Advanced Elements’ hybrid AirFusion EVO (AE1042) is a good looking 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 floor. Like a folding kayak there is no inflatable floor. The EVO version (above) looks very similar, but replaces the four bladders with a pair of drop stitch panels running a much higher 6psi (0.41bar). 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. They say this rod gives the AirFusion a V-shaped hull, but if you can find a picture of this, let me know. The best I could find was below. The rod’s chief purpose is to add tension between the bow and stern which presumably the new D-S sides can’t do alone.
The EVO also retains the low-pressure thwarts (air bags, left) which help push the deck up so water runs off, push the sides 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. Tthe coaming (deck rim) is inflatable too, as is the seat base. The AirFusion EVO is the opposite of most ‘hybrid (part drop-stitch) IKs which combine D-S floors and round tube sides. Such boats, like the Gumotex Rush, are rigid but, with round side tubes, end up wider and so, more stable.
The AE1042 is all wrapped in a separate PU shell making it another ‘shell & D-S bladder’ IK with all the drying issues that entails, and made a little harder by the fixed deck. As with the bow and stern ribs, the D-S panels come pre-positioned out of the box and are fixed in with velcro. They can be left there or removed for a deep dry and clean.
Numbers are 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 thwarts take up a lot of interior space, like the all-D-S AirVolution, this ends more of a day boat than an overnight camping tourer.
Gumotex use equally inelegant and bulky alloy bars to separate the sides and make the deck convex. Another boat I had used slim curved glass fibre stays or stats to do the same job (left). This has got to be better than bulky air bags – a typical AE design after-thought. It might be possible to run a similar arrangement of the AirFusion to free up a whole lot of interior space. At 24 inches wide this is one of the narrowest IKs around, similar to Itiwit’s 25-inch X500. The X500 is known to be tippy (it’s worse for larger paddlers) and so the slimmer AirFusion might be worse, but without an inflatable floor you sit a few inches lower 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 can improve things at the cost of performance.
The integrated rear plastic moulding can take 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 (left) which can be lifted and dropped as needed with a loop cord. I tried a similar MYO rudder set up but it had a lot of annoying ancillary rigging. I’ve often thought of adding something simpler like this to my own IKs to eliminate scraping in shallow water or when coming to land (the blade will just swing back harmlessly along the sea bed), or when beaching a loaded boat which needs to be rested on your mate’s boat (above right) if the under-skeg is not be be strained. You may get by without the skeg on the AirFusion as the PU hull shell floor include shallow strakes 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 fixes that as the skin is separate from the pressured D-S panels.
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. And the sides are quite tall and slabby (also typical of a Full DS 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.
It looks as bulky as all PVC D-S 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 photo-snack. 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 nearly twice the price of the X500 or a FDS IK like the Shipwreck. Here an owner’s review.
…The sit-in vs sit-on saga is complex and deep because it doesn’t just involve design, seaworthiness and technical stuff such as stability and comfort. You’ve got to throw tradition, experience, pride, machismo and credibility into the mix.
I came across Rupert K’s Lone Kayaker blog, an intrepid Devon based chap who has an uncanny knack in spotting and photographing marine life from his kayak. I tracked his online adventures from the Southwest up to a sail-boat assisted visit to the Western Isles, including a nail-biting solo lap of St Kilda. Even in a spell of good weather, that’s still pretty out there.
I assumed all this had been knocked out in the usual high-end hardshell sea kayak, but looking more closely at the few photos, it seemed to be some sort of Sit-on-Top I’d not seen before: long and low and slim like a proper sea kayak – but with the legs airing off under the breezy sky. Well I never. Just as people write-off IKs on the basis of gaudy, vinyl beach toys seen flying past in a gust of wind, I too had made a similar assumption that ‘all SoTs’ may be fun, easy to paddle and cheap, but are wide and heavy.
Not a 22-kilo, 5.5m, 22-inch-wide Cobra Expedition with something called a kick-down venturi bailer*. They don’t make the Cobra X any more, but it looks like it and similar touring SoTs are based on the surfski idea (left): long, narrow, tippy but fast ocean playboats popular in the warm waters of South Africa and ANZ, but not a thing you’d go touring in. A rudder is vital to keep on top of things, but unlike a typical surfski, the Cobra had hatches to enable storage in the sealed, unsinkable hull.
* A kick-down venturi bailer is some sort of heel-operated cockpit water dump valve which opens a backward pointing drain spout. It derived from small, racing sail boats and moved on to surfskis – probably. Kick the valve open and as you move through the water, any water in the kayak’s footwell or cockpit gets sucked down and drawn out in a few seconds (the venturi effect), after which you close the valve clamp to reseal the footwell. With the valve open at a standstill, the low footwell might partly fill up with water. You will see in the Cobra reviews on paddling.com that some owners complain about leaking seals on their venturi valves. Self-bailers – certainly IKs like the ROBfin or most Aire IKs – need to have the floor well well above the bailing drain holes and general water level if the paddler isn’t to be sitting in water most of the time. But seating a super-slim surfski needs to be as low as possible if there is to be any chance of not tipping out. You get wet anyway in a surfski or SoT, but a valve like this enables a low floor plus hands-free bailing on the move. I imagine a slim surfski is like a bicycle: you need to keep moving to not fall over. You do wonder if these valves might eventually find their way on to fixed-floor drop-stitch IKs. As we know, many have floor plugs anyway to aid draining and drying of unreachable cavities. The thing is, SoT’s and surfskis have basin-like floor and seat wells which drain easily. The idea will work less well with a flat D-S floor.
Like me, he’s enjoyed owning a lot of boats over the years to find what suits him best and listed a Top Ten here. It even includes a couple of Gumboats and also lists many of the SoTs: RTM Disco, Scupper Pro, Prowler – which I briefly considered after reaching the limits of my bendy Sunny in Shark Bay. Then I discovered the K40 – like the Cobra, another Kiwi design – and a whole lot of other IKs better suited to my kind of paddling. There are more provocative SoT vs Sink thoughts here (quoted top of the page) which, depressingly, references the occasional snobbery of SINKers, especially towards IKs. As I say here, my theory is this contempt is initially based on the appearance of the cheapest IKs: there sure are some hideous Bloaty MacBloatface IKs out there!
It’s worth reading his summary at the end of his Scottish trip (quoted below). I couldn’t agree more and is why I can never see myself buying a hardshell, even if they perform better most of the time. There’s more to paddling than that. As an avowed packboater, I won’t get getting an 18-foot SoT either, but it’s good to now know such things exist and as Lone Kayaker proves, enable SINK-like exploration.
… And of course hugely safe. If you have a spill you just climb back on. Or do you? In the same way as I would suspect that a average paddler in a conventional sea kayak could not roll up if they get tipped over in a big sea (and if they did, they would be subject to exactly the same conditions that just tipped them over, so they would probably go over again), I would worry that I may not be able to get back on my SOT. It’s fine if it’s flat, but conditions bad enough to result in a capsize (surf excluded) would be pretty nasty anyway. However at least I would have the chance of a simple re-entry and not be struggling with a swamped kayak, pumping it out, etc. The sit-on-top/sit-in kayak (SINK) debate is potentially very long. I just like to keep things ultra simple. Simplicity means more time on the water and less time faffing about. Float it out onto the water.Sit on and go. No struggling with a spray deck on the beach and then scrunching across the stones it into the sea. Yes OK you need a decent drysuit for all season SOT paddling, but apart from that, clutter is a minimum. Considering my expedition round the west of Scotland as a whole, there were three or four occasions when I was concerned about my safety because of the sea state. Probably unnecessarily so, as I never came close to capsize. But paddling round the ‘dark side’ of St. Kilda I would have been in a state of severe anxiety if I was in a SINK. The unsinkable, unswampable feature of SOTs with their drainage holes provide a feeling of security. I suppose it boils down to enjoyment. My expedition was probably 80% enjoyment, 20% worry. If I was in a SINK that would have been 50%/50%. I could go on and on, and be a bit of a bore about the SOT advantages. Maybe it’s because they are so sneered at by most SINK sea kayakers.
I bought one of the last Itiwit EB-100 sold new in Spain for 40€ from Decathlon which, in my opinion, is an absolute steal. It cost about a quarter of the price of the incumbent Itiwit 1-person inflatable kayak, but does almost anything the larger boat can do (maybe, that’s the reason why Decathlon discontinued it). I use it with a Decathlon 4-piece aluminium paddle. For 75€ I got a kayak (with a carrying bag), a paddle, and a foot pump.
It’s a small boat, about 215cm long and 95cm wide. Decathlon declares a weight of less than 3kg but, on my scales, it was about 4kg. It has the same construction as other Itiwit kayaks: two side air bladders with a removable outer nylon cover and a PVC floor. I find it robust enough: mine had close encounters with rocks, concrete and gravel and came away intact. If Decathlon had tried a little more seriously, they could have created a very nice budget packraft. The air valves are mini-Boston and are robust and leak proof, but require a specific nozzle in the pump that’s difficult to find. I had to cut and customize one of the adaptors of my foot pump to fit.
I use mine in the sea, both off the coasts of Galicia (northwest Spain) and Catalonia (Med). It’s not very fast as it’s short and wide, but it’s very stable and holds its own at sea with some waves. I’ve found I could paddle easily against a Force 3 wind and a tidal current, and have paddled with one-metre waves without a problem.
There are some negative points: the worst in my opinion is the paddling position: you sit high with legs in a 110º angle and no back support. It’s comfortable for about an hour but after that, your back begins to hurt and your legs feel cramped. On the other side, you can easily take a 10-year old child between your legs. Another negative point is the looooong time it takes to dry, even in August in the Mediterranean it can easily be more than an hour. Overall, I think it’s a great beginner’s kayak for the price. It’s a pity Decathlon doesn’t make it any more.
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.
In a line Nippy self-bailing 3-chamber PVC / high-pressure packraft/IK suited to white water and surfing.
What They Say Completely new concept of packrafting. Instead of mushy packraft, you get a High Pressure Packraft from extremely heavy duty fabric, that takes you anywhere and make it fun! Stable and self–bailing (realy self-bailing) packraft with performance of hardshell boat. Fast and manoeuvrable, good for beginners, for experienced boaters or experts as well. Packraft for bigger boaters or for long expeditions, sometimes called Big Bro. For paddlers and gear up to 140 kg. Fast and responding boat from extremely tough fabric. High profile bottom with comfortable seat, self-bailing up to 5 secs completely full boat (with standard load). Price: €750
Out of the box
The Big Boy is the second largest in ROBfin’s range of four packrafts, rated for loads of up to 140kg. Self-bailing holes in the floor set limits on payloads; tape them up and you may well be able to carry more without sitting in water, but heavy hauling is not what a self-bailer is about. Although PACKRAFT is emblazoned boldly along the sides, this is not your typical, single-chamber TPU Alpacka or Anfibio, but more like an IK with three chambers including an inflatable floor.
Made from stiff, 1.1mm PVC, raft valves and the small Bestway Air Hammer will get 3psi (0.2 bar) in there eventually. The stiff hull works well with the integrated footrest/thigh straps for a better connection with the boat. You may notice below left how the floor expands and thickens towards the back to add more buoyancy in the seating area where it’s needed.
On the Water
Where I live there’s no white water for miles. The Lee River White Water Centre on the other side of London would have been fun to visit, but was closed for Lockdown and requires passing an assessment course before they let you loose on the two short artificial courses. So the ever-reliable Medway and its sporty canoe chutes would have to do. And with the recent rains the river should be moving right along. But on arriving at Sluice Weir there were barriers everywhere, and the river level above the lock was several feet below the jetty. The upper Medway was closed for winter maintenance works. I’ve been caught out like this on the Medway before. Better to check at http://allingtonlock.co.uk. So after waiting weeks to try out the ROBfin on a sunny day, all I got was a muddy, flatwater paddle. It was altogether a bit of a washout.
My big IK barrel pump inflated the boat in no time. The yellow conformity label says ‘0.2 bar/ 3.5psi’, but 0.2 = 2.9psi, so that’s what I put in. At this pressure the PVC ROBfin was firm like an IK and not mushy like a packraft. Setting off downstream, the way the floor drops like a keel helps the boat track reasonably well, though you do can’t power on and will need to correct once in a while. If you stop it veers off to one side. With gentle strokes, you move along with none of that bow yawing you get with a packraft. The packraft-like 1-metre width meant it was stable, even with the higher seating position.
As it is, the water level in the boat was only about two inches below where I sat, so any fast moves or turns brought it up momentarily. You will get a bit wet. Judging by some brisk riverside walkers, the boat was managing over 3mph against the current, and back at the lock it was easy to wipe down and dry.
It’s a shame I wasn’t able to get splashy with the ROBfin; it would have been fun to belt flat out down the bigger chutes to test out the bailing, and mess about below them. The taut hull means the thigh straps work well and the short length would make it agile in the rapids. And should you tip over, getting back on would be dead easy. For playing in white water I’d sooner get a boat like this than a decked packraft and the ROBfin is much cheaper than a Chinese-made Kokopelli Nirvana. Packraft or IK? I’d settle on the latter which might put it up against a 12-kilo, 3.3m Gumotex Safari at more or less the same price. The shorter, wider ROBfin would be more stable a fun boat in the right element. What a shame I never got there.
“I claim to have proved that the sea itself provides sufficient food and drink to enable the battle for survival to be fought with perfect confidence.”
Alain Bombard, The Bombard Story (1953)
Many packboaters have heard of Alone at Sea (right, and discussed below), Hannes Lindemann’s famous account of his sail-assisted, mid-Fifties Atlantic crossings, first in a dug-out canoe and then in a production Klepper folding kayak. As a doctor, Lindemann used his expedition to examine the physiology and psychology of enduring long weeks at sea alone.
Although he was already an experienced sailor and ocean kayaker by this time, Lindemann’s Atlantic goals may well have been spurred on by a meeting withFrenchman Alain Bombard (right) in Morocco in 1952. Also a doctor, Bombard was at the time engaged in exploring unorthodox ways of extending the survival chances for those adrift at sea. When they met, Bombard was about to set off across the Atlantic in a 14-foot RIB (rigid inflatable boat or dinghy) equipped with a sail – but with no food or water.
His book starts in 1951 when he estimated 200,000 people died at sea each year. Half perished when a disabled vessel struck the shore – ‘Fear the land, not the sea’ as a sailor’s adage goes – but about a quarter died while adrift in life rafts, surrounded by water and potential food.
Bombard was convinced that as long as sharks, madness and weather didn’t finish you off, indefinite survival at sea waspossible by drinking moderate amounts of seawater, as well as the less saline juice pressed from fish, and all supplemented by windfalls of rainwater. Fish could also be eaten raw or dried, while teaspoonfuls of plankton gathered in a stocking-like mesh could address vitamin needs. ‘Lobster puree’ was how he initially described the taste of the seaborne slime which he later grew to loath. All that was missing from a balanced diet were carbohydrates, to which Bombard believed the human body could adapt.
The key was to start drinking seawater as soon as fresh water became unavailable and before becoming seriously dehydrated. This sea-water-only practice was something about which Lindemann professed some scepticism. In his first dug-out trip his legs swelled up as a result, he thought, of drinking small amounts of seawater. Later, when he didn’t drink it they were mostly fine. But Bombard found no such ill effects early on, while adrift with a friend for a few days in the English Channel. Of course Lindemann was suffering in the torrid, tropical climate of the Gulf of Guinea while Bombard spent just a few days in the Channel during his first experiment. Although Bombard recorded many ailments, he reported little such swelling in the Atlantic; you do wonder if being able to move around his Zodiac more freely may have helped circulation, although Lindemann was never completely cockpit-bound on either of his crossings.
What does for many castaways is that once adrift and with all fresh water exhausted, it’s only in a state of acute desperation that they turn to seawater (or urine). By now severely dehydrated, the kidneys can’t handle the sudden accumulation of toxins and an agonising death soon follows, supporting the mariner’s lore that drinking seawater was fatal. According to Bombard the key was to drink early but drink little.
With the aid of sponsors, benefactors as well as supporters in the field of oceanography, he used an early incarnation of what was to become the well-known and widely licensedZodiacinflatable dinghy. (The Bombard brand of RIBs still survives today). He christened his own craft L’Heretique (the Heretic) which demonstrates how he thought he was perceived.
With much less experience at sea than Lindemann, in 1952 he set off from Monaco for the Balearics with an English companion and experienced sailor, a journey not without privations at sea and which on land included a hostile press eager to exploit his drama while keen to catch him out. A small store of emergency food and water was officially sealedand placed in his boatand though he was at times desperate, it was never used by Bombard – partly because certainly in the mid-Atlantic he was at timesthrowing excess rainwater overboard and was never short of fish, despite what many had predicted. Shipping on from Ibiza to Tangiers (where he met Lindemann) for the Atlantic stage to the West Indies, he correctly interpreted his English companion’s dithering as a change of heart forwhat lay ahead and so set off alone, while later praising his companion’svaluable contribution. (Lindemann interprets this episode less generously).
You can imagine the ordeal that followed. A fortnight or so to the Canaries – a dangerous stage for any small sail boat and one which Lindemann chose to skip in the kayak. And then over two months across the Atlantic to Barbados where he arrived just before Christmas 1952, desperate to let his wife and new-born child know he was alive. Pushed along by irregular trade winds but travelling off the shipping lanes, he only encountered two vessels on the way. On one ship, the Arakaka, met less than a fortnight from completion, he succumbed to a regular meal that was offered, but following weeks of raw fish, his starvation-hardened willpower went into a spin which he claimed very nearly finished him off.
At times it reads like a voyage in outer space of The Life of Pi, full of wonder as well as terrifying episodes: strange creatures, sound and lights, phosphorescence and a loyal escort of birds and dolphinfish or dorado (which also helped replenish his larder).
As well as his physical health, his mental state and morale were also closely scrutinised and well recorded, including his prolonged despair as land failed to materialise for weeks (most of the time his longitude was out by 10° or 600 miles). He demonstrated dogged defiance as storms swamped L’Heretique for hours on end, as well as the irrational conviction of being persecuted by inanimate objects – all exacerbated by the monotonous fare, incessant damp and interrupted sleep.
Loyal ‘Kleppards’ rightly hold Alone at Sea in high acclaim and ensure that it’s still in print, but whatever Lindemann achieved, you have to salute Bombard’s bravery, resolveand not least the commitment to his unconventional experiment in surviving for weeks by living off the fruits of the sea.
Reading the book I had a thought that perhaps Bombard had rediscovered a long-lost human ability or knowledge for surviving at sea. How else does one suppose people like the Polynesians colonised the Pacific, or humans got to Australia tens of thousands of years earlier and long after any land bridge? In fact his ideas had already been raised in the film of the Kon-Tiki voyage which had been released in 1950. Heyerdahl’s Wiki page says this of his 1947 expedition:
“Kon-Tiki demonstrated that it was possible for a primitive raft to sail the Pacific with relative ease and safety… The raft proved to be highly maneuverable, and fish congregated between the nine balsa logs in such numbers that ancient sailors could have possibly relied on fish for hydration in the absence of other sources of fresh water.”
The Kon-Tiki film (on youtube) mentions extracting fish juice, eating plankton as well as mixing 40% seawater with fresh, but on reading Bombard’s book you still get the feeling he took it all a big step further, critically examining the full nutritional potential of living solely off the sea, and then having the guts to put his theory brutally to the test while learning a few hard lessons on the way.
Bombard’s extraordinary adventure brings to mind another incredible voyage that took place at the same time, that of Australian Ben Carlin who sailed and drove an ex-army amphibious jeep called Half-Safe around the world (right). It took him ten years and cost him a wife or two, but in overlanding terms nothing else comes close. As with Bombard, many couldn’t believe the jeep had motored across the Atlantic and then been driven up to London.
Although long out of print, I found an original 1953 Andre Deutsch edition of The Bombard Story for a couple of quid on the web, impeccably translated it has to be said, by a chap called Brian Connell.
Alone at Sea A couple of years after meeting Bombard in Tangiers, Lindemannalso put himself to the test by crossing the Atlantic alone in, of all things, a heavily-keeled West African dug-out canoe he had made in Liberia where he was stationed at the time. Here’s a little newsreel of the boat.
He took off again a year later, this time in a smaller and less robust Klepper Aerius folding kayak (right), fitted with two masts and an all-important outrigger to partially compensate for the lack of a keel. Little changed, the legendary Aerius is still made by Klepper today. The Pouch we used on the Speyis a close copy.
I recall being disappointed when I realised Lindemann hadsailed his Klepper across rather than paddled it, which shows how little I know about ocean paddling! Indeed, I believe it wasn’t until 2011 that a 64-year-old old Polish guyAlexander Doba, managed to actually kayak paddle alone – not sail or row – between the African and South American mainland, although his specialised craft was noslim sea kayak, buta specially designed 23-foot, half-ton, self-righting contraption with a watertight sleeping compartment, similar to those trans-Atlantic rowing boats. Such features enabled Doba to keep at it for over three months, sitting out contrary wind and currents until he finally reached Brazil. Doba completed a much longer 4500-mile in April 2014 in a similar boat (left), crossing between Lisbon and Florida. As this article says:
My kayak was equipped with an electric desalinator that produced around 4.5 litters … of fresh water per hour. It needed electricity, which came from a big solar panel that charged the battery… I had two spare manual desalinators, which I had to use. It took me about four hours daily to get six liters for all my needs. So instead of resting or paddling more I had to pump the water. I wanted to use my legs, so I fixed the manual desalinators in a way so I could use them with my feet.
Back to the story. Overall I found Alone at Sea the less engaging of the two books, partly because there are no less than four trips covered which adds up to a lot of horrendous days and nights at sea with waves washing over his decks and smashing off rudders. The end of the Klepper trip does pick up though, as utterly exhausted through lack of sleep, Lindemanndrifts through hallucinations and altered states following two weeks of terrible storms.
Hisgreat achievement was preparing himself as well as he could mentally, using prayer, meditation, what we now call ‘visualisation’ as well as affirmation (‘I will make it’; ‘Keep going west’), and what was then known as autogenic training, a relaxation technique on which he was later to write manuals. All this must have helped Lindemannkeep going, when other individuals would have allowed a capsized boat to slip away. Towards the end of the book there’s a telling photo on a Caribbean quayof a hunched, emaciated but still smiling figure; Lindemann had lost over 25% of his body weight and on arrival his pulse was down in the 30s.
At one point Lindemann says an odd thing though: ‘Surely I took with me the least amount of food of any boat that has ever made the Atlantic crossing, at least much less than Alain Bombard’. It’s unclear if this is an outright accusation of cheating, or an out-of-context dig at the sealed reserves which Bombard carried but, as far as we know, did not use. Sure Bombardcarried reserves; if his ‘heresy’ was flawed he didn’t want to die. He carried a radio too (it broke).
Such spats over a rival’s authenticity and integrity are common among adventurers competing for the same goal, and in his summary Lindemanngoes on tomention photos published of Bombard taking on supplies of food from the Arakaka. It’s much more than the ‘shower and meal’ Bombarddescribes in his book but still, 50 days of fish juice and plankton was surely enough to prove a point.
It has to be said though, I did feel the supposed agonies of the ‘psychologicalhunger‘ which befell Bombard following the Arakaka meal (and which proved ‘very nearly fatal’) was not so convincingly portrayed. Could he have been scoffing away merrily away all the way to the finalé? Bombard also records losing around 50 pounds of weight as a result of the ordeal.
It is true that Lindemann succeeded in making the crossing from the Canaries with his own provisions plus what nature provided with no human assistance whatsoever. He makes another dig at Bombard’s patronage and sponsorship from Zodiac, but I read Bombard’s book as the story of a guy who primarily set off to experiment in living off the sea, but like any castaway, took what was given in moderation. His preparations and qualifications seemed skimpy because he had the sealed reserves to fall back on. His goal was not to complete the crossing in complete self-sufficiency; while at sea he also sought to evaluate the viability of inflatables as life rafts, something he continued to champion and (one reads) take on commercially long after it was all over. Lindemann acknowledges this latter fact.
So though less rigorous in his execution, whether genuine or contrived, Bombard does succeed in painting himself as a more sympathetic character, missing his family and his Bach, as well as his food. He even had a little doll as a mascot which got pictured in the book. Lindemann had a speargun. And to my mind Bombard recorded his self-diagnoses more compellingly too, though reading both books back to back I could have been desensitised to registering the finer points of Lindemann’sprotracted trans-Atlantic suffering.
Lindeman was clearly much more experienced, and better prepared, particularly mentally. But I interpreted certain anti-social and even cruel elements, presumably a consequence of the pressure to succeed in the huge task he’d set himself. This included a resolve to outdo Bombard – a guy who had no shoulders of recent predecessors to stand on and so perhaps, like Ben Carlin, has paid the price in the history books.
Lindemann’s book was originally published in 1957 and, as far as I can tell, was released in English about 35 years later and remains in print; a nicely produced small hardback with colour illustrations and a map.
A less illuminating article (in German) about drinking seawater and which cites the controversy between the two authors.
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 I believe 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, in the same way nothing man-made has yet 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. 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. “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 (or my centralised weight), but now costs nearly €1400 in the decked version. The only PU (same as TPU?) IK I know of is NRS’ discontinued Bandit series. It was made in China but still dropped, I presume due to cost reasons before they started making many more models with PVC.
Zelgear TPU IK
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’.
Owning several Gumotex IKs with the rubbish footrest pillow (left), I came up with my footrest tube idea years ago. It’s since been copied (or maybe just implemented) by many manufacturers. In a kayak, a footrest isn’t something you rest your feet on while watching Netflix. You lightly brace against to stop you sliding down in the seat and to improve you’re connection with the boat. To that end it wants to be solid, not mushy. I was never really that happy with my Seawave’s drainpipe arrangement: an adjustable strap running forward from the seat and a counter-tensioning elastic pulling from the bow to keep the tube in position. Too many straps, with entrapment and aesthetic issues. All I really needed to do was glue on a couple of D-rings either side of the footrest, but I like the idea of reversible (non-permanent) modifications.
Then I remembered a clever idea someone passed on to me: straps threaded through a small piece of plastic pipe. You can buy them ready-made to jam into car doors to lash stuff down. As was suggested, these anchor straps could also jam into the cavity/channel (left) you find on most tubed and even FD-S IKswith removable floors, where the floor meets the sides to make repositionable/removable lashing points. Also, they are dead easy to make.
As footrest tube strap anchor points they work especially well because the tension on the strap is sideways (towards the bow) for better jamming, and they can be slid forward along the channel when paddling two-up and beyond the adjustability of the strap. And best of all, no tedious 2-part D-ring gluing required.