Tag Archives: cheap intex dinghy

Packrafting in France 2 ~ Ardeche Gorge

See also:
• Chassezac
Allier guide
Packboating in southern France
Tarn
Includes pix by Steve L

The story so far. We’d nursed the cheapo Intex Boat Hawk II for three days from Les Vans down the Chassezac river as far as Vallon on the Ardeche, but following a brief reprieve, that boat was now a bundle of plastic stuffed into the campsite bin (right). Former Boathawker Steve was now astride a rental sit-on-top, like 98% of paddlers heading into the Ardeche Gorge.
With the river already packed with day boaters, we joined the melee towards the moderately technical rapid of Charlemagne, near the Pont d’Arc (above left).
Recce’ing the Ardeche a year ago, we’d sat at Charlemagne rapid watching the boats come through, not all as neatly as the canoe on the left. But at that time (late May) the river had been at least a foot higher. Today, the surfing wave at the exit (above) was much flatter and the 200-metre dog leg channel to get there was pretty easy to follow. Traffic was much higher though and I had to queue up and take my turn to drop in.
As I rode through, in front of me a couple of teenagers in a double rode up onto rocks and slowly flipped over (left), but in the packraft it was easy to steer out of their way and complete the run. First time SoT-er Steve also had no probs.
That done, we pulled over to watch the fun for a while. Most slipped through like us, but the double SoTs were far less agile. There’s no mystery why; put a teenage boy and his eight-year old sister – both new to kayaking – in a 4-5 metre hunk of plastic SoT weighing 30 kilos and they’re bound to cock up any rapid that requires co-ordinating a sharp turn or a bit of elementary river reading. So it was that boats piled into boats (left) and a train of flotsam flowed out of Charlemagne towards the arch: vacant kayaks, loose drums and paddles, kayakers with no paddles, and the odd swimmer. Some very young kids were not seeing the funny side of it, but the crowds applauded their dad’s rock mounting antics and I don’t recall any single SoTs flipping. Remember that next time you do the Ardeche!
Just beyond we passed under the famous arch (left) close to where the Chauvet cave had been discovered in the mid-90s. Full of fabulous prehistoric rock art (right) dating back 30,000 years, it’s exact location is little known and it’s locked up for protection. The cave was the subject of a recent Werner Herzog film and, as has been done elsewhere in France, a replica ‘tourist cave’ is planned nearby.
Up to this point was the regular half-day fun run on the Ardeche. The next 25kms entered a conservation reserve with only limited exits, and to rent his SoT for two days Steve had had to prove he’d booked a place at one of the two overnight camps or bivis in the gorge (see map below). Wild camping is forbidden, although we did spot a few doing so and I imagine you could get away with it if you don’t want to get bogged down in the need to book the bivi in advance. You’re also supposed to be off the river by 6pm. As soon as we left Pont d’Arc paddling traffic dropped off dramatically. 

I’d been put off the Ardeche for years by the rather intimidating description in the Massif book, but Charlemagne had been a doddle and levels were low or perhaps just normal and i was a brilliant paddler? I don’t think so. That book had over-egged other rivers and rapids over the years, but it is aimed at Brit families in canoes (not a huge market it must be said, never seen any). While my old Gumotex Sunny would have swamped harmlessly here and there, and also been tricky to turn fast in some rapids, the Alpacka Yak has the effect of reducing the WW grades by a factor of one. You can turn the Yak with one swipe and you’re so low and stable, especially with the UDBag sat over the bow, it’s hard to think how it could ever flip. The only times I feel in was getting in and out of it on the slippery river bed. In a way it made the Ardeche a bit too easy; with another foot of water it would have been more exciting. We wound our way along the meanders, passing the odd knot of kayakers as well as hikers following the gorge on foot, something which includes the odd bit of via ferrata (right).
The rapids ahead held little dread now and even the notorious Dent Noire mid-river rock (left) passed without incident. I managed to pass to the right, the correct way but which the current makes quite difficult; Steve took it on the left, grabbing a small bite from the Black Tooth on his elbow as he passed. A pair of river rescue firemen are stationed here each day, but with a ‘chicken run’ channel dug out of the shingle bypassing the rock altogether, they’d be having a pretty quiet time as long as the less controllable doubles took that line, as the signs advised.
We arrived at the empty Gard bivi early and took our pick of the pitches. After days packed like sardines in holiday camps, it was a relief to spread out over a sloping field as on a normal farmer’s campsite. There’s nothing here but toilets, water, free charcoal for the BBQ pits and a 2km track up to the road, as well as warnings to keep food sealed against the wild boars. The field filled up towards evening but it was still far from the overcrowding for which the Ardeche is notorious. A weekend here may have been another matter.
Friday was another wonderful day, hitting the frothiest lines we could find (left) and drifting with the breeze under the overhanging limestone walls. Only one rapid flipped Steve’s rigid SoT out of the blue, while the following Yak just hung up on the same rock, pivoted round and slid off.
At times stiff a breeze blew along the gorge, either in our face or our backs, depending on the orientation of the meander. As the walls subsided towards the take-out at Sauze near St Martin (left), that turned into a strong backwind which rushed us downriver. At one point after a break, I swam out with my boat and planned to get in it off the water just to remind  myself it was easy, but the little tab I was holding onto broke and the boat was gone like a balloon in a gale. Just as well Steve was downriver to catch it.
At Sauze beach the rental outfits’ vans and trailers line up to retrieve their clients and SoTs. Me, I didn’t want to get off the river, but our original plan to paddle on for a day to Pont Saint Esprit was only possible with our own boats. Steve could have bought another cheapie from a toy shop but it would have meant rushing for tomorrow’s train from Avignon. So it was time to roll up the Yak on this mini adventure and head for out allocated patch in the Camping Municipal.
Our week in the Ardeche was all a bit of a holiday, not the sort of thing we normally do, but a fun run on which it was safe to take a chance with the cheap dinghy. There wasn’t a mark on the Yak but I was shocked how easily and quickly the Hawk had got mashed. Conclusion: you do indeed get what you pay for. With some duct tape we could have kept it going and for the £35 it cost, it was still worth it as a one-trip wonder, compared to the commitment of buying a proper packraft.
Combined with the brilliant Watershed bags, the Yak made light work of it all and makes me realise I be happy to do the Massif rivers I’ve done in the Sunny all over again with the Alpacka. It would also be fun to do the Ardeche again at higher levels and maybe start from Aubenas to make a meaty 100-km run down to St Esprit.

Getting to the Ardeche
We took an infrequent Eurostar non-stop service from London to Avignon – just 6 hours but £260 return each. An Easyjet to Lyon or Ryanair to Nimes may have been cheaper but not quicker and much less fun. From Avignon we backed up to Montelimar by train and from there took the connecting bus service on to Ruoms (one ticket about £15 – 1.5 hours). At Ruoms, just north of Vallon, an empty minibus turned up bang on time and took us on to Les Vans for just €3 (30 mins). Simply getting a TGV train to Montelimar may be a better and cheaper way, but from the UK would probably require changing stations in Paris (40 mins walk) – or maybe just platforms in Lille.
Coming back we got a lift from St Martin to Pont St Esprit (no buses – taxi €15 for 9km – 16km by river). And after wandering through the Saturday morning marche (above left), took the bus on to Avignon for just €2.50 (90 mins) for another 6-hour train ride back to London.
Tracking down Pont Saint Esprit timetables online unearthed a sinister history to the town: the Incident at Pont Saint Esprit. A recently published book (right) claimed that in the early 1950s, as part of what later became their MK Ultra mind control program, the CIA drugged the town with LSD with predictably terrifying results. Several people killed themselves in the hallucinogenic torment, many more were locked up in asylums. If it’s true then CIA stunts like that make an exploding cigar sound positively benign!

Packraft versus cheap dinghy

To most people a packraft looks much like an inflatable dinghy you can get on ebay for £30. The difference is in the design and materials: bigger diametre tubes enlarged front and back mean more buoyancy plus an upturned and narrowed bow to better ride over waves. It’s also lighter, less bulky and tougher than an ebay dinghy such as the Intex Seahawk 200 pictured above (235cm x 114cm, 220kg claimed payload) which manages weighs 6kg I’ve since discovered when I persuaded a mate to buy one.
An Intex ‘pool boat’ like the blue boat, right, will be made of PVC plastic like a beach ball. Alpackas, IKs and the like are made of urethane- or rubber-coated fabric – that is the big difference. It’s like having a tent made out of bin bags versus a tent of PU-coated nylon or whatever. A bin bag tent will keep the rain off but won’t last so long. Pakboats can be pumped up stiff – critical to good performance – while retaining a pre-determined form and won’t burst when they heat up a bit in the sun or at the sight of texrolloxsome nettles. Closer examination of the Intex Sea Hawk II hull suggests an underlying fabric covered in PVC coating, but in fact it’s just the texture of the PVC – there is no fabric underlay which is why the boat is so squidgy like a balloon, even at full pressure.
Build quality less good, but it’s still a boat that floats. Is performance and durability related to price, or are old PVC dinghies the packrafts we never knew, and packrafts the ‘glorified inner tube for yuppies‘ quoted elsewhere? Summer 2011 we found out, when a mate in an Intex and me in the Yak did the Ardeche in France: short version, the Intex lasted 5 minutes…


 

Alpacka v cheap PVC dinghy [video]

A few months ago, in the bleak Kentish winter, we paddled the part-frozen Medway River from Tonbridge to Yalding. Me in my Alpacka Llama packraft, Steve in his slick Feathercraft Big Kahuna kayak. You can check out the report and vid here, but the short version was he got hypothermia waiting for me so towed me to the end in a bid to warm himself up.
Now it’s a lovely warm Spring here in the UK and we returned to the Medway in new boats: me in my 2011 Alpacka Yak with my old Llama strapped over the bow for back-up. Steve in his new Intex Sea Hawk II bought off amazon for £31.49 plus shipping and free buyer relocation program. Here’s an amazon review which 6 of 7 people found helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Quality, 27 July 2010 By SF (England)
This review is for: INTEX SEA HAWK 2 This boat is very good quality, certainly much better than anything normally seen in seaside shops. It is made from thick vinyl and has safety chambers. Big enough for 2 adults. Recommended.
There you have it. Twenty and a half Sea Hawks for the price of one Yak. How bad can a cheap bloat be? My Yak weighs 3.3 kilos (7.3lbs) with seat, deck and pump. It’s 2.23m long, (so about the same as the Intex) but is 91cm wide – 8 inches less. Payload is say 130kg. More Yak stats here. 

                Intex Sea Hawk II
  • Weight                   6kg with pump
  • Outer length         2.36m (93″)
  • Inner length          ~160cm (63″)
  • Outer width          1.14m (45″)
  • Inner width           ~40cm (16″)
  • Payload                  200kg (441lbs) claimed
  • Rolled up bulk      Similar  to Alpacka

The Sea Hawk comes with rather flimsy looking oars (not paddles), rollocks, fishing rod holders, oar clip holders on the side, a front handle, but no seat. I imagine a rower sits against the front end facing backwards while the rear passenger merrily casts their rod. To paddle it packraft style requires raising a seat at the back so your paddle can reach the water easily. As you see in the vid above, this was easily done.
It’s easy to scoff (and in the vid, we do) but the Hawk is not the lame slab of 
plastic pool toy crap you might imagine. Like the amazon reviewer says, it’s pretty thick vinyl and interestingly, the hull is composed of two concentric chambers: an inner one as if it was grafted in from a smaller boat, with an exterior chamber welded around it. If you’re going to have two chambers for security on an inflatable, this is by far the best way to achieve it compared to some left-and-right chambered packrafts. Should an inner or outer chamber fail (could happen…) it leaves a less buoyant but still symmetrically stable and rowable boat. If you look closely at the picture below right showing the hole, you’ll see the Intex does appear to be a fabric base (cross threads) covered in a vinyl coat.  An Alpacka is made from similar but tougher fabric which does not stretch under pressure and so is more robust.
The reason for the huge price difference must be that Alpackas are hand made in Colorado, while everything from The Intex Corp is squeezed out of a tube from their factory in Xiamen, China. I bet they sell well over a 1000 Sea Hawks to every Alpacka.
Pumping up time with the stoop-over hand pump of the hull chambers and inflatable floor is say 5-10 minutes (there are no PRVs). And sadly here was where our review came to a premature end. Once on the water Steve’s outer chamber soon drooped and it wasn’t just down to the cooling effect of the water. We paddled a mile upstream with him stopping occasionally to re-pump until we got to Sluice Weir Lock. Here he tracked down the hole – a nick on the top of the outer chamber from the hedge trimmer he’s used to remove the annoying rod holders. So while a blob of Aquaseal cured, we played around on the Sluice chute and when the time came, set up my Llama to tow the flaccid Sea Hawk home.
On the way up we’d established that not surprisingly the Yak was faster than the Hawk, but not by a huge amount – and anyway my paddle blades were much bigger than Steve’s. Tracking was no worse than an Alpacka and yawing maybe less pronounced. We never got to run it down the chute but apart from width, I’m sure it would have managed just as well as the packraft – the slide (see the vid or this) is easier than it looks and the Yak took on no water. I dont think the blue double in the vid got off so lightly. In the Class II rapids of the Ardeche this July it may take some effort to position the Sea Hawk where you’d like as you’re not jammed in for good control like on a Yak (or a proper kayak), but canoes manage fine and anyway, it’s an inflatable so can take the knocks.
A comfy, day-long seating-for-paddling arrangement would take some doing and unless you put it inside, packing a load securely to the Intex may be a challenge compared to Alpacka’s nifty system. Rollocks and other points could be used. Steve’s already on it.
So, not a hugely conclusive test that will dictate the development of inflatable water craft for years to come, but getting to the point, durability and function are what it’s all about, no? An Alpacka may not be 20 times lighter, tougher, faster or better outfitted than an Intex, but where it counts, even twice as good is worth the premium. Or so I like to think. I suspect if I had heard of Intexes before Alpackas I may have saved a lot of money and wasted a bit of time getting one. You’d imagine that you’d feel safer in an expensive boat, but I could have managed that Scotland trip last summer in the Intex. Roman D discusses vinyl in a recent post and has a vid attached of some goofy Aussies going for vinyl-suicideBest thing with the Intex: price and double chambers; best thing with the Yak: comfort/support, weight, load carrying and spray deck (better WW-abilty).
Ardeche (left) end of July will be the reckoning, but perhaps the bottom line should be this: if you’re drawn to the idea of packrafting and touring but can’t stomach spending over $1000 on an Alpacka, a PVC cheapie is a great way to get on the water for next to nothing.


Alpacka Yak vs old style Denali Llama

Back in the UK and took a run today in the new-shape Yak on the sunny Medway in Kent with my old-shape Llama. Impressions: the slightly longer Llama sure is roomy – you can stretch your legs which is relaxing, like my old Sunny IK – but the feet-jam feeling in the shorter Yak I’ve quickly got used to.
Other things, the rounded Llama does seem to yaw left to right more (as you’d expect), especially without a frontal load – but this impression is strongest when watching the boat rather than actually being in it, as you body moves left to right with the boat, be it Yak or Llama. Yawing is in the eye of the observer. Most obvious best thing besides the colour is that new seat; no more messing around yanking the annoying back up as you hop in in less than ideal circumstances.
A week or two later I took the Yak out on a windy loch in Scotland. How easy it is to inflate with the wind at your back! On the water with the bow splashing water over my head, I got a chance to appreciate the skirt as well as how stable it feels with gusts up to 25mph or more. One thing I did notice was after stepping out in the shallows the thing was gone in the wind (towards the shore, luckily). I’d never have caught it if I was in the water and hyperventilating from cold shock. It reminds me that in such conditions I ought to attach the stick to a loop in the bow chord to slow down an escaping Yak.
Is the pointy Yak faster? Forgot the GPS to find out for sure and our paddles where too different in size to run the Yak and Llama side by side (plus we were towing a sick Intex), but we felt the Yak had the edge, again as you’d expect but we’re talking less than  1mph here. Now I’m up north in packrafting country I have more Yak mini adventures planned. More about the test against my mate’s £30 Intex dinghy here.