Darn. I put my Seawave on eBay to ‘test the water’ and it went within hours.
Still, it’s an excuse to show some of my favourite Seawave shots in five seasons of fantastic paddling. What a great boat that was. Next?!
I’ve been waiting for the right kind of wind to have a proper go at WindPaddling my MRS Nomad. Sunday was not that day with SW gusts up to 25mph. Yesterday was more like it: direct from the west at 10-15 meant a chance to run down the full length of Loch Ossian with the wind erring towards the road for the walk back or if it all went wrong.
You forget that starting at the upwind end all is relatively smooth and calm, but soon the fetch kicks up and stays that way. Progress gets a bit lively so you need to be on top of things which includes stashing the paddle safely. I found tucking it across the boat under some red side lines (right) worked well and are more often useful for manhandling the boat. Lunging after a lost paddle would be bad; so would letting go of the sail’s ‘reins’ and having the boat run over it. The sudden drag and deceleration might see the racing boat slew sideways and flip you out. And before you come up for air, your packraft is skimming across the loch like a crisp packet.
I don’t know if gusts vary in direction but you also need to constantly modulate the reins left to right to keep on course. It’s said downwind sails like the WindPaddle have a narrow windspeed window which tops out around 15mph. After that, they start fluttering left to right in an effort to shed the load, as mine did a couple of times. Going out in stronger winds may be too hard to handle or very exciting. As it is, the maximum hull speed of a packraft must be about half that and, just as a cyclist’s energy to overcome wind drag grows exponentially, so too you can only push a paddle boat so far. A packraft is about as hydrodynamic as a training shoe.
With the gloomy skies I was initially a bit nervous. Controlled by the wind and without a paddle in your hands felt disconcerting; a sunny tropical locale would have fixed that I’m sure. As usual with packboat sailing, it’s never just sit back and skim along like yachts seem to do; you have to keep correcting. At nearly 3m with the skeg fitted, the MRS is longish which must help keep it on line. And as mentioned before, with the WindPaddle you can steer at least 30° off the wind.
According to the GPS, 9.3kph (5.8mph) was the peak speed, though most of the time I was zipping along at about 7.5kph. It felt faster as wavelettes broke to either side and occasionally over the bow. With the big Corry paddle, at maximum paddle exertion on flatwater I can hit 6kph for a couple of seconds. So once you relax, sailing can be a fast and energy-saving way of covering distance, and the WP stashed easily under the DeckPack.
I was expecting to walk back but gave paddling a go and stuck with it, hackling along at 2kph with rests every 10 minutes. Fifteen minutes sailing downwind = a 50-minute paddle back.
I still think for the price, weight, bulk and ease of fitting and use, a WindPaddle is a worthwhile packboating accessory.
The application of what has proved to be durable, light and compact packraft fabric and reliable construction methods into slimmer, kayak-like forms was bound to happen. MRS’s 2.9-metre Nomad S1 is among the first solo examples I know of, co-designed with Germany’s Anfibio Packrafting Store whose Alpha XC we tested a couple of weeks ago.
Fyi: in December 2018 I sold my 2014 Alpacka Yak and bought this ex-demo boat.
Is it a very light solo kayak or a long packraft? I’d classify it as the former, a boat that ought to paddle better than a packraft on current-free, flat water, and even manage some calm coastal paddling. The Nomad could be mistaken as the solo version of MRS’s tandem undecked Barracuda R2 double. But the R2 is a boat with seats which can be adapted to canoe-style kneeling, much fatter tubes and has a different bow/stern as well as not having a deck. The 1299-euro Nomad S1 is a stand alone boat.
What they say:
Once packrafts broke conventions in water sports. Now the Nomad S1 is breaking conventions in packrafting. The central seating position and symmetrical bow and stern are similar to a conventional kayak, producing similar paddling dynamics. At 5kg, the gross weight is more than most solo packrafts, but the Nomad remains a very packable boat for easy travel and exciting adventures.
‘Sign here please’
Off the van, out of the box and straight onto the kitchen scales. Kerching: that will be 5.1kg please. Take away the large skirt and coaming rods and it’s down to 4.5kg, and a year later rigged up to my specs with a long lanyard, footrest, alternative non-inflatable seat back with a mesh pouch with bits in it, it is a real-world 4.7kg ready to go (right).
Hull fabric is your usual 210D TPU but coated inside and out (like old Alpackas) for improved rigidity, with a floor in chunky 410D with aramid fibre reinforcement. The hull panels are stitched, then heat welded with tape; the floor gets glued to the hull and all the joins look neat and crease free. The deck and seat parts are lighter PU-coated or ripstop nylon.
Unrolled, it looked like a lot of boat to have to blow up with the air bag. So I decided to speed things up with my IK barrel pump, using a bit of garden hose as an adaptor via the air bag screwed into Boston-style valve. More on those here. It took less than 5 minutes pumping. Later, I decided to try regular airbagging and found it only took 15 bagfulls to get it ready for topping off – less than you’d think.
To top off I found a shorter section of garden hose fitted neatly into the one-way valve port and makes it much easier to give the boat a few lungfulls and get the high-capacity boat nice and firm. A short bit of hose also fits into one adapter on my K-Pump which I usually use to top up my IK. With a K-Pump you can get it good and firm. The Packrafting Store offer a small Bravo foot pump for those who don’t have the lungs of Dizzy Gillespie. You do want to get this long boat as firm as possible, especially if you’re well-fed like me. But the Store recommends not to overdo it with a pump, and in the current warm spell I’ve been careful to air off a bit if the boat gets left in the sun all day following a max top off in cold water.
Once aired up the boat has a good shape – nice pointy ends; a promising sign in boating circles. The S1 is symmetrical like many IKs, and each end has a generous volume helping achieve a claimed buoyancy rating of 200kg. I can believe it; two of me in it and I bet it would still have plenty of freeboard.
The deck seems to be less flimsy ripstop fabric than I recall on my previous Alpackas. And unlike those boats which had a long perimetre zip, the Nomad has two parallel zips along each side ending at the back with makes it dead easy to partly open and get to the ‘trunk’ without complete removal. Good design. You also wonder if the zipped-up deck might help tension the boat by constraining the sides when getting bent about in rough water. Maybe.
The 80cm x 49cm hatch is nice and big; I (1.85m) could get in and out with ease, though maybe not just after Christmas while wearing a drysuit and thick fleece. There are zips along the hatch rim to insert the 4 pieces of coaming rod to make a firm seal for the spray skirt elastic. It struck me paddling later with the deck deployed that fitting the rods would create a 1–2-inch high lip which would keep out some water rolling down the front deck. The supplied spray skirt looked huge and had braces; but I never actually tried it. Rolled up to the front, the velcro straps seem way too long to cinch down the deck. It didn’t really matter, they tucked in well enough. Maybe the extra strap length is to roll the unused skirt in there too.
The two-piece inflatable seat and backrest are not your ordinary packraft affair. The anatomically curved backrest hangs from a six adjustable pivoting mounts using q/d clips (right) to reduce stresses on the mounts and help fine-tune your back support. A TPU sheet sewn to the inflatable chamber takes the buckle tension. This backrest won’t flop forward as on some packraft one-piece backrest/seats – very handy when clambering in, especially through the hatch. The whole backrest weighs 310g and costs €39 if you want to fit one to your boat. It detaches in seconds, handy to allow a passenger to temporarily hop in.
Solo, the mass of your weight settles on the thick, seat pad. It’s attached via the usual, very much not easily adjustable or removable lace-up tab mounts, except they’re glued on halfway up the hull sides at the 32-cm narrow point (left), not down on the floor’s edge as on regular packrafts. One problem with this laced set-up is if you want to move the seat much more than an inch or two forward or back. Depending on your weight there will be fewer holes taking the load. It can’t be beyond the wit of packboat design to allow easy removal or repositioning.
The S1’s seat arrangement partly supports the paddler’s weight from the big side tubes and so limits undesirable ‘bum sag‘ (underwater image above): the weight of the paddler deforming the floor which can’t be good for hydrodynamics or floor wear and tear in the shallows.
Paddler weight pressing down midway in a long, low-pressure boat – even with an inflatable floor – tends to make it bend in the middle in rough water or a swell. You can see they thought about this with the longer-than-normal packraft. It was the problem that limited my old Gumotex Sunny (water came over the sides in rapids or a swell) which was eventually solved by getting the more rigid, higher pressure Seawave (and which is solved entirely by drop-stitch technology).
Flip the boat over and you can see that there are slight bulges at each end (left). I’m told it’s a cunning design feature to produce ‘negative rocker’ (opposite of upswept ends) and help with tracking and speed. The similar-sized EX280 we tried was flat floored and I must say it seemed to work. The S1 tracks fine without the skeg.
The 410D floor has a good overlap of glue where it attaches to the 210D hull tubes covering the tube seams (glued because I think you can’t easily heat weld two different deniers of TPU). The quality of the taping is all as neat as you like, with not a single strand of stray glue or malformed creasing.
The skeg (or directional fin) is Gumotex size but slips on like a Sea Eagle IK (‘American box fitting’ iirc, same as on iSUP boards) into a moulded plastic slot glued up the stern. It locks in place with a flat pin on a string so when removed you can secure the skeg somewhere via this pin and string. I do the same when packing my Seawave so as not to misplace the sometimes vital skeg. Even when not mounted, that skeg pad is the lowest part of the boat which scrapes first so usefully sparing the floor from damage.
Other than that you have four well-positioned attachment loops, with a broad base to secure anything up to a bike. There’s the same arrangement on the stern. These mount points become less essential because you have space behind the seat to stash stuff low and retain stability and visibility. There are two more long loops inside, with another pair of mount points at the front for thigh straps. The test boat also had some handy string handles knotted on to the outermost attachment loops.
S1 at Sea
There are no rivers near here bigger than a boulder-filled burn right now, so we took the S1 out along a rocky coast, along a slightly surfy beach, then rinsed it off with a quick sail down a freshwater loch.
I don’t know if it’s the greater size, the kayak-like handling, the reduction of front-to-rear yawing or the elevated seat, but on a less than smooth sea I took to the S1 straight away. Despite being another single chamber packboat, it inspired confidence that I’d not necessarily experience in my smaller Alpacka Yak.
I paddled it without the skeg and as expected, can’t say I missed it. The Nomad tracked very well and, compared to my Seawave kayak, doesn’t really produce enough glide per stroke to send it drastically off course, notwithstanding the small corrections you subconsciously make as you paddle along. I wonder if the lightness of the boat as well as its flat floor are what makes these intuitive micro-adjustments in tracking so effective. Who knows, but if attempting longer, more exposed sea crossings (I’m talking a mile or more, not Nova Scotia) a skeg must be a good idea to stop the boat getting pushed about from the sides, especially with a tail wind.
Without the skeg I appreciated the S1’s agility nudging in and out of the rocks as a light swell rolled in. Stability was very much not an issue; being jammed in more or less at the narrow 32-cm width with feet touching the distant bow and the well-designed backrest all helped. My hips are 40-cm wide but I didn’t really notice the squeeze as I would were I down on the floor. Up to a point you can brace with your shins which are so close together there wouldn’t be much play to pull on thigh braces (actually not so – they work OK; right).
Over by the beach occasional foot-high waves were thundering on the shore; a chance to get knocked about a bit and have some fun. The stability made it easy to play around, with enough agility, clearance and central weight to spin quickly in the shallows before getting beached. Sure, some water came in, but on a warm day it’s a lot more fun playing with an open boat. To drain it just hop out, flip over, flip back and hop back in.
Even without the skeg, the central, kayak-like paddling position, as well as the length (Length-Weight Index 3.38 – about half that of a typical hardshell sea kayak), pretty much eliminates your typical packraft yawing. Not so sure about crossing over and circling the Summer Islands – it’s still a single-chamber craft – but I can see coast-hopping being enjoyable in the way it wouldn’t be in a regular solo packraft. On the way back from the beach against a quartering wind, the GPS recorded a brief high of 4.1mph paddling along normally.
We nipped over to freshwater Loch Ra which is now so low I had to wade a couple of hundred metres to find some depth. The skeg was now on but I can’t say I felt like it made much difference the way it would do on my IK. We went out on my Seawave a few weeks ago and the forgotten skeg was a right pain downwind. Upwind it’s barely necessary.
I hooked up the WindPaddle to the yellow string handle. The breeze was blowing only about a 6-8mph but the Nomad picked it up and ran with it up to 3.5mph – as fast as I could have paddled. Again, I don’t think the skeg helped with the tracking as the boat was effectively being dragged along by its nose like a wet towel.
Later in the afternoon I went back out onto the loch, paddling up briskly to the windward end where I let the sail take me back down. It wasn’t blowing enough to break any records but it’s nice to sit back and listen to the plink-plink of the water slapping under the bow. Mid-loch it felt like it was doing a good 4mph.
I’m really getting into this WindPaddle; I like the way you can steer up to 30° either side of the wind. On this boat it was easy to pull the sail down, cross it over once and tuck it under the knees, even with the deck on. There’s more Nomad WindPaddling here.
Back at the bank I removed the sail and the skeg and went for a scoot upwind, across-wind and downwind, but still can’t say the boat was hard to track. Maybe with more of a backwind it would get out of shape, but by then the waves would briefly lift the skeg out on the crests and possibly push it around. It’s nice to have the option but also good to know the Nomad handles well enough without a skeg on loch and coast.
Nomading it Up
Good to know first impressions can be correct. I saw the promise in the Nomad S1 when I first clocked it on the Packrafting Store’s website. It is nearly the same length but more than half the weight and rolled-up volume of our old Gumotex Solar 300, but longer than the current 9-kilo Gumotex Twist 1 which, at just 2.6m has only half the buoyancy (ie: not much at all).
Trying it out on sea and surf-ish and loch, with sail and without skeg, I could seriously consider replacing my Yak with a Nomad (later, I did). I think there’s a potential for a skirt-free model and I’d even suggest the skeg could be an option too (P-Store make one of those too, now: S1 Light; right no skeg, deck, or braces and a 4-mount foam backrest).
The main drawback is the €1299 price – that’s about £1150 or the same as a top-of-the-range, made-in-Europe Gumotex with a deck or rudder option and a signed certificate from Brzeslaw Gumotek. Longshore sell the less sophisticated EX280 double in what looks like the same fabric for half that price, and the Store themselves have albeit basic packrafts from €470. They say the deck costs a lot to make and fit but fabric and assembly in China can’t be that disparate. Of course the price you pay is right for a boat which gives you years of fun, as I have found. An Austrian Grabner double IK can cost over €3000, so can an Incept.
Alternatives to S1
As for alternatives there is really nothing like the Nomad at the moment, though I bet Alpacka are watching and waiting to move into packayak territory. Partly it’s because the extended stern idea has greatly improved the dynamics of packrafts, positioning the paddler more centrally but adding length without interior space. Nortik’s uninspiringly named FamilyRaft (left is the same length but over a metre wide and looks like Advanced Elements’ tacky Packlite.
You might try and make the similar-sized and weight EX280 (left) into a solo kayak-like boat. But the Longshore is 12cm wider and the bow is much blunter and they closed down in 2020. It looks more like what it is: a long packraft made for two, not a solo ‘TPU kayak’, and of course it has no deck or skeg.
I’d say closer comparison to the Nomad are actual IKs, among which I’d include Gumotex’s Twist 1, Twist 2 (left) and the fixed-decked Swing 1. The Swing actually looks (and I hear is) a bit crap by Gumo’s standards, with an odd deck design and excessive width. Those three boats cost from just £369 (T1) up to £549 for the Swing 1, but are all at least twice as heavy while the T1 has half the claimed payload of the Nomad. If the Nomad is on the limit for packability, an 11-kilo IK definitely is.
What about using the two-foot longer Barracuda R2 (left) as a solo touring packboat? Many of the solo touring IKs recommended on this site are longer tandem boats over 3 metres, like my Seawave adapted for single touring use. I have found the crux to avoid the Sunny-like sag mentioned above is a high-pressure hull like my Seawave, all Grabners or my old Incept. I’m not convinced a 3.65-m long, lung-pressure Barracuda R2 would not sag a little under solo, centrally positioned use. You could get around that with a drop-stitch floor panel but that’s more stuff and needs a powerful pump. The other riskier way round would be to run higher hull pressure using a pump. I do that to my Seawave to improve performance, but have added pressure relief valves (easily done on a packraft too). Better though, to run a boat (or anything) within its design limits.
So a Nomad may be on the weight limit of classic land-and-water packrafts, but it certainly makes travelling somewhere by plane or a train or on a pushbike much less of an effort than with even the lightest IK, while giving IK-like performance once on the water, be it a gnarly river, a windy loch or a rocky seashore. Kayakraft? Packayak? It’s definitely not a kakraft.
Thanks to the Packrafting Store for supplying another test boat. More about it here.
“The Nomad is another co-development between Anfibio Packrafting and MRS (Micro Rafting System). Combined with MRS’s manufacturing expertise and fabric know-how, our years of packrafting experience helped refine the design of the final product. Serial production takes place in the Far East with manufacturing carried out in small, hand-built batches. All products have an extended three-year warranty.”
The Packrafting Store in Germany was one of the first Alpacka dealers in Europe, but now sells several other brands of packrafts from China, Russia and the US. It’s probably the only ‘packrafting supermarket’ of it’s kind and in 2015 we group tested a selection of their boats.
They also produce their own Anfibio branded packrafting gear, like the dry suit and inflatable jacket I use myself; the latter has become my go-to ‘pfd’. In cooperation with MRS in China whose boats they were the first to import into Europe and whose design they’ve influenced, they’ve now added three lightweight Anfibio packrafts to their lineup of over a dozen boats: the Sigma TX double; Delta MX single and smallest and lightest Alpha XC which we tested here. I knew the XC would be too small for me so that job went to my g-friend who’s over a foot shorter and 40+ kilos lighter. It costs just €470 plus one type of seat or another.
In a bid to keep costs down and make them the lightest in their class, Anfibios are all symmetrical, with identical bows and sterns and parallel sides. Unless it’s like their double-elongated Barracuda R2, a conventionally short stern can make a boat back-heavy without a balancing load over the bow, as right. Even my original, first-generation green Alpacka Llama had a fattened stern to compensate for this. This is why Alpacka’s now much-copied elongated stern from 2011 (my 2014 Yak, above left) was such a clever innovation. It trimmed (‘levelled’) the boat by effectively positioning the paddler more centrally and also acted as a skeg to further reduced the side-to-side yawing of the bow which short, wide packrafts are prone to. (It’s important to recognise this yawing is just an annoying left and right ‘nodding’ of the bow; people often confuse it with tracking (‘steering’ or going where you point it) which packrafts do better than some kayaks.
Weights and measures **
After checking the kitchen scales (1000ml = 1000g √) the Alpha weighed in at 1822g out of the box; the bare boat was 1422g.
Interestingly, at 120cm the interior length is actually a bit more than my Alpacka Yak. At 185cm tall, I can sit in the Alpha with backrest deflated and with the same comfortable knee-bend as my Yak. Meanwhile, with legs flat on the floor g-friend has some 15cm of foot room to spare up front.
Anfibio have missed a trick here. Assuming I am at the upper level of average adult height and weight, and geef is at the other end, I think Anfibio could offer another model 10 or even 20cm shorter, more like Alpacka’s ultrabasic Scout (right); let’s call it an Omega XS. There are many, many packrafts for people of my height or more, but very few for 5-footers if you take the view, as I do, that in a packraft you want to fit snugly, feet pressing against the bow with knees slightly bent. Being shorter would make the ‘Omega’ at least 200g lighter and enable that snug fitting for the majority of shorter-than-me persons. Like a shoe that fits right, that means better control, comfort and efficiency and is one reason I choose to replace my original Llama with the shorter Yak. Perhaps there are buoyancy issues in such a short boat which means tubes need to be fatter, speed suffers and you effectively end up in a slackraft. You don’t want that.
The 25-cm side tubes are the slimmest of the Store’s dozen-plus boats, but we both found the 32cm interior width, a bit tight for comfort. Slimmer hipped individuals will feel right at home. All this doubtless carefully juggled volume, length and width adds up to a recommended payload rating of 110kg. That’s plenty for most folks who are lighter than me. The next-size-up Anfibio Delta MX weighs only another 225g but is rated at a massive 180kg.
** May not all exactly match Anfibio’s figures
The hull is made from the 210D, single-coated TPU, sewn and heat welded (no glue). Most packrafts are made from this wonder fabric. I think the slight translucence of the yellow Alpha makes it appear thinner than my Alpacka Yak, but feeling the fabrics up, they’re the same or very similar.
You’ll notice that, unusually, the taped join of the tubes is around the perimeter of the boat, not hidden under where the floor attaches to the hull.
The floor is smooth, double-coated 420D TPU and feels tough without making the boat bulky when rolled up. The width of the heat-welding attaching it to the hull is little more than a centimetre in places. Perhaps putting the side tube join elsewhere eliminates a weak spot at the floor and reduces the need for excessive overlap, as with the 8cm on my Yak of the Longshore. As it is, we’re assured that TPU hull fabric will tear before a properly heat-welded join separates, but as with any packraft, I’d be careful putting too much pressure on the floor. “Get in bum first!” I had to remind my tester.
Fittings and finish
The Alpha comes with 5 taped loops with a pleasing textured Cordura finish to the patches. As other reviewers and the commenter below have mentioned, the three on the bow look too close together to securely lash down a load, far less a bike; the ‘triangle’ is too small and positioned over the domed bow. I also feel the fitting points are the wrong way round: you want the single central point at the front and the other two behind on the next panel back. Glue two here and you’ll have a stable, 4-point lashing base with another tab to spare.
I don’t really see the value of attachment points on the already over-loaded stern of a packraft, especially when it’s not elongated. I’d sooner load stuff centrally, under my knees and have a single loop here to hang shoes off or for towing.
The inflation valve follows MRS’ innovation in fitting a Boston valve as commonly found on cheap Slackrafts (about the only useful thing on them). For a short, low-pressure boat like a packraft (as opposed to an IK) Boston valves are ideal. A Boston valve has two caps; the bigger one opens the main port for fast inflation / deflation. On top of that is a smaller square cap; unscrew that to access the one-way mushroom/flap valve and top-up the boat by mouth. Both caps also have nifty swivelling attachment collars so you can’t lose them while also making the caps easy to turn. The whole set-up is so much better than my old-Alpacka style dump valve which you need to secure with a line which gets in the way as you try and quickly screw it up. It also eliminates the separate twist-lock elbow valve which never felt that solid and being small bore, is harder to blow through and get a good fill, unlike the 2cm-wide Boston.
The supplied air inflation bag (see video here) is a denier or two up on my flimsy Yak one which I often think is on the verge of ripping apart. I also like the fact that it’s a bright dayglo green; you never know when you might need a signalling device.
The seat resembles an old-style Alpacka base with backrest, except that it cleverly attaches to the back of the floor with a single adjustable strap and buckle. Simple and effective; that is all that is needed to keep the light seat in place compared to my Yak’s OTT arrangement. You also suspect that the length of this strap may have been designed to enable a shorter paddler to position the seat a little forward so as to shove a bag behind it (left). Doing this centralises their weight and helps level off the trim to reduce yawing. We tried this idea on the water – see below.
One thing I recall of a similar seat on my old Llama was the annoyance of the backrest flopping forward every time I got in (an elastic fixed that). Taller Alpha XC paddlers: consider saving €34 by ordering the plain seat base and simply lean on the back of the boat instead of using the €59 backrest version. That’s what I did briefly paddling the Alpha and it felt fine.
Yes but what about the strap, you ask? Well that weighs in at 22g but is a good half-a-metre longer than it needs to be to cinch the rolled-up bundle (left), so some weight could be saved by snipping it.
As for build quality. With only my 2014 Alpacka to compare, all the taping and fitments are as neatly applied. The lack of tape over the floor panel join exposes a slightly uneven cut in places and, as mentioned, the welded band looked rather slim. The Store rates the Alpha’s durability accordingly as a result of all this weight saving, but it’s unlikely they’ve gone too far as Alpacka may have done with their short-lived Ghost. It only lasted a season or two.
On the water
With light winds forecast, we picked an easy circuit with about 4km of loch paddling (right) and a couple of short portages where we could carry the inflated boats. We often paddle together in the Seawave but I’m not sure if the g-friend has paddled a packraft since a quick go in my Llama back in 2010. So this would be a good test on how a beginner handled the Alpha.
Once the Alpha was inflated, geef went out for a spin to get a feel for the boat, then came back and went out again with my empty Chattooga dry bag behind the seat back (this bag seals 100% against air leakage – a true ‘dry bag’). No surprise: she yawed less and felt more in control sat more centrally. With another bag of stuff under her knees the boat sat almost level. Watching her paddle she still looked a bit low in the boat which interfered with a good paddling technique, so we pulled over and pumped the seat right up and I advised trying a high-angle paddling (right) to clear the sides and get a fuller draw from the blades. As it is, on flat water no packraft is actually that satisfying to paddle – unlike a slick kayak there is no glide. The fun lies in the places they can reach and the ease of getting them there.
We emerged onto the west end of Sionascaig loch (above) surrounded by the dramatic mountains of the Assynt, and turned south for the sluice. Being thorough, we tried sat right back without the bag one more time, but got the same high-bow yawing. Even with the bag I still observed some yawing, but as it was intermittent it could be down to my test pilot’s as yet unrefined packraft paddling knack, just as it can be trying to get a hardshell to go straight the first few times. Yawing is not tracking – this boat will go where you point it, but you’d imagine the pivoting is inefficient. A bit like moving off from standstill on a bicycle, my Yak also yaws wildly as I set off, but settles down once there’s some directional momentum, nodding maybe six inches left and right.
We clambered around the sluice (left) and sat down on a tiny beach below for a snack, then I went out for a quick spin in the Alpha.
At nearly twice the weight and of course without the dry bag behind, the boat was back heavy and very easy to spin. A light breeze was now blowing little wavelettes up the loch and powering on too hard, it shipped a little water over the back sides at one point. I reached back and felt the horizontal tape line was below the water, but the Alpha was nowhere near as edgy as the Supai Flatwater Canyon II in which I dared not even breath in too fast. Yes it yawed more than my Yak but long, smooth strokes minimise that. I’d be more concerned in less calm water, but then I’m clearly on the weight limit for the Alpha. I probably could have done this whole circuit in it but would have had to be careful which is not conducive to relaxation.
Through the shallow narrows we passed arriving at the next ‘sluice’ at the end of the loch. It’s actually a runable two-foot drop if you take it fast. Like last time I came here, I wondered about trying it for fun, but chickened out. Beyond the pool below it becomes steep, narrow burn dropping to the next loch. So we tramped through the springy heather made crisp by over a fortnight without rain. We chucked the boats over a nasty wire fence then set off across the last little loch and the short walk back to the car.
Being a large person, the benefits of saving a kilo or two add up to not much in my overall packrafting mass. Therefore I don’t resent the weight of my Yak for its benefits in durability and functionality. But not everyone thinks like me. Adventure racers, canyoneers and something called ‘fast-packers’ focused on absolute minimal weights while undertaking short or easy crossings will love this boat. So too might a travelling cyclist or a light person who just wants a handy, inexpensive packraft for the odd evening splashabout rather than an expedition-ready heavy hauler. The yawing is something you can minimise with good technique or balance-out with frontal loads or weight shifting, as we did.
For the price of just €470 + seat, this must be the cheapest decent packraft around. No one likes excess weight but I know I’d feel more confident paddling a proper TPU packraft like the Alpha over Supai’s amazingly light but unnervingly skimpy alternatives The extra 700 grams I can save in peace of mind.
Tirio outfitters in Wales use Anfibio boats
We also recently tried out the Longshore EX280 double. Read about it here.
We decided to lap the tip (left) of the Coigach peninsula. Doing it clockwise put us in the lee of the afternoon’s southwesterly once in Enard Bay and better still, we’d catch high tide at Achnahaird, enabling us to paddle up the creek to complete a near full loop back to the car via the freshwater lochs of Ra and Vatachan.
I remember being quite nervous the first time I did this way back in 2013 in my Amigo – in the other direction from Achnahaird. Looks like I’m not the only one – I blame the Pesda guidebook.
It felt like a long old slog west then north between the Ristol islands – the tidal Ristol channel was dry. But by the time we’d passed the reefs of Reiff and reached the sparkling beach at Camas Ghlais (below) we were already more than half way round.
Sitting on the beach, on warm days like this and always looking to refine my set-up to a razorbill’s edge, I sometimes think a sturdy football-sized net bag to take a beach stone would be handy to anchor the boat out in the shallows. This way it won’t beach itself, get hot and purge air which can make the kayak soggy once back in the cool water. It’s one slight drawback of running PRVs on all 3 air chambers. I could probably find some washed up net up among the flotsam and make one. Or I could Buy [a ball bag] Now on ebay for a £1.62. Leaving the sandy bay, I give the Seawave a quick top-up with the K-Pump anyway.
On the north side on the bay we nosed towards a slot cave (above left), but white streaks running down from the ledges suggested nesting birds had hung out ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs. Either I’ve never noticed them before or there are lots more nesting birds around this year. It’s the end of May but there are still tiny snow patches on An Teallach and Beinn Dearg – maybe the season is late.
North of Camas the unrestrained swell was bouncing back off the low cliffs and small dazzling waves were breaking over semi-submerged rocks, making for a rough ride. But it’s all relative and showed what a sheltered life I lead, paddling mostly in and out of the protected Summer Isles.
We passed on sandless Faochag Bay and on turning the point of Rubha Coigach all was calm as the grand panorama of the Assynt peaks came into view (above). From the right: Quinaig; Canisp behind Suilven, Cul Mor, Stac Polly in front of Cul Beag, and the group around Ben Mor Coigach. It’s one good reason to do the paddle in this direction. There’s a bigger version of the Assynt panorama here taken on the road above Achnahaird. I really must work out how to do that panorama photo-stitch thing.
Coming down the Enard Bay side, we tried to explore some other caves with green moss streaked with guano, but got dive-bombed by angry shags.
Back out in the bay an unpredicted northwesterly picked up – time to launch that WindPaddle which has been sitting in my kit bag unused for a year or more. Initially the breeze barely reaches 6mph – we could have paddled faster – but it sure was fun to kick back, look around and let the boat waft quietly along, free from the splish-splosh, splish-splosh rhythm. I wonder if self-driving cars will be the same.
It’s been a while since I’ve done this but the WindPaddle definitely felt better than my homemade efforts from years ago, as well as the knock-off WP I bought a year or two back. I tried a V-sail too but have never really got the hang of kayak sailing. It seems the sweet spot is hard to find: either the wind comes and goes and the sail flops, or it blowing so hard the sail can’t handle it and you’re clinging on. Still, I look forward to giving the WP a spin in slightly windier conditions. For the compact size and light weight I get the feeling it may be worth keeping.
The breeze picked up and we chugged along at a brisk stroll. But even then the WindPaddle feels satisfying to use. I think the key is the sprung tension of the composite batten (rim); it retains the circular shape of the bowl which means it’ll stay up as the wind drops and keep shape as it rises, then can be confidently scrunched down to a packable size without breaking. Doing that during a bit of a blow may be tricky, but it can easily be pulled back and tucked down unfurled over the legs (right). It’s only a downwindish sail but as with previous disc sails, I like the way you can steer intuitively by pulling one line back; a skeg must help but there’s no need for paddle-rudder assistance.
It was nice to look around in the quiet but I also missed that thrill of thrust when a sail catches and holds a good passing gust. Eventually we could stand the relaxed pace no more and the geef paddle-assisted us towards a stony beach at the mouth of the Allt Loch Ra creek. Squawking oyster catchers were guarding their nests. Left, by the bothy at Badentarbet last year; don’t stand on the eggs.
Refuelled, we paddled upstream for a bit then I tow-waded the boat, reminding me of the shallows of Shark Bay in 2006 – a good way to rest after what felt like days of headwinds. The short wade brought us to within a couple of minutes’ portage of Loch Ra just over the road. Now on fresh water, we dragged through the reeds before another short portage over into the adjacent Loch Vatachan. Picking a passing place close to the shore, the geef walked off to get the car while I rinsed off the seawater – another good reason to paddle this loop clockwise. It’s 15 miles and about 5 easy hours to loop the Coigach loop.
I paddled out into the Summers the other afternoon to see how far I’d get. What I was really eyeing up was Stac Mhic Aonghais or ‘Precipitous rocky feature of Angus’, one of three skerries bobbing just south of the Tanera islands.
I only really clocked it on last year’s crossing from Carn nan Sgeir to Tanera Beg. I suppose now I’ve visited just about all the Summer Islands I’m looking more closely at the bits in between.
But I knew before I got on the water the tide was not with me and nor was the wind. Hauling myself through the Tanera channel, by the time the cheese-wedge profile of Angus came into view to the southwest it looked a long way away, with only Glas-leac Beag (on the right, below) between it and the inky depths of the Minch.
So I swung east around the south side of Tanera Mor and, now with the wind and tide behind me, at the last minute decided to make a ‘training dash’ towards ‘Goat Sound’ (left) – the tidal passage between Horse and ‘Goat’ island which I guessed was flooded by now. From there it was a weary hack back against the squalls to the beach and an XL dinner.
A few days later I persuaded visiting paddlechum Jon that a tour of the Summer Isles Skerries was good use of his holiday up here. He’d just returned from a gruelling, two-day bike ride through the Assynt – part of the HT550 – so his arms were in need of some exercise.
As skerries go, the supposedly 78-foot-high (26-m) Stac of Angus (see below) has a dramatic profile. From some angles a homesick Norseman pining for his mead might even call it a dragon’s tooth. It also looked fairly easy to climb to the top to get a nice shot of a kayak below.
Stac Mhic Aonghais, Sgeir an Aon Iomairt and Sgeir Ribhinn or Revan. All three line up with about a kilometre between each; long thin skerries aligned on a SW/NE axis, as is much of the lower elevation topography up here; valleys and trenches carved I assume, by glaciers advancing from Scandinavia. This report suggests that 12,000 years ago during an anomalous cold spike following the end of the last Ice Age ‘…climatic factors, combined with the availability of large quantities of subglacial debris, led to the development of distinctive glacial landsystems, which may have no direct modern analogue.’ As we know, the dramatic Assynt has no topographic analogue elsewhere in Scotland and the angular claw of Stac of Angus is one of its many remnants. (Btw, that marine chart screenshot above left is from a very handy and editable online nautical ‘mapp’).
Planning paddles up here is of course a lottery but came the day, by some miracle a High had parked itself over the northern British Isles, put on the handbrake and tipped the seat back. The 4.5-m tide may have been at the peak of its fortnightly cycle, bottoming out at 2.30pm, but that could be handy if we used it right. If we left Stac around low tide, it should be an easy ride back up to Old Dornie, assisted by the rising afternoon breeze.
We paddled down between the Taneras with the tide, passing some other kayakers on the way. I mentioned the Tanera Beg arch just round the corner to them, but after a quick check the tide was too far gone to thread the arch.
In little more than an hour we were approaching the gnarly, storm-wracked northern prow of Angus. It’s hard to think how the 1:25,000 OS map arrives at the oft-repeated height of 26m. The picture below of Angus’ high point is about 90 minutes before a low spring tide at around 0.5m above Ordnance Datum – which is the lowest astronomical tide – ‘LAT’ – at Newlyn. So even if you add about 2m or 6 feet to measure the skerry at LAT, or just use the more likely MSL, there’s no way that adds up nearly 80 feet; it’s more like half that. It’s odd because the two other skerries we were heading for had entirely plausible heights.
Anyway, we paddled along the exposed west side looking for a landing spot but found nothing but 45-degree slopes. I was sort of hoping that low tide might reveal a platform or at least give us more rock surface to choose from, but very low tide also exposes seaweed, kelp and other crap; there’s probably as much chance of getting alongside a handy ledge at higher tides.
As we passed between the two outcrops on the south end, Jon smacked me in the head with his paddle (left). Lifted through by a 1-m swell, on the inshore side we found the least unlikely looking parking slot, where between bigger swells I could crawl out (right). If you think about it, sitting as you are on the floor of a bobbling narrow boat at sea level, there’s nothing harder to get out of than a kayak, especially once you’ve attained a certain age. IKs are easier than a proper sea kayak of course, but even a canoe’s bench seat might be easier to spring or step off.
Stac Angus is nearly bisected by a punched-out breach (left) through which storm waves tumble; the higher part is in the north. Problem was getting there from the lower half of the skerry where I’d landed. Even if it wasn’t 26m above MLWS or LAT or even M&S, accessing that northern spike was a lot more of a rock-climbing challenge than I was prepared to take on. So I left it to the squawking guillemots and settled with just enough elevation to get an OK shot of Jon gliding by (below), then scrambled back down to the slot and hailed down my water taxi.
With Stac of Angus ticked off, we scooted over towards Sgeir an Aon Iomairt (in the picture above, on the right), hoping it would provide an easier landing for a civilised terrestrial lunch. Iomairt has a similar NW-facing cliff and on its NE corner has a parking slot of sorts (right) where a kayak can wedge itself as the tide drops away below it.
The surprise here was the thick cushy duvet of soft grass and thrift flowers which capped the island. Picture left: looking south from, near the summit towards the Carns, Bottle and Priest Island. Whatever it is that makes Iomairt agreeable to lush vegetation and sea pink thrifts, while Angus makes do with lichen and bird shite, it’s found here. Perhaps because it’s less of a jutting flake and flatter, with many crevices where rainwater and sludge can gather and foment.
Who knows, but it was nice to be able to walk around, rather than teether on acute, barnacle-covered slabs, as I’d just done on Angus. We settled down out of the breeze – May temperatures are still barely in double figures up here – and unpacked our munchies. We had with less than an hour before the tide turned and lifted the Gumotex away. As we ate we spotted another couple of paddlers enjoying the calm conditions out to the southeast, near the two Carns which join up at low tides, like today.
Though you’re not spoilt for choice out here in the Summer Isles, you could easily camp on Sgeir an Aon Iomairt. There’s brackish water in some pools, good enough for a wash, and enough flat patches to sleep in comfort. Hardshell or IK, for peace of mind you’d still want to lug you’re boat above the high water line unless you can find a bombproof anchorage. And the elevation of around 16m is, you’ll be pleased to know, about right.
When our time came the tide had dropped a metre but was on the turn. Getting back in was as always an awkward shunt, slipping around on kelp and slimey molluscs to get the Seawave back on the water, but once in the pool it did manage to paddle itself out over the slimy kelp towards Sgeir Ribhinn (‘Maiden’s Skerry’), the last of our Summer Island skerries.
Coming round the eastern side of Ribhinn, even this skerry managed to sustain a small capping of grass. We nosed into a kayak-wide geo and found ourselves in a twin-arched cave, another paddleable arch (right) to add to my list.
All that remained was to paddle back the way we came through the western passage of ‘Tanera Sound’, between Tanera Beg and Eilean Fada Mor. With the spring tide still low, all the shell beaches were out sunning themselves. After looking for it for years, I finally recognised a cove and beach on Tanera Beg (left) where we’d spent a lovely afternoon 12 years ago with my Gumotex Sunny and ancient Safari when we first started coming to the Summers.
Back to now, I hopped off at Eilean Fada to top up the air that had purged while out of the water over lunch, and to get a shot of Jon floating over the azure Bahaman sands (below). My kayaks have got a lot better since 2006, but the Summer Islands remain the same great place they always were for a quiet paddle.
First paddle of the year and it’s nearly May! I need to get out more. It was a calm day but as we’d not been there for ages, we decided to go inland to the ever-reliable Loch ‘Sion’, spread below a cirque of dramatic Assynt peaks. From the lay-by on the WMR it’s a half-a-mile’s trudge down to the west shore at Boat Bay, dipping through the hazel woods then tip-toeing over rotting walkways spanning slimy quagmires.
Down at the bay – bother! The skeg – clipped to hull through a zip tie was MIA. The zip tie had probably succumbed to the UV, as they do. Oh well, I claimed years ago these IKs are controllable without a skeg, let’s see if that’s still true.
On a flowing river, finessing the paddle strokes while solo, it works well at the cost of some flat-out speed. But two-up and with a tail breeze – that aeolian nemesis of paddlecraft – we scratched a scruffy traverse out to the mouth of Boat Bay where it was quicker to let the funnelled wind push us out into the main loch. Suilven sat to the north, Cul Mor was straight ahead and the ever-popular Stac Polly was to the south where panting lines of day-trekkers were eyeing us right now, some with what I liked to think was mild envy.
By and by we reach Eilean Dudh, the islet just north of Eilean Mòr, where I went for a solo spin to see if the boat was easier to track solo. It was a bit, especially once off a tailwind.
That done, we paddled over to Eilean Mòr, parked up on the east side out of the breeze and found a flatish, dryish patch where some woodsman had made a rudimentary camp. I went off for an explore through the mossy-barked woodlands, like something from a fairy tale, then up to the unusually bald summit which in a month or two will be waist-deep in thick, green ferns. All around the heather-clad hills still clung to the tawny hues of late winter and the branches of gaunt, leafless trees, deformed by the prevailing winds, reached northeast like some toga-clad heroine in a Romantic painting. May’s reliably sunny spells will soon put an end to all this drabness.
When the time came to paddle back, set against the wind the skegless Seawave was much easier to handle and satisfying to paddle. In fact I got so engrossed in the effort that amid the perspectiveless blur of yellows and browns I missed the small entrance back into Boat Bay and was steering us west towards the Polly Lochs.
‘This doesn’t look right’. And I was right, it wasn’t. A quick glance at the map and a turn to the northwest delivered us back to the right shore. Back home, the skeg lay in the gravel by the wall alongside a broken zip tie. Have I mentioned tough, TPU RovaFlex reusuables yet?
A fortnight later (that’s the frequency of sunny days up here) we looked down on a new perspective of Suilven and Eilean Mòr island from the windless 2800-foot summit of Canisp mountain, still clinging to the last of the winter snows.
This weekend IK&P went supernova and broke through the one-million hit barrier, making it possibly the most read non-commercial website about inflatable kayaks and packrafts. Find a niche and they will come, as the bloke from WaterWorld is said to have said.
The last time I congratulated myself on being such an internet hit was in 2011 when I reached 50,000 hits. Back then visitors seemed preoccupied with sharks and shark attacks, as the all-time Search Terms table on the right shows. I always assumed the only reason they’d even stumbled over this blog was because they’d been lured in by my most read post: Walking with Sharks – about kayaking in Shark Bay, Western Australia with my Gumotex Sunny. At 380 hits or 5%, that was the top search term about actual IKs.
Six years later and it’s fascinating to see how the search priorities of the packboating public have matured. Now I can say with some pride that the most popular search terms that bring visitors to IK&P is still
‘SHARK ATTACK’, followed by
‘SHARK ATTACKS’ and even an over-excited
Interestingly, the top real search is now ‘packrafts’ which have caught on in the last few years, but the long defunct Gumo Sunny is still in the top five, who knows why.
The most read pages (left) apart from the front page is… SHARKS!! [Walking with…], followed by Packrafts (also walking with) and a few technical and boat review posts, plus my Bombard post. It took days to write that one.
Thanks to all you shark fans for visiting IK&P.
See you at two mil.
A couple of days after trying out the Semperit I noticed a scratch on the hull bottom (left) so decided to pre-emptively patch that with Bostik 1782 (less faff than 2-part). It looked like an old scratch which had opened up by reusing the boat.
I reinflated a day or two later, but a few days on noticed the floor was flat. I pumped it up again – air was hissing from a crack in the hypalon coating inside the boat, more or less under the seat (below left; colours enhanced for clarity).
This seemed a bit odd. The boat hadn’t been over-inflated or left in the baking sun, and there wasn’t any obvious rubbing in the two hours I’d used it, though I suppose this is a high-wear area and an old boat.
I suspected general, age-related delamination or entropic porosity. The outer orange hypalon coat can be rubbed or cut down to the fabric core, as with the hull scratch I’d just repaired. But inside should be an airtight layer of neoprene. No way of checking that without open boat surgery.
To be honest it’s what I half-expected from a 40-year-old IK, which is why I’d kept the refurb to a minimum. I suspect sudden use after many years possible neglect had accelerated its decay. I see the keel-strake is coming away too, as are some other black patches holding the rusting D-rings.
I’ve experienced similar deterioration when buying old vehicles for long trips. They seem like a bargain and had a solid ‘they-don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-to’ reputation in their day. But reviving them, or just asking them to perform as they once did, can lead to a string of failures until it’s just not worth it (left). Much depends how they’ve been maintained over the years. I recall writing in one of my books (or maybe here): “you can’t give your old gran a pair of trainers and expect here to run a marathon without having a heart attack“.
I patched the wear-hole with more 1782, reluctant to waste good two-part Polymarine. Pumped up and filled it with water: all good, but an anomalous perforation somewhere else can’t be ruled out.
That’s another thing I’ve learned with old cars and bikes: you replace the clapped out engine then the clutch goes; you replace the clutch and the gearbox goes; you replace the gearbox and so on… The strain of refurbishment gets passed to the weakest point. An IK will get you to shore on two chambers, especially if its just the floor that’s gone. I had that once with the Incept. Out with your pals on a warm summertime river, that’s no drama. Elsewhere, alone with the wind picking up; not so trivial.
There’s a such a thing as hypalon paint (right) to revive old boats, but that goes for at least £100 a litre – possibly worthwhile on your cherished RIB; not on this old IK. If the hypalon is delaminating from the woven nylon core, paint won’t save it. You’ve got to know when to call it a day, and that day may have come for the old trout.
A few hours later the floor was soggy – this time it had let go a few inches up from the recent patching – the ‘clutch going after the engine’. Up to then I’d been considering putting it back on ebay with a clear semperit caveat emptor. But then I decided sawing it in half would be more fun. I always wondered what an I-beam floor looks like.
Read the IK autopsy.