrests add up to a couple of 4cm ø hard foam tubes. This diametre is too small for a secure foot placement and they squidge once you push on them. For the test I replaced it with a section of 10cm PVC drainpipe. There are two pairs of D-rings on the floor to attach the tube, presumably with the two packing straps supplied. But that means adjustment is only forwards, away from each seat. So if they’re too far away for your feet you’ll need to adjust the seats forward which may not ideal for trim. However, in the tandem video above the attachment D-rings appear to be in the right spot, even if the trim at 2:09 appears a bit front-heavy. For my solo paddle I joined the two straps into a loop (above left) to use the footrest pipe. Pushing off a proper footrest makes sitting more comfortable and less slouchy. The important thing is the D-rings are there.
Flexible plastic splash visors slip under the rims of the short decks, and the slot-in skeg is the usual (for this type of boat) 9-inch monster. There are handles at each end and a pair on the sides.
The supplied mesh-sided backpack is commendably huge: big enough to get everything in. There are cinch-down straps on the sides and the top, and a big zip plus a clear pocket on the front. The mesh sides will help a wet boat air off. But considering the weight it’s carrying, you do wonder if the shoulder straps will survive too much heaving on and off on public transport. I know my Gumotex backpack didn’t, and neither did the similarly huge Kokopelli Moki bag.
The whole assembly of the boat is very clean – that’s the wonder of heat-welding compared to messier rubber gluing. An exception are stray thread ends inside where a tape covers the floor–sides cavity (left). Once inflated I could see no blisters in the D-S panels which, with threads every 5mm, adds up to an estimated 4 kilometres metres of space yarn! Maybe that’s what explains the bulk, but once vacuum sucked down, I don’t think so. It’s more that the stiff but soft-textured PVC can only be loosely folded over, not rolled up. Half the bulk is just air. The supplied four-part 220cm alloy paddles weigh only 950g and have blade-angle adjustment holes 45° either sides of flat. The blades also have little hooks cut in the sides which are actually quite handy, now I think about it. Assembled, there’s quite a lot of slack in the three joints which will only get worse with use but they’ll certainly get you moving until you decide to upgrade.
Pumping stations Pumping up the ArrowStream to an indicated 10psi measured by the 1.7-litre barrel pump’s built-in manometer took less than 90 seconds for the floor and a minute for each side. The pressures may be high but there’s much less volume here than a tubed IK. The pump comes with a nifty red cap which you easily unscrew to switch to downward-action-only to help attain higher pressures. I actually managed those times on double action all the way to 10psi. It’s manageable, but others will welcome the lighter pumping option as pumping effort increases. Checking against my accurate Bravo hand manometer, the 10psi figure on the dial was spot on. Good to know.
One good thing about the 64cm tall pump is that, I at least, stoop less compared to my 45cm Bravo. That makes pumping a whole lot more comfortable, though conversely shorter pumpers may find the height awkward. As mentioned here, a barrel pump suited to high D-S pressures needs to be relatively tall but slim. The raft valve nozzle on the end of the hose had the bridge inside to press open the inflation valve once clamped on, so as to ease the pumping effort. This also enables sucking the boat down to maximum compactness. I’ve only just realised these nozzle bridges are the key to compact suction packing, as long as you have push-push valves. After shrink-packing, as you quickly remove the nozzle the valve closes and virtually no air in sucked back in. One thing you don’t get on a self-branded boat like this is a conformity table stating recommended pressures, HIN, payloads, ISO rating, CE stamp and so on. But there’s a one year warranty against manufacturers defects.
On the Water
I’ve been speculating about these boxy, hardshell-stiff full drop-stitchers for years and finally had a chance to try one. I picked a 21km (13 mile) section of the Thames from Shepperton to Richmond with three lock portages on the way. From where I live it’s an hour and a half by train, then a 20-minute walk to the river: a good test of real-world packboating. All I had to do now was sit back and wait for a sunny, mid-December day. In the end I settled for a dry day and once I got there, it dawned on me I’ve not been to my local train station for 9 months or more. To spare the mesh backpack, I used an old folding trolley. It can hack rough treatment but these days most London stations have lifts, so the whole trip was rather effortless.
A 15-minute walk from Shepperton station, I’d located a perfect put-in off Google maps: a paved dock down a bank tucked between trees and just a foot above the water (left). As so often happens when setting up in the more populated south, as I set up a passing chap was curious about the boat. Little do these people know they’ve stumbled upon the UK’s self-styled inflatable guru! A comprehensive exultation of The Packboating Way may have been more than they bargained for.
The planned route broke down as: 4km to Sunbury Lock; about the same to Molesey Lock; another 8 to Teddington and 4 or so to Richmond. As I wrote recently in an IK guidebook (out later): first time in a new boat choose a quiet, safe and easy spot and if in doubt, do the tippy test before you let go of the river bank. Perched on the thick 9cm seatbase, the ArrowStream felt wobbly on its relatively narrow hull that’s about 60cm wide at the waterline where you sit. At a guess my Seawave 2 might be 70cm or less at the water level, but the difference must be that the Seawave sags a bit and leans over onto round side tubes (below right) which vaguely maintain the waterline width; the Shipwreck’s super-stiffness and near-vertical sides are what I’ve decided to call a ‘flowerpot’ profile (below left) which quickly narrows and has less to support it as it leans over.
Had it been a lovely summer’s day in a shallow pool, it would have been interesting to push the tippy test past the limit. And also find out how easy it was to re-enter the ArrowStream from deep water. But it was a cheerless mid-December day on the Thames. I suspect the Shipwreck is more stable than it feels: what they call low primary (upright) stability but good secondary (leaning) stability, though some think latter concept is bollocks; a kayak either feels stable to you or it doesn’t. As for deep-water re-entry, like a canoe, the tall, thin sides may make that tricky, depending on how well you can dolphin-launch yourself up and into the boat without pulling more water in. Luckily I had the option to zip out the 6cm foam block from the 3cm padded seatbase envelope and sit nearly on the floor. I could try the block later when I was more accustomed to the boat. Sat lower, the boat felt normal. It can be rocked side-to-side more readily than my Seawave and you have to make sure you sit right on the centre line. As others have said it may tip off centre but it won’t go right over, at least on flat water.
On this first stage, in the interests of analytical rigour I planned to use the four-part paddle before switching to my trusty Werner. In fact it worked perfectly well for an alloy straight-shaft. You don’t really notice the slack joints, though the width of the boat’s high sides caused the paddle to brush against them. It was the same with my Werner later, so it might be an idea to tape this area against wear. Sat on the seat foam block or other added padding would get you higher for more paddle side-clearance. Once I got on the move the biggest problem was as anticipated: the tendency of the ArrowStream to track straight as an arrow. Normal inputs to fine-tune the direction had no effect and progress became an annoying succession of straight lines broken by occasional hard hauling or jamming in a stern rudder/forward pry (it’ll all be in the book!) to get it on track. This was the same issue we had with the Moki a few months back. Is it the stiff D-S floor? Is it the huge skeg? The sculpted hard plastic bow and stern prows? Read on, but I got to Sunbury in less than half an hour which was a pretty good 5mph with help from the current.
Here I didn’t think to investigate what had looked on Google like a fish-ladder/mini weir on the left of the lock. I now realise it was a very handy canoe roller ramp: a slopping drop which would have made portaging near effortless. I’ve never seen these before; with a little more excavation they could be made into chutes as found uniquely on the Medway but perhaps the Thames’ current gets too strong for them. Instead, I hauled the kayak up onto the towpath, carried it past the lock and clambered back down a dockside ladder. Grabbing one side-handle, a solo paddler can rest the boat on the hip and carry it a short distance.
Paddling off with the weight (trolley, pump, spare paddle) now in the back and my Werner in hand, progress improved. A favourite paddle of 15 years fits like a well worn pair of boots, except boots would never last that long. I still hadn’t got to grips with steering nuance. There is just no way skipping a few strokes on one side will make any difference: the Arrow Streams full ahead like a rocket sled on rails. Of course, it’s better that way round than the other. Somewhere downriver a mate who lived nearby was standing by to grab some drone footage, but you’ll see better video at the top of the page. A few stills below.
With half an hour spent chatting or in a holding pattern while the drone buzzed overhead, annoying all in earshot, I wondered if I’d left it too late to get to Richmond before dark. At Molesey Lock I nearly made the same portaging mistake had not a kayaker catching up scooted down the ramp (below). They may not be as much fun as a chute, but with shallow water on either side, you can hop out and portage in a minute, even without using the rollers. It’s probable the day’s three locks (plus Richmond’s tidal barrier, just downstream of town) are the only such roller-ramps on the Thames’ 45 locks.
From here it was an 8-km stretch to Teddington where I thought I might bail if I felt tired. That’s the great thing with a packboat: you can change plans as you go. After passing rows of cute riverside dwellings and many seemingly abandoned boats, from here on the river was less grubby and urbanised as it passed the vast grounds of Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace. Right from the start I’d been surprised at the number and variety of birds on the Thames, not least the hordes of swans (which were protected by ancient royal decree until 1998). I noticed one had a cunning way of fluffing its wings out into a pair of downwind sails to tale advantage of the tailwind.
Like a weary traveller, I came upon a glittering riverside metropolis and for the life of me couldn’t work out where this was. Happy shoppers and joggers where cruising along the waterfront. Cafes, bars and patisseries were making the most of it before Covid restrictions ramped back up in a few days. Was Thames Ditton really like a mini-Manhattan? Or have I been cooped up indoors a little too long. I asked a passing boatman what was this place of wonder. “It’s Kingston, mate. Why, wherja think it was?” I hadn’t the heart to tell him.
As I paddled past, I clocked the distinctive slabby flanks of an Aqua Marina Tomahawk tucked between two raptor-like speed boats. That particular boat was about as good value an FD-S IK as you could buy until this Shipwreck washed up on the ebbing tide.
I drifted under Kingston Bridge which I must have ridden over scores of times in a past life, when the Miracle of Kingston delivered one final benefaction: the setting sun burst out from beneath the carpet of clouds which had smothered the London skies for the past week. The shock was so great and the light so stunning against the steel-blue clouds, it could not have been a better time for the cold to get to the camera’s battery. I managed to rub it into delivering one last shot of the stately riverside plane trees before it packed up for good. This illuminated setting invigorated me for the final lap to Teddington Lock and Richmond beyond, but three hours in, the old butt was getting sore. One good thing with the ArrowStream and similar is you can lift yourself up on the hard sides to aire le derriere. This turned out to be one of the nicest stretches on the Thames I can recall. The riverside sticky-beaking, enigmatic islands and doubtless loads of history if you care to investigate, makes me realise that without its sporty chutes, Kent’s Medway is just another ordinary, agri-saturated Southeastern drain.
Converging on Teddington Lock with a quartet of silver-haired sea kayaking ladies, like a well-conditioned lab rat, I knew the form by now: canoe ramp, river left. Here I decided to remove the skeg. Straight away I set off at a faster paddling rhythm and found the boat much more lively, but in a good way. Yes, small corrections were needed to keep track, but now I was off the monorail and could wander and weave around like a normal IK. I wish I’d done this earlier. As suggested elsewhere; the sweet spot must lie with chopping that dorsal fin down. At the lock I also slipped the seat block back under the seat … for as many nano-seconds it took to realise that was still a bad idea. Something softer but less thick is needed.
The trees of what I thought was Richmond Park (actually the near-contiguous Ham Lands) glowed orangey-red as I cruised below Richmond Hill and under another familiar road bridge to arrive at the ramp where Steve and I had set off for Greenwich nine years ago, just after the last London riots. Lord know there’s plenty more to riot about these days, but now it’s all conducted online which is much more hygienic. Like Kingston, twilight on Richmond waterside was throbbing with ducks and Christmas revellers. I took my time draining and folding up the boat (chatting IKs with another curious chappy), rather pleased I’d managed the distance in exactly four hours without ending up too knackered. Part of that must be down to a backwind and the Thames’ swift winter current, but most of it’s owed to the Shipwreck ArrowStream, a fast flatwater cruiser whose potential is released once you dial in the right amount of skeg which may be none at all. It’s hard to see that price of £550 lasting for much longer.
Drying The twin drain plugs at the back worked fairly well on the ramp at Richmond; a pint or two spilled out from the cavity formed between the sides and the floor and which will almost certainly not dry out fully. The mesh-sided backpack helped, but you could tell it would take more to dry the boat off fully prior to long-term storage. In our flat I left it in the warm hallway (with an appropriate warning sign) and gave it what I thought was a final wipe down, but folding it up more water splashed out from somewhere, possibly the hollow prow beaks at either end. If you have the space the best way would be to lean it inflated on a wall in a warm room (or out in the sunshine), let what’s in there run to one end and deal with it there. If you’re really serious about the side cavities, you might get to them from either end with a hose attached to a hair dryer set on low.
These days IK are mostly made from PVC, be it the hull or the bladders. Just three main IK brands still using old school synthetic rubber: Gumotex (CZ), Grabner (AT) and NRS (US). PVC gets recycled, is made everywhere and so is cheap off the roll and easy to heat weld. But is it only me who finds something unpleasantly ‘plasticy’ about PVC: the stiffness, the texture, the smell and maybe the eco-stigma.
The only PVC IK I’ve ever owned punctured on the slightest thorn and went on to do that with the next owner. And this was supposedly quality Mirasol PVC from Germany (to be fair, a mate with an older K40 had no puncture problems whatsoever). I can’t imagine any Gumotex or Grabner I’ve had ever doing that. That’s why I persevere with synthetic rubber IKs, even if it’s becoming an expensive dinosaur fabric.
Synthetic rubber coatings like Nitrilon and EDPM are derived from the original DuPont hypalon. Boats must be entirely hand glued which adds to costs. But, just as nothing man-made has managed to beat the properties of leather for crashing fast motorbikes, compared to PVC, synthetic rubber remains more durable and more resistant to UV, lighter, more supple, easier to glue and easier fold compactly. After 15 years there was no noticeable deterioration in my Sunny, (below) other than a decade and a half of paddling wear and tear. A synthetic rubber IK will easily outlive a similar PVC IK.
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 left, right and centre. 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’. For inflatables TPU is clearly superior to PVC in all ways except price and stiffness (but this works both ways). “It has properties between the characteristics of plastic and rubber. So, it is flexible without plasticizers, and its flexibility does not affect the design or its strength and durability.” Link
In a way, my 3-metre MRS Nomad packayak (above) was as much a TPU kayak as a packraft. With just 2psi or so, it was able to hold its shape (under my weight), but now costs nearly €1400 in the decked version.
While researching the Zelgear Spark 450 preview I found a 2018 ZelGear catalog. It states their now discontinued 5.2m PVC Igla IK can be requested in TPU (or the similar and much stronger Vectran which Alpacka use for their top-of-the-range packrafts). There’s more here. The weight of this long boat: is said to be just 15kg. The cost? $2000 I was told.
You may wonder if relatively thin and flexible packraft TPU could support a 5-m IK? TPU coating is also said to be more elastic than PVC, but it can’t be any more elastic than rubber. And anyway, a stretch-free scrim (woven core) takes care of that; the coating is primarily for impermeability.
An IK needs to be a lot more rigid than a relatively short and squidgy packraft. A lot of that is down to the fabric as well as the psi. That’s one good thing about inflated PVC: it’s stiff. You’d think a TPY IK would require high pressures to support a long boat which would then require bombproof seams. But add a drop-stitch floor (left) in TPU to take the load and the tubed sides would be under less pressure, so to speak. This Zelgear blog post from 2018 mentions some “some technological issues are being resolved“. I’m told Zelgear are on it. Pictures below by Marcin S from a boat show in 2018.
With all these Asian-made TPU packrafts knocking about, some using locally sourced fabric whose quality – in my experience – is as good as the Alpacka stuff, the cost of TPU fabric may drop to a level matching the few ‘hypalon’ IKs still available.
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 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’.
You may have seen these bayonet/car tyre adapters on eBay in recent months (left). The bayonet end clamps into your IK’s raft valve (won’t work on Boston valves). The other end is a regular Schrader valve like on your car/bike wheel. Attach that to your 12-volt Halfords tyre compressor and you can inflate your IK from your car battery. No more of that effortful, back-breaking pumping!
Me, I’ve never seen the value of electric pumps for IKs. (Packrafts are another matter). You can only use them near a power source, or the rechargeable battery will run out. And how hard and slow is inflating an IK with a good barrel pump anyway? As IKs catch on with more mainstream recreational users (whose cheap boats may come with a rubbish pump), some find manual pumping too tiring. What is this world coming too?!
The difference between tyres and IKs: • a car tyre is a low-volume, high-pressure vessel (~30 litres @ ~30psi) • an IK has high volume but runs low pressure (3 chambers of 50–160 litres @ ~3psi). Drop-stitch has less volume but runs much more pressure.
That’s up to five times more volume in an IK, but at a tenth of the pressure. I would guess the swept volume of my better-than-average car pump (left) is 3–5cc. My Bravo RED 4 barrel pump is 2 x 2000cc (it pumps on the up and the down strokes). Even if my 12-volt compressor whizzes along at 1001rpm, it will still take a long, long time to fill a 160-litre IK floor. But for a fiver, I thought I’d prove myself right.
The Test The easiest way was to pump up my Seawave’s floor to the point the PRV purged at about 3psi. The actual psi is immaterial but it’s consistent.
No surprise: it took less than a minute to pump up the 160-litre floor with the barrel. With my car tyre pump it took over 7 minutes. And if you want say 4psi in the sides, or a 10psi drop-stitch boat, the duration of the tyre pump (or effort with the barrel pump) rises exponentially. It will take forever with the car pump adapter and I think the tyre pump would auto shut-off or burn-out before it reached anywhere near 10psi.
I looked into rechargable or D-cell battery or mains/car electric pumps like above. They go on amazon from just £9.99, or even less for mains only or 4 x D-cell battery. These may be great for pool toys, air beds and other low-pressure items like slackrafts which just need a shape, not rigidity. The Pumteck (left; £15) claims an obscure pressure rating of 4.5 kPa which sounds impressive but translates to just 0.65 psi or 0.045 bar. That is slackraft pressure; there is no worthwhile IK that runs such a low psi.
All these pumps do is save you the initial pumping which merely takes time (< 5 mins), not effort. The rechargeable ones will be spent in 10 minutes and then need hours of recharging. For a typical 3-psi IK you’ll still need some sort of manual pump to top offto full pressure; even more so a higher pressure DS IK. If your back can’t handle a barrel pump (taller pumps work better for taller folk), consider a Bravo foot pump, but with any dropstitch IK there is no getting round the need for a high-pressure barrel pump or a very expensive SUP electric pump.
I recently bought myself an Aqua Marina Tomahawk Air-K 375, after floating around on a cheap Bestway Hydro Force (right) over the summer. The choice was partly driven by availability – the Tomahawk was still on sale where others had sold out, perhaps because it was specifically listed as an intermediate to advanced kayak, while beginners are driving the shortage.
Overall I am pretty satisfied with the boat, though it’s not perfect. It comes in a fairly hefty package, but it is manageable for myself, an average fitness male. Smaller people and/or those with less strength may struggle a bit. The bag fits well and it technically a backpack. I wouldn’t want to go far with it but it works sufficiently well to get it out of the flat, down the stairs, and into the car.
Some work is required for set-up – the included pump is effective but needs some effort towards the end when approaching 10PSI. I may invest in an electric at some point. In fact the hardest bit is fitting the twin skegs: these are very stiff, and it’s difficult to apply pressure to the thin edge. I may need to take some sandpaper to get these to fit better, though I’ll try some silicone grease first. The seat and footrest are effective, a little strap threading is needed for the latter, nothing terrible. The seat straps keep their tension once set up, but the footrest doesn’t. Total setup time is about 20 mins, though that may reduce as I get more familiar with the kayak.
On the water it is a step change from the basic inflatable, though you’d expect that based on the price! It’s much faster, tracks amazingly well, and is a lot less tiring to paddle. The addition of an entry-level carbon fibre paddle provides a lot more range before fatigue sets in (though I still need to improve my stamina!). It turns relatively slowly to compensate, but I’ll take the better tracking any day.
I removed the front skeg to see if it would make it turn better. Turning was indeed a little easier, but the tracking was noticeably less effective (though still far better than the budget IK). In the end I decided I preferred both skegs, plus it’s reasonably heavy and right at the bottom of the boat and so provides a bit more stability. It would work fine without through so it’s more a case of personal preference. It is noticeably tricky in the wind – because it’s relatively light, I’m slower in a headwind than a friend with a Point 65 sit-on-top. In crosswinds the high sides catch the air which makes stability less good in a gust.
It feels a lot less stable than the Bestway (I’m 77kg). I’m constantly working to balance it though I think more use will see that become less of a worry. Once or twice I’ve had a wobble and almost felt like I’ve gone over. However I think it’s actually a little better than it seemed. I deliberately flipped it to ensure I could re-enter and it took a lot more leaning over than I thought to capsize. It is probably not suitable for beginners whose balance is questionable, though. Re-entry was a little tricky put perfectly doable.
Packing up is reasonably quick – note that I do it with minimal drying on site, then re-inflate it fully once home to give it a proper wipe-down and time to dry. The drainage issue mentioned in the article is definitely evident: it’s basically impossible to get every last drop of water out, though I’d say no more than a tablespoonful was left which is not terrible. The joins between the floor and the sides also tend to attract sand and grit – the wipe-down gets rid of most, but I suspect at least a little is starting to build up there, though I don’t know how much of an issue this is in the long run as they shouldn’t rub against each other.
Despite the ‘Intermediate to advanced’ labelling, I think a beginner wanting to move on from an Intex or similar could do worse as long as they have at least a modicum of balance and confidence. I don’t think it would be for everyone though, as there are definitely more stable FDS kayaks out there. Overall I’m pretty pleased with with the Tomahawk, and hope the construction is good enough to provide many years of kayaking to come!
This video shows how to properly clean and dry a 3.8-metre Itiwit 2-3 seater, one of the most popular IKs of 2020 – or at least one which remained available when stock of so many others ran out. It also shows the inner bladders and how they fit: something that’s rarely described on vendors’ websites.
Like so much Decathlon gear, their shell & bladder (S&B) IKs are a bargain. This orange Itiwit costs just £300, but the cleaning and drying process takes a while and realistically, is something best done over a couple of hours back home, if you have the space. Quite rightly, after a sea paddle the owner was concerned about sand and other grit getting into the nooks and crannies around the floor, and even inside the sleeves which house the relatively fragile bladder ‘inner tubes’.
As it happens, the sidetube and removable floor sleeves plus their respective bladders (above) were merely wet inside. As on all IKs, the grit mostly settled down in the gutters inside where the floor joins the sides. This is why, with full drop-stitch (FD-S), drop-stitch floor (D-SF), or S&B IKs like this Itiwit, a removable floor makes proper rinsing, cleaning and drying so much easier.
Tubeless IKs like vinyl ultra-cheapies, most PVC Sea Eagles and IKs made from synthetic rubber, like the old Gumotex Sunny (left), merely need seats unclipped before a freshwater hosing and a wipe down. A river paddle on a warm day won’t even require a rinse: just wipe the boat dry and roll up till next time.