Updated summer 2018
Proper touring is understandably undertaken in hardshell sea kayaks (in the UK) or in canoes (in North America), but the great thing with an IK is portability. I took my whole kit to Australia in 2006, including camping gear, without going over the 24kg limit or taking anyone’s eye out in Departures. And in 2011 I took my packraft and my Incept IK to Australia again, weighing it at 30kg; inside my limit.
In France, or anywhere else in the world other than the UK, they love their gonflables. Just like in the US, IKs are seen as a fun way of getting people onto the water – even white water – without any entrapment worries. Eskimo rolls and Level 5 BCU accreditation with honours can all come later, or maybe never.
Left: If you ever saw this many IKs together in the UK you’d be hallucinating. Note the thigh straps which are almost as good as being jammed into a hard shell, but who wants that on a sunny day on the Allier river?
Based in Austria, long-established Grabner specialises in all sorts of inflatable water craft: dinghies, canoes, catamaran sail rigs and IKs. Every summer they host open days in central European locations where you can try their boats. And you’d want to to because Grabners are expensive and so barely sold outside German-speaking countries while Czech-made Gumotex IKs have gained a worldwide following. Even the 2 x 1metre ‘Fun Board’, left costs €600, about the same as a Gumotex 410C. Like Gumboats, Grabners are made from a tough and durable Hypalon-like synthetic rubber called EPDM (more here) which means they will last many, many years.
On their website Grabner brag about the relatively high 0.3 bar (4.3 psi) air pressures their IKs can run – and without relying on seam-saving pressure release valves too. That’s 50% more than a typical Gumotex which ought to translate to added stiffness over length and necessarily good quality materials and construction which includes vulcanising after glueing.
Because of all this Grabner prices are unapologetically high, and on top of that you have to pay extra for many accessories that come as standard with an Incept or a Gumo. The tracking fin (right) and even seats are extra (Gumo equivalents are half the price), but at least you get a backrest bar as standard. Accessories also include outriggers, sails, stability fins and even outboards, so they’ve really gone into it. Click the tech pic above. And check out youtube for clip of a Holiday going pretty fast with a Pacific Action sail. Overall, you’d hope you get what you pay for: among the most expensive and best made IKs around in the classic ‘bladders nein danke’ European tradition.
Holiday 2 or H3
I have a feeling Grabner may well have been the European benchmark before the much less expensive Czech Gumotexs came on the scene. In the 1980s or so Grabner bought the rights for the Semperit Forelle (left, an SF II: 3.65 x 80cm; 12kg; many more images here) – the original do-it-all touring IK from the 1960s, as used by Audrey Sutherland (in the longer SF III version) and on which the Holidays are directly based. In 2017 I bought an old Forelle to repair.
Costing around €1600, the Holiday 2 (and you thought ‘Sunny’ was a crap name!) is the classic touring boat in Grabner’s range of IKs.
Like a Seaker or Incept, twin side beams on the Holiday models add ‘non-sagging’ longitudinal rigidity. Not so good in a side wind, but it certainly limits side overswill, swell contouring and general in-splashing (these are all technical IK terms not to be bandied about), especially with that demi-decking fore and aft. And the ends are quite pointy which is always a good thing for a boat. I suspect the floor is dead flat and so the chines are hard – not so good on the edge? but you don’t do edging on an IK.
The H2 (above and right, alongside a yellow Incept K40 and a hardshell) stats are: 16kg/35lbs on 3.95 x 75cm (13 feet at 30″) with a 190kg payload. The H2 comes with seat- and footrest bars only – a proper seat is extra, as are most things with Grabner IKs.
The boat in these pictures is Gael A’s 12-year old H2. A quick spin at sea found it tracked very well when sat in the back without the rudder attached. The H2 is a bit wider and so more stable but slower than my Incept K40, and has a lot more interior pace than the single-side beam Sunny; it’s almost like a canoe in there, with a long line of attachment points. The transverse alloy bars are a good way of getting a solid back and foot rest. There’s more here on my day out with the H2.
Click this for an account of Gael A’s Scottish coastal run in 2010 to see what an H2 can manage as a solo sea tourer. At last I have been able to get rid of those awful 1970s-style Grabner publicity shots and show a Grabner in real action! In case you’re wondering, the as-rigid and similar Incept K40 is faster than an H2. Gael now owns both.
Grabner’s XXXL €1750 Holiday 3 (left) could be a seriously long tandem touring IK. We’re talking 5m x 75cm at 21kg with a 240kg payload (16′ 5″ x 30″, 46lbs and 530lbs). You’ll want a rudder on that boat that long.
You’ll be lucky to find a €1200 3-chamber Amigo (left and below) measuring up at 14kg/190kg/3.75m/78cm – a tad shorter, wider but quite a lot lighter than a Sunny. It was replaced in 2013 with the flatter-prowed Tramper design which Grabner bought off Zodiac (originally Metzeler). Can’t think what was so wrong with the Amigo, but maybe Gumotex’s 410C looking the same, but being half the price and a foot longer didn’t help.
Part of the reason the Amigo is nearly 20% lighter than a similar 410C is that it comes with just has a pair of backrest bars for seats (as above), no, seats, footrests or D-rings. With Grabner these things are expensive accessories. There are no PRVs either, and you can read here that Grabners are heat vulcanised as well as glued, so you do wonder then if even though it lacks more rigid twin side beams, an Amigo could be an ultra rigid and therefor potentially faster version of my old Sunny which bent under my weight (like most long, single-side tube IKs). In 2013 I bought myself an Amigo and in 2015 Grabner brought out the Mega.
I’ve been aware of AE kayaks for years, but reading the specs and viewing the pics they’ve never really appealed to me. Something puts me off: the over-complicated designs (see above), naff go-faster slashes as well as the PVC materials. Overall AE’s seem a bit too ‘American designed and Chinese made’ for what I like in an IK.
Some AEs use an aluminium ‘frame’ to give a sharp kayak-like shape to the bow and stern, though as you can see above left, they’re just a bent ‘U’ that takes form with inflation. The hulls only run 2psi so fitting the optional £80 backbone rod between the two ends seems essential to create some rigidity. Another tip is to fit the also optional £190 drop-stitch floor in place the low pressure one that comes with the boat. (More on drop stitch here). By now you’re buying and accumulating quite a lot of extra bits and pieces to make the boat work. AEs use two bladder air chambers inside a tube which then sits in a envelope like those green Sevys above, all which adds to weight and mildew potential. They don’t seem to have a model that greatly improves on the various IKs I’ve owned which work fine without any metal frames, zips, envelopes, inflatable floors or slow-drying bladders.
Their StraightEdge II (above right; £800) comes close to a Sunny at 4m x 90cm and 21kg – ie: 4 inches wider and 4 kilos heavier than a Sunny, although it does self-bail. A lot to be said for that – or is there? Handy for surfing or white water in that it saves you tipping out. To achieve self bailing properly (not sitting in water) you need a thick floor which puts you higher and so ends up requiring a wide boat if it’s not to be too tippy.
Or better still the Expedition model (left; 4m x 82cm at 19 kilos and £550 – very close to a Sunny) with a former sea kayaker’s review here. Nice pointy bow it’s got to be said, but remember it’s a bladder boat made of PVC. More reviews on Amazon US or Paddling.net, but here’s one guy who knows what he’s about and has actually paddled an Advanced Elements Convertable too (double/single; 4.6m long; 32cm claimed) and and written a review. Pack some sandwiches because after you’ve finished reading the review you can expect to get lost in Douglas Wilcox’s Scottish seakayaking blog and photos for some time. Don’t take my words for it regarding AEs – I’ve never seen one but would like a closer look at the Expedition one time.
Sea Eagles and Sevylors
People may ask, why no Sea Eagle Explorer 380 or 420; after all the reviews are good on Paddling Net (a great resource). Basically the many fake ‘review websites’ they put up (last time I looked) puts me off, and anyway a 380 is so wide you could use two as a pair of garage doors. I suspect they’re more for fishing from- than touring with, although the motorhoming couple (left) we met on the Chaussezac were greatly enjoying day trips in theirs.
I feel the same way about Sevylors, perhaps the best-selling IKs in the US. I had the chance to have a scoot about in a mate’s old Sevy Ranger once. The £200 boat came with an odd canvas outer covering, I presume to protect the less than robust PVC hull from life in general. Never seen that before. Underneath were two rubbery runnels or long skegs (see pic below), not unlike a Tramper.
The side tubes were huge like many US-sold cheapies; sufficient to support a similarly girthsome fisherman and a family of carp. The Ranger claims to be a 2-seater, but even alone, the fat tubes closed in so much at the bow my feet were jammed. Still, it was light and it went and tracked well enough, but it did feel like being sunken in a collapsed couch. At that money of course, it could be a great intro to The Way of the IK, so best not to get too sniffy. The owner has since bought a couple of Gumotex Twists and considers them much better IKs.
If £200 is too much how about €90 – that’s what a Sevy K330 (11kg, 165 kg capacity, 3.25m x 80cm wide) will cost you in Germany. This one below is at the Pont d’Arc on the Ardeche, one of the most popular rec’ white water rivers in France. In high summer helmets are advisable down here because of the real possibility of getting nutted by the bow of a following SoT or canoe as you flounder about below some rapids looking for your paddle and barrel.
The guys in the 330 were having a laugh below famous WW2 Charlemagne rapid, but either that thing has got a leak or it’s a flabby design. At 3.25m (10.5′) it’s hardly long enough to bend, but rigidity is always the problem with IKs or packrafts when they get beyond a certain length. You get what you pay for and those two paddles probably cost more than the boat. The guy we met was pretty chuffed with his 10-year-old Tahiti and let’s not forget, Audrey Sutherland paddled along the Inside Passage in what looks like a longer Sevy K-79 Tahiti too, so what the heck do I know?
We were back on the Ardeche a year later with packrafts, and among all the rental SoTs I spotted quite a few privately owned Sevyies, including this slick-looking River X (right) which I’ve always thought looked the most purposeful in the Sevy range, even though they’re not listed on the Sevy website any more (but are here).
Then in 2012 I had a closer look and a quick a go in one and my admiration waned a bit. I’ve seen claims of it being 32″ wide but it’s got to be at least a yard. Comfy though, and looks well made for a Sevy. No skeg on there, just lame under-hull runnels (as on the green Sev above) which I suspect have little value. But it’s as stable as a steamroller is a swamp so great for the family, the dog or fishing – but that’s someone else’s blog.
In fact, I have a feeling Sevies were once made at two levels of specification: the cheap and cheerful PVC ‘bloats’ which seems to be all that’s currently listed now on their website; and the formerly full-priced IKs which, though still wide enough to be used as snow shoes, could make a super-stable tourer if you do your paddling standing up. Sevy’s SKS500 Pacific sea kayak (left: 4.94m x only 80cm; 23kg) is a far cry from some of their dumpier, low-end turkeys, but goes for over £800 – which is actually quite reassuring. No trace of that one on the Sevy www either, but again, try here.
NRS MaverIK and Outlaw
A day in a MaverIK on the Salmon River in Idaho in 2004 was the happy day I discovered IKs. I did the run in a raft the day before and stayed over to do it again in one of the IKs which had accompanied the rafts. I had a fantastic time, attacking my first-ever rapids while amazingly, staying aboard. I rode it forwards, backwards, jumped out and hopped back in. I recall it didn’t track too well in the pools between the rapids but no one minded; it was a hot day and we were up for it. When it was all over I nearly bought it on the spot.
At 3.8m x 91cm (12′ 5″ x 36″), for a while I wondered later if a MaverIK II was the then long sought after ‘self-bailing Sunny‘? The symmetrical upturned ends (18″ of rocker we’re told) contribute to agility and helping it ride over the frothing pile but not really, because the flat ‘raft’ hull profile, excessive width and 20kg (46lb) weight make it slow, and the $1800 only-in-the-US price tag waters the eyes.
Since then I’ve never come across an owner review of a MaverIK because I realise they’re almost exclusively bought as day-rentals by US outfitters. The user-friendly stability plus tough hypalon fabric, simple build and 6–10 year guarantee attest to that. You even get chunky Leafield raft valves on the thwarts (backrests).
On the Salmon I don’t recall sitting in water (apart from when it came in over my head) so I suspect the self-bailing floor (as above) was indeed thick enough for my 95-kg weight. And in a MaverIK you sit right on the floor, not on a seat. Not so good for paddling posture when the butt should be a bit higher than the heel. To be honest the MaverIK is a proven but basic design, an expensive IK dinosaur not really suited to private ownership unless you start modifying it with a skeg, D-rings, proper seats and footrests, all escalating the cost to over $2000.
NRS also produce the similar Outlaw I and I (left) more suited to recreational owners. Formerly called a Bandit, the longer II is 3.7m x 1m and weighs 15kg and is even sold in Europe for €900. Made from the dreaded (and it seems less durable) polyester-coated PVC, unlike the Maverik it uses a less expensive and removable 10-cm thick drop-stich flood panel (resembling a slim SUP board) to attain longitudinal rigidity and put height above the drain holes so you’re not sitting in water.
Many US reviewers have mentioned it is slow to drain because it seems the DS floor panel blocks the drain holes below (left). And one user noted that after a year, creases in the stiff PVC developed into air leaks – you’ll never get that with a MaverIK or any supple, rubber IK. And it still has those naff space-wasting thwarts which attach with straps through the drain holes (so will eventually fray). Better to glue on some D-rings and then fit a proper seat. Like the MaverIK the wide, flat hull won’t win any flat-water speed records and without a skeg it will track like a pallet in a canal until you get the knack. It’s your typical, over-wide US-style IK, like a similar Padillac I rented once (right) in Colorado – see below. Below, a fun vid shot on a western US river featuring some NRS and Aire Lynx IKs
Clearly these wide, self-bailing NRS IKs are for safe, white water fun more than touring, but in 2018 three British women (all self-admitedly inexperienced paddlers) completed the first 1000+ km source-to-sea descent of the Essequibo river in Guyana. Accompanied by local guides in dug-outs, once the gnarly jungle opened out they used three Outlaw IIs to reach the Caribbean.
Like NRS, Aire are a respected American rafting manufacturer. I’m told there are ‘tens of thousands in Idaho’ where Aire and NRS are based, but unlike Canada-based Feathercraft, outside the US they’re barely known. I’ve never actually see an Aire IK. Like others in the IK and raft game, Aire have diversified into packrafts and SUP boards and to their credit, aren’t afraid to use the P word. A key difference between NRS and Aire IKs is that (unusually for the US) NRS are ‘tubeless’ (like Gumotex) and Aire’s use air bladders to support a shell or envelope. More here.
Aire Super Lynx
Many years ago I was eyeing up the Aire Super Lynx as my next IK, mostly because theboatpeople.com rated it. A heavy-payload PVC self-bailer, it looked the part but weighs 46lbs (21kg). What few reviews I read rated it, but complained about drying times. I know all about that now – plus it is over a yard wide, like a lot of US-branded IKs, partly I suspect because it’s an optional self-bailer so needs a thick floor which adds instability (high centre of gravity) unless width also increases. Aire later brought out a skeg kit for the SL, but it’s design and fitting looked rather fussy. I’d probably have got a Super Lynx, tried it and sold it until a chum alerted me to the similarly bladdered but over a foot slimmer Feathercraft Java IK which had slipped under my inflatable radar and which I bought and also soon sold (see below).
What do I know about Aire’s Sawtooth other than again, the Boat People rated it and it specs up close to Gumotex Solar 410C. The numbers are 13′ 3″ long, 32″ wide, 36lbs and a huge 400-lb payload (4.04m; 81cm; 16.3kg, 180kg) – and all for $750. The Sawtooth is said to be faster than an old Sunny and runs one or two seats. It bails (could be good) but is bladdered – not so good for quick drying. Plus it’s Aire’s lighter-duty, Chinese-made ‘Tributary’ brand with only a year’s warranty.
By not using Aire’s usual, massive side tubes, the freeboard (height above water) is low, making the boat less wind prone (IKs’ weak point), but look at the huge floor tube in the frontal profile; that’s where they get the payload numbers. In fact on Dan’s blog (below) it looks pretty high out of the water. And they finally fitted a removable skeg too. Full time RV-er Dan, who had FC Kahunas and has two RTM Disco SoTs (both boats I’ve eyed up in my quieter moments) got himself a Sawtooth but it didn’t look like he got on with it.
Feathercraft Java ~ Full story here
While in Colorado collecting my FC Java one time I did the 7-mile ‘Durango Town Run’ down the Animas River in a Hyside Padillac (below) – a boat I’d heard of but never considered owning as in no way does it fit into the air-portable touring category which I aspire to. A week of storms had the river running red with mud at 2000cfs, three times more than normal for August I was told. Great for rafts but a bit marginal for beginners in IKs they warned. I walked the bits in town and saw locals going down in inner tubes and even floating along without pfds, so figured it couldn’t be that bad.
The Padillac is basic – a bomb-proof outfitter’s WW mule like the NRS MaverIK above. It has a thwart to lean against, feet jam in between the floor and huge side tubes, and it’s very short at just 9′ 8″ (2.5 m) which makes it nice and spinny for rock dodging or looking back upriver. A bit like a packraft in fact. And at no less than 40 inches wide (like the Gumotex K2,) it’s also as stable as a screwed-down sofa; you could probably set up a step ladder and paint the ceiling while floating in a Padillac. The high flows that day didn’t make tracking an issue, but on a lake I imagine it would be as agonising as a creek boat. Big drain holes speed up self-bailing which turned out to be just as well.
The guide (in a raft-full of people) warned me to attack the rapids (something I knew well from my first ever IK run in a MaverIK, above), but even that didn’t help me through the only Class III on the run: the three-wave ‘Smelter’ hiding out of town and which had slipped through my recce. Result? A lowside from the Hyside (above) and a stomach full of Animas siltwater; the fate of most renters hitting the Smelter that week, though looking at the picture it’s clear I wandered too far to the left.
Still, it’s clear that the Padillac is made for the day tripping whitewater rental market: very tough, simple Hypalon construction, high-pressure (0.25 bar) and stable. Great to rent if you’ve never run whitewater before, but not to own and tour with, IMO.
Why not a folder?
I’ve led such a sad, sheltered life that I never knew there was such a thing as a folding kayak at the point I discovered there was such a thing as an inflatable. Since that time I’ve done a couple of trips with Steve in his ancient Klepper (below right and and a no-less-young Feathercraft K-Light (above right). For me part of the IK appeal is simply stepping in and out. It was something I was reminded of on the Thames one time, getting back into my Sunny after a lock, off a quay 2-3 feet high while hanging off some ladder rungs. With a hardshell’s cockpit it’s a tricky procedure, especially for a large person.
Without hatches, set-up and packing time in a folder is longer and requires some dexterity and concentration (newer models may be easier). Furthermore, the easy whitewatering I’ve done in France might be a bit harsh on a folding alloy frame. An attack by blow darts could be bad news, but an IK is immune to rock bashing, rough treatment and cinching down directly onto the roof of a car. I had a quick spin in Steve’s K’light and recall being about as impressed as he was with my Gumboat. Like all paddlers, we are each to our own.
Let alone drying issues, the extra time and complexity it takes to set up a folder out of the bag will put you off going out for quick paddles, but that time is soon gained on the water. No doubt about it, I couldn’t keep up with Steve’s folders in my Sunny. With the wind in my face, one day on the Thames he was effortlessly gliding away while I was attacking the water like someone digging up a road with a pickaxe – and still losing ground. But we have yet to have a showdown in my Incept which I suspect will be more of a match for his Big Kahuna.
Looking a whole lot less like a lilo, a Feathercraft Big Kahuna (above and below) sidesteps the inherent ‘numpty’ image factor that burdens IKs so heavily. When I was talking myself into buying a Feathercraft Java a couple of years back, I also admired their BK; a great looking boat with an extra big hatch (right). And to think, it all folds up into a bag… But then I snapped out of it: spray skirts, falling out while getting in and falling in while getting out plus complex assembies long enough to draw a crowd. Maybe one day I’ll surrender my pump for an spray skirt and since then I’ve paddled the BK: read this or this and watch this.