Tag Archives: Feathercraft Big Kahuna kayak

Feathercraft Aironaut IK

Discontinued
Updated summer 2020
Early owner’s review

Feathercraft’s short-lived Aironaut IK was a breath of fresh air. As with their folders, FC managed to turn the usual IK sow’s ear into a very silky looking purse. With all kayaks, it’s the sensation of gliding or responsiveness to forward paddle strokes that’s as much appeal as being in the outdoors, and judging from looks alone, the Aironaut did that better than other IKs even if the concept may have been flawed and the boat was discontinued.

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The Airo was pitched as a convenient, nippy recreational day boat for folks who find Feathercraft folding kayaks a faff to set up on the spur of the moment (left) and a pain to store or transport assembled.
It’s the relative assembly effort and complexity as well as assembly time that can kill spontaneity, especially if you’re at an age when you’re no longer as supple as a leaping salmon. I’ve also encountered the hard rock fragility of ally-framed folders to which IKs are immune, though both are susceptible to cuts and abrasions. With an IK you just tip it out of the bag, fit the skeg, pump up three chambers and get in ~ about ten minutes. But for sea touring I still suspect that once assembled, a Feathercraft Kahuna is easier to manage in strong winds, something which I’ve found can limit an IK.

A few years ago I briefly owned Feathercraft’s Java, what they rightly call a ‘sit on top’ IK, but I didn’t get on with it (read in the link). The Airo was a conventional sit in IK, complete with a fixed deck like the long discontinued but very hefty Gumotex Seakers. By IK standards, even the Aironaut name is clever too, suggesting a light, cutting edge boat. From the images it’s got to be the slickest-looking IK out there, though the competition isn’t that great.

The magic numbers are: 4.5m  (14’ 9”) long,  66cm  (26”) wide, a weight of just 9kg (20 lbs) and a modest payload of 136kg. The rest you read here is my usual speculation based on those details and the photos I have pinched from the Feathercraft Aironaut webpage and ebay.

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airoside

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As with my old Incept K40, using ‘plastic’ coated fabrics means it can all can be heat-welded together which you presume is cleaner and less expensive than gluing by hand and then squeezing in a press. Urethane-coated nylon may not sound such a ‘high quality, technical fabric’ (to quote the FC blurb), but pack boat manufacturers are notoriously cagey about fabric specifics. As with Alpacka packrafts, exactly what type of urethane is key, as is the composition of the nylon base. Both may be custom specified from a source manufacturer to deliver certain properties. A nylon weave base fabric is supposedly more stretchy than polyester which is good against spikes, but less good in containing a rigid inflatable form. That’s why it needed to run a high pressure.

airohull

My Incept was a fast IK, aided by a notably slick PVC-urethane coating over a ‘1100 polyester dtex’ (= about 1000D)  base. Knowing that, suddenly the Airo’s 420D doesn’t sound so robust, but that’s how Feathercraft managed to halve the weight of a K40 which otherwise has very similar dimensions. Another clue might be in the payload given at 136kg; the Airo’s many tubes may add up to a relatively small volume. The Incept by comparison was rated at 160kg.

airocalm

They achieve that amazing weight by fabricating the Airo from 210D urethane-coated nylon on the deck and multi-tubed black sides – and 420D in the hull (hard to tell the later two apart in most pics). So it’s a regular three-chamber IK. When I recall December’s Supai packraft was made from 75D polyester, triple that for the sides and six times for the hull sounds reassuring, though direct denier comparisons are misleading. It’s about weave density not final fabric thickness.

airoroof

The Airo had Halkey inflation valves like the Incept, and pressure-release valves on all three chambers. PRVs are vital so the seams won’t stress and pop if it gets hot (as happened to my Java). I’m always a little perturbed that my high pressure Grabner had no PRVs and added them to my Gumotex Seawave’s sides for protection with higher pressures.

However, see the link at the bottom of the page. It seems the combination of a long, solo IK made from a thin fabric needed a high 5psi rating to not fold in the middle, but even with PRVs all round, there were reports of a couple of Aironauts blowing apart irreparably which may be why it was discontinued (FC claimed ‘high costs’) before FC actually closed down for good. You might think: fit lower rated PRVs to spare the hull, but if the boat was designed to work at 5psi, anything less would see it sag like a Sevylor bloat, especially with a girthsome paddler.

Airo+Seawave

Also like my old Sunny, Incept, Grabner and Seawave (left, alongside and Airo), the Aironaut is a European-style ‘tubeless’ IK with no slip-in sponsons (‘inner tubes’) to give a hull shell its form. Perhaps that was necessary to run a high 5psi (0.34 bar) pressure, something which requires a good pump as well as good construction if it’s not to leak at weak points. Once on the water though, high pressure hulls have real benefits in terms of hardshell-like hull rigidity and paddling efficiency. Look at the pictures and see how straight the kayaks appear, even allowing for light paddlers (and compare to my Java here). Then factor in the Airo’s Java-like cheese-cutting bow and I suspect this may a fast IK, and all without clumsy and bulky stiffening rods or D/S floors. It’s no great surprise that it was Feathercraft who managed it, but it seems it was flawed.

FC seem keen on you using their sea sock insert which fits around the coaming and stops the boat filling right up in a capsize. I must say the thought of snagging that while trying to get out in a hurry would be a worry.
It’s also a little unnerving that they include a paddle float in the package (left), admitting perhaps that the 26-inch wide Aironaut is a relatively tippy IK and getting back into the cockpit will be tricky on the high and buoyant Aironaut. I tried it with the Incept once, but as we know, practise near the shore with a mate taking photos is not the same as tipping over out at sea, especially when alone. You would be better off getting the knack of eskimo rolling with this boat.

At 75cm long (26.5 inches) the Aironaut’s cockpit hatch is the same as my mate’s ally-framed Big Kahuna. In all my clobber and fluctuating girth I wouldn’t want it any smaller, though I imagine there is more’ squidging’ space and no Kahuna bars getting in the way; instead there are the thigh straps – essential for rolling and bracing. You also get a spray skirt plus a detachable, low profile skeg which is also a good idea at sea; the latter in my experience is much less faff than a rudder which I’ve found to be inadequate anyway once a tailwind gets beyond a certain strength. Good on FC for including all this in the package. Grabner and others take note.

The Feathercraft Aironaut was made in Canada and went for around CAN$3000 or the same price as the otherwise similar Incept K40 which is hard to find in Europe now.

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Compared directly with the K40, the Aironaut was nearly half the weight, had a fixed deck which to me limited the appeal, had a simple skeg instead of a complex rudder, was a little narrower but a little longer, ran less payload and was supposedly tippy which, however they did it, the K40 never really was. Judging by other FCs I’ve tried and owned, I bet the Airo was better made than the K40 too, though that weight-saving fabric choice appears to be at the a cost of durability.

Airo flaws; a discussion thread – Paddling impression

Midsummer Paddle to Nowhere

Midsummer’s Day with over 18 hours of daylight. You’d think they’d be something to celebrate up here. But sadly the skies were clad in a cold, watery porridge.
Some Feathercrafters were passing through; Micheal and Steve with his yellow Big Kahuna I tried on the Medway, and a 15-year-old red K-Light, force-christened ‘Stanley’ to appease the river police on the Elbe one time. We hatched a plan to paddle from the main road near Elphin to Suilven southside, 5 miles up the length of Loch Veyatie as on the map, here. Most put in at the fish farm out of Elphin onto Loch Veyatie with slight parking issues, but we figured we’d go up the road a bit and drop into the Ledbeg River which leads into Cam Loch, and deal with the gorge and waterfall portage linking Cam to Veyatie, just by the fish farm.
ms-sailAn east wind was blowing, so had we got onto Loch Veyatie it could have been good sailing for me until the return leg. I’ve now found my folded sail slots neatly and firmly in the back floor, so it can come on every trip now without getting in the way. With no hatches in which to stash stuff, I’m slowly seeing the value of using the big Lomo bag to hold everything for the K40: deck battens and coaming, spray skirt, bilge pump – even the Incept itself will fit in there. Having forgotten vital things like pumps before, it’s good to get into the habit of shoving it all in the Lomo and know that each time all you need is to grab the boat and the big bag. In fact I’d forgotten the Bravo foot pump for the g-friend’s Solar, but interestingly, as long as you have the arm power, you can pump up the Gumotex Solar more firmly with the K-Pump than with the leg-powered Bravo. It must be that the hardbodied K-Pump puts all your energy into inflation and not the creaking, flexing bellows and hose of the Bravo. And it’s nearly as quick too.
In the end a late lunch just before the first waterfall turned into a pronged siesta. Under the heavy skies and chilly wind our midsummer motivation for the portage and the long schlep up-loch seaped away. That’s the trouble with these long days – you think you have daylight to spare, start late and get rather slack. We backed up a bit from the current next to the falls and hacked back the way we came against the wind, past little fern-clad isles and back up the Ledbeg river’s light current to the road bridge. It’s nice not to burn yourself out some days. We finished up with tea and cake in the Elphin Tea Rooms where the guy gave us the lowdown on the mysterious Suilven dry stone wall. According to him it was indeed to keep sheep from straying onto the summit pasture as well as a form of job creation.
It’s always nice to go for a paddle, even if you don’t get very far. Suilven and Loch V’ will still be there next time.

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Packrafting the Medway – video

River status

The Medway is not a river I’d choose to run in mid-December or probably any other time of year. I’ve kind of given up on English rivers, with all the access and angling hassles and the Southeast of England is more congested than most, with a lot of canalisation and locks. But the other day Steve and I drove down to Tonbridge to give Kent’s historic river a try.
He’d invited me to take his Feathercraft Big Kahuna for a spin and the Medway would be just as wet as the Thames, but a bit nearer and easier to train back to the car. The Big K was a boat I was thinking of getting so it was a real fluke when I realised one of the few people I knew who was into paddling actually had one. Then, as we tooled up in the town car park I realised I’d forgotten the Sunny’s pump. Shame. It had been a while since I’d paddled my Gumby Longboat down south but luckily I’d also brought the Alpacka packraft which Steve was curious to try. A slick Feathercraft spending the day paddling alongside the dumpy Denali was not how we’d planned it, so having messed about looking for the right put-in (the map guide above was not so clear) we decided to just get as far as we got before dark and train back to Tonbridge.
Either they’d built the dock platforms extra high to discourage canoeists, or the water level at the Tonbridge’s Town Lock was a good 2 or 3 feet lower than normal. It made launching the Kahuna 4 feet below the dock too awkward. Even getting into the Alpacka would have been tricky, so we plodded on into the woods out of town and found a muddy bank from which to deploy our portable water craft. Watching Steve assemble the Kahuna proved it was a pretty quick job – maybe 25 minutes out the bag. I can’t say I was hanging about twiddling my thumbs by the time I’d pumped up the packboat, put on a drysuit and clamped the two halves of my paddle together with that satisfying ‘click’.
‘Merdeway’ Steve had called it, not having done it either and expecting the usual jetsam slalom through a neo-urban river’s kayak-stabbing detritus. The Kent countryside is not like the wilds of Scotland and the Medway didn’t exactly look like the Everglades in springtime. He’d picked up the official river guide somewhere but it looked a bit basic to me. If we’d looked online right here or on www.medwaycanoetrail.co.uk (MCT link  dead) we’d have found out why the river was low. In fact Steve had checked online and just saw ‘Green – All Clear’ at Allington, rather than a skull and crossbones.
The river hereabouts had actually been closed for boating a few days earlier because Eldridge Lock was about to get a make over and was wide open, running a dodgy 3-foot drop followed by a train of nasty-looking eddies (below left). You’d think they might have put up a red flag or a boom or something. It’s just as well we’re not hard of hearing because whatever that ominous rushing noise was, we wanted a look first which meant clambering through more cloying mud up the exposed river banks and onto the lock. [I’ve since been informed that there should have been signs at Town Lock and the bridge 500m upstream of Eldridge Lock saying “Danger River Works ahead – River closed ” but I can’t say we saw them.]
Looking down on it (left), with a fast run up a long boat like the Kahuna would probably have speared itself over, but I’m pretty sure that with half the available speed, the Alpacka would’ve merely plopped over the edge like a wet mattress and promptly flipped backwards (or ‘bandersnatched’ as they call it in America). Soon after, I’d get sucked into some lethal hydraulic tumbler with all the plastic bottles and dead badgers. Urgh, gives me the creeps. I don’t like canal locks at the best of  times.
Just past here we swapped boats; I eased myself into the yellow Featherc Raft and shoved backwards off some rocks. Without any anatomical adjustments, first impressions were not good. The seat back was too inflated, pushing my shins off the foot rests up onto the underdeck. Plus Steve’s Bending Branches paddle, hand carved from a narwhal’s tusk by a blind Inuit shaman, seemed all wrong in my hands. It took me 5 minutes before I even managed to turn the 14-foot boat round but once Steve deflated the backrest I fitted in better and felt more at home.
Man, it sure is nice to g–l–i–d–e smoothly and quietly along a river after half an hour splashing left to right like a ferret in a whirlpool. This surely is at the heart of kayaking’s appeal: smooth, quiet, weightless, waterbound progress. The £2200 Big  Kahuna was a pleasure to paddle, once you’re in it’s all go, but getting in an out was the usual ballet on barbed wire for me, and there are a lot of locks on the Medway Canoe Trail. It can’t be all that bad though. Last summer Steve has spent weeks and weeks Kahooning down the Danube (above left) with a posse of Germanic Rührschaufellen.
Back on the dreary Medway, there was a conspicuous lack of complaining emanating from the Glorified Inner Tube. Could Kahunaman be secretly enjoying the little packboat? We swapped back to our own paddles, much better for me. I was breaking in my new oversized and super-light Werner Corryvrecken, and could now really shift the Big K. Every stroke translated to a breeze across the face. It had been a long time since I felt that in a packboat.
I knew there was a canoe chute somewhere on this river, which added an element of un-Kentish excitement. I never even knew the Brits were into these like they are in France where they’re called glissades and are a lot of fun on a hot summer’s day (let alone the portage aggro they save). Porters Lock was the chute – or ‘canoe pass’ as they call them here – but suddenly the idea of being hurled down it wrapped in a rubbery sarcophagus of alloy tubes filled me with horror. I really do have a problem with these SinKs! We got out and recce’d the raging sluice which drops all of a metre or maybe even two over 10 metres or so. That done we deduced confidently that at least one of us might survive the drop and crawl to the bank alive to paddle again.
We swapped back to our own boats and interestingly Steve admitted after he had a lot of bother regaining control of the long Kahoo and thought I’d sawn through one of the tubes as a jape. It transpired that just a short spell of nuance-free packboating – requiring as it does all the poise and balance of slouching semi-conscious in a sofa – had been sufficient for his cerebral cortex to delete eons of kayaking skills. Or so he thought though actually increasing the pole tension on his FC at the swapover had altered the hull dynamics to tippier and less turnable. Eventually he lined it up and slid down the chute like a component on a production line. No big drama; nor for me in the raft.
Clambering over the next lock we came across a barge lady chopping up wood in advance of the next cold spell forecast in a few days time. Three more locks to Yalding she said, our planned take-out at Mile 8 by the famous thatched Anchor pub. As we dropped the boats in we realised this stagnant back channel was actually under an inch of mostly intact ice. No problem I thought reboarding the Kahuna, the pointy end will cut through it like an icebreaker making a nice sound effect and a path for the Alpacka to follow. No it won’t. Instead the bow will ride up onto the ice sheet and start tipping the boat sideways if the ice didn’t give way in time. Yikes! Even in a drysuit I was getting chilled and didn’t fancy tipping myself into the pea-green, near-freezing waters of the Merdeway. Meanwhile, propped in the handy packboat, Steve attacked the ice with his sturdy narwhal tusk as the boat bobbed and spun around.
He had more success in the raft because the kayak’s distant prow was too far ahead for me to reach up and hack at the ice – plus my super-light Corry didn’t have the clout to do any more than scratch and slither over it. The patch of iced-up river was only about 30 metres long and Steve bashed on through along the bank like a contestant from whatever they call It’s a Knockout these days, until we were free again and on our way to Yalding. Now you know, when the Ice Age returns, packraft better than long kayak.
By the time we got to Sluice Weir (left) I was back in the packboat. We could see the chute was on the right, access blocked by a big tree trunk (below left). I nipped out to have a look from above and was a bit shocked: this chute was twice as steep and twice as long as Porters. The photo on the right taken during repairs shows it to be about 30°. Where were we, Alton Towers all of a sudden?
Rather tellingly the Medway Canoe Trail website features lots of shots of wholesome young couples with great posture shooting down Porters chute with toothsome smiles, but you won’t find a trace of the Juicy Sluicey Weir chute other than sexed-down refs that it’s a bit on the steep side for long boats [which may bury their nose and send you flying]. In a packraft – who knows how it would handle it, but on a warm summer’s evening it would sure be fun to find out. A couple of degrees above freezing in winter had less appeal and anyway, Steve was paddling commando with no skirt or dry suit and was already feeling the chill. Had the bank been accessible and not a scrum of brambles I’d have tried wading in and pulling the tree away, but a few minutes in that near-freezing water would have got nasty, let along the worry of slipping and getting sucked on a boatless ride down the chute. Maybe we’ll go back with a saw and a rope some time. [Again, I’m told a more explicit sign warning ‘Warning: steep chute’ is in the pipeline.]
From then on it got to be a a bit of trudge for me in the packboat towards Yalding. Steve was getting cold hanging around waiting for me and I was getting puffed out trying to keep up, and both our feet were numb from the cold. In the end he instructed me to hook up and towed me along by my packrafting ears. The GPS had proved what was fairly obvious, the Kahuna was easily twice as fast as the Alpacka and as you’ll see in the vid, a pointless head-to-head race had me thrashing at the water like a drowning addax, while Steve pulled ahead calmly, lighting a cheroot and texting in bids to his broker.
Another lock, and portage? Who knows I’d lost track, but we arrived at Yalding and managed to haul ourselves up a wall onto the pub’s forecourt where they screw the ashtrays to the tables. We rolled up our boats and inside had a tea and a burger, waiting out the icy chill until the train back to Tonbridge was due.
All of 8 miles we did in 4 hours or so. The classic run is from Tonbridge right through to Allington in Maidstone, 32kms it says. And from there as far again to Rochester is on the estuarine tides and beyond the reach of river byelaws. But once the Eldridge lock is fixed up and with at least two other chutes on the way to Yalding, the Medway sounds like a fun run between the tame flatwater stages and portages. The river agency have certainly done a good job building in canoe*-friendly infrastructure (at normal water levels). 

There are bigger maps here. * ‘Canoe’ by the way is what non-paddling English and the media call kayaks and canoes.