Tag Archives: Inflatable kayak skeg

Feathercraft Java Inflatable Kayak review

In early 2016, Feathecraft dropped the Java/Gemini and Aironaut to stick with folding kayaks.
In 2017 Feathecraft closed for good.

javasection

In 2007 I was already looking to move on from my Sunny to something a bit longer and self-bailing (I thought this was a good idea at the time). The two boats that appealed to me were Aire’s hefty and wide Super Lynx and a Feathercraft Java (since then many new contenders have come on the scene). I decided to treat myself to the more expensive but lighter Java and picked one up from the clued-up FC dealer in Durango.


Set up is pretty straightforward: you slot in the alloy keel- and skeg pole and then the side poles, velcro them all in place, attach the seat by too many straps, pump up the four sponsons and off you go. Realistically, 20 minutes is a good assembly time.
It’s a sleek-looking boat for an IK; still today nothing else comes close, but one of the biggest hassles are the cheap inflation valves: basic turn-and-lock elbow valves seemingly off the end of a Thermarest (or indeed an Alpacka packraft where they work fine to top up, not inflate). The thin plastic hose on the hand pump supplied pushes on, but when it’s hot or wet it twists off, or if you pump too hard it blows off and the air leaks out. As it’s an open (not one-way) valve, you have to screw it shut quick. Maddening!
I thought for a while there was some component missing from the pump but no, this was it. I found holding the hose onto the valve with one hand while pumping the two-way pump with the other was an awkward but more effective way of inflating. Even if it’s bigger, give me a foot pump any day. Or regular one-way Halkey valves and a K-Pump.
At 28 inches (71cm) wide, it’s just two inches narrower than the Sunny but feels much morem chiefly because you sit high ON it, rather than in it. FC are right in describing the Java as an inflatable sit-on-top. As you can see in the pics, under my 95kg weight, the poles are more there to aid the hull profile than enable longitudinal rigidity. It’s 15 feet 4 inches (4.65m) long but you can’t get much into the last foot-and-a-half at each end; the usual problem with IKs. The thigh straps are a nice touch or an admission that you may need them to keep upright.
I took it out for a scoot across the Vallecito reservoir in Colorado one evening with the two inner (floor) bladders not too firm and was relieved to find it not too tippy. On the way back I struggled with the pump some more to firm up the inner sponsons and found it less stable but still OK, and probably faster. And before I got caught out, I practiced getting back in off the water; as long as I crawled aboard without any sudden movements it could be done in calm flat water. But who ever falls out in calm water?

javahull

The retractable skeg is a great idea that’s only really possible on a self-bailer, but with the middle sponsons firmly pumped up the actuating string which comes up between them gets jammed. It’s best to manually make sure the skeg is fully down before setting off – but this negates the retractable feature.
At least you know that if it snags on the river bed it will just pivot up (but then won’t come down again). A good fix to help the skeg pivot with the string lever would be to have the string passing through a short section of thick garden hose or plastic tube jammed between the sponsons so enabling it to slide freely. The slot through which the skeg passes is also the bailing hole, designed I am told, to suck water out of the boat with a venturi effect as it moves over still water (less effective in a current going with the boat). Can’t say I noticed water rising as I stopped, but it sounds plausible.

Paddling without the skeg was OK on flat water but with it deployed you can power on. The solid footrests, thigh straps and comfy seat (also inflatable) all help here. One problem with the footrests is the angle they sit on: the poles force your knees outwards into the paddle arc. I also wondered how secure they were, screwed down to merely butt against a protruding rivet in the pole. A flat rather than pointy end to the securing screw pin sitting against the 2mm-high rivet might be better and could easily be done. Anyway they never shifted during the easy paddling I did.


The Java has neat cargo nets: easy to use and secure. I’ve since bought a pair for my Sunny. Inflation valve design apart, workmanship is what you’d expect for over $2000 with good attention to detail. The ‘envelope’ or hull doesn’t really need to be sealed in any way as the four sponsons or bladders slot into their respective cases and, with the poles, make this pile of nylon and rubber into the only IK I know that looks close to a proper sea kayak.

Next day in Colorado disaster struck. I left the boat drying on the roof of the car in the forest camp – black hull side up…  and went out very early to Silverton on the steam train. It had been a week of huge storms in the Rockies and camped in the forest I figured it would be OK in the shade and probable afternoon storm. But on the way back, when the bus driver mentioned it was a hot afternoon in Durango I thought “oh dear, I hope it hasn’t…”

It had. The thick black hull rubber had caught the sun nicely as it passed over the clearing and ruptured three of the bladders or sponsons. My lovely new boat, not one day out of the bag was a floppy mess. I yanked out a limp bladders (easily done) and found the rather light, flysheet-like ripstop nylon split, and pinprick holes in the airtight PU coating. That was the end of my Java paddling in CO. (A happy ending. I ordered a full set of sponsons from FC in Vancouver and when they discovered the boat was nearly new they generously offered to supply them free of charge. Good on you FC.)

Back home with new bladders, we went to Scotland and I tried out the re-bladdered Java alongside my old Gumotex Sunny. G-friend’s first impression was that I was too big for it probably due to its SoT stance. She had a point. And also it was too fiddly to set-up for my keep-it-simple prefs. She had a point again, and although it’s amazingly light for what it was, it’s still pretty bulky. In Denver I’d spend hours packing it carefully for the flight back for fear of having the near yard-long hull poles damaged in transit. On my bathroom scales in the blue holdall ready to paddle it weighs 17kg (37.5lbs). The boat’s envelope alone (no seat or tubes) weighs 9kg (19.8lbs). In other words, about the same as my Sunny but two and a half feet longer.


On the lochs the long, thin Java slipped along, with a speed of 10kph (6.2 mph) flashing on the GPS for a second, though 4mph was a more sustainable speed (video above). Let me tell you that is a very good speed for an IK, comparable with the Incept K40 I bought a few years later. (There are more useful speed stats on inlotusland’s blog about a lake near Vancouver in a blue Java.).

The Java kayak didn’t really feel right to me: the old problem of too narrow and me sitting too high for my weight. An experienced hardsheller would probably not have any issues. We went on to a freshwater loch, a little windier by now. I tried to visualise myself in a fairly normal one-metre swell out at sea. The rocks I added for ballast hadn’t really added an impression of stability (as they can do on other tippy IKs) and overall, with the height/width relationship I didn’t feel confident anticipating the less than flat calm conditions I wanted to be able to face.

javabailer


Back at the chalet the biggest hassle of all: the Java takes hours to dry, maybe even days. But dry well it surely must, especially when rinsed after a sea paddle. Sure, I’d read about this in some reviews, but it now dawned on me that the problem was common to all bladder IKs (like all Aires). Water will always get in the hull sleeves/envelopes holding the bladders as well as other crannies, and once there will always take a while to evaporate.
A spin in my basic Gumotex Sunny reminded me what a great boat it was: quick to set up, fast drying and good enough performance. If only it bailed. [2020: I now think self-baling is not essential for a tour boat; i just used my Sunny beyond its abilities].

The Java got itself sold on ebay. Lesson: try before you buy and if it’s not possible (as it wasn’t for me in the UK), be prepared to eat your mistake.


In 2011 I gave my sun-faded Sunny away and got myself an Incept K40 Tasman. The K40 was less fiddly than the Java to set up, though the time taken is about the same, but I still miss the ‘pump and go’ simplicity of the Sunny. That is why I then got myself a Grabner Amigo. But I sold that and got a Seawave, my best IK yet. 

Another Java review by a Brit sea angler here. That must have been two Javas in the UK! And there’s some Java chat on FoldingKayak.org. This guy in BC also had a Java then got a Gumo 410C. Looking at his pictures, I’m struck how ‘perched’ he looks while still being high in the water.

Inflatable kayaks: Do you Need a Skeg (Tracking Fin)?

See also this about rudders
And read this about decks

grabgumskeg

Short answer: Yes.

It’s easier to go straight while paddling as hard as you like, and most except the very cheapest single-skin vinyl IKs come with one; some flat-floored models have up to three (imo, a gimmick) and many skegs are unnecessarily tall (deep). Just about all skegs can be easily removed by hand, because in shallow rivers you might want to do so to avoid grounding.
If you’re IK doesn’t have one, it’s easy to glue a skeg kit (see below).

fitskeg
Gumotex skeg fitted to a Grabner Amigo.
Horrible, old bolt-on alloy Gumotex skegs. A faff.

A few years ago Gumotex introduced a slip-on, black plastic tracking fin (skeg, above) which was near identical in shape to one I’d had made in the oversized, alloy skeg days (left). A smaller skeg made better clearance and still worked fine, but metal does bend. Plastic is so much better.
I’ve fitted these plastic skegs to older Gumotex IKs and other IKs. The kit is about £25 + glue, and the plastic skeg is tough. Just make sure you glue the mounting patch on really well; it helps if your boat is made from a matching rubber fabric as the supplied Nitrilon patch. or make your own patch from same fabric. The pictures below help you see where to position a skeg.

I fitted the Gumotex plastic skeg to my Grabner Amigo IK (above) and at sea used it all the time. But on the shallow River Spey (below) this boat didn’t handle at all well without a skeg, possibly because the the tailwind pushed the high stern around. It was really quite annoying because a few years earlier my broadly similar Sunny managed the Spey fine without a skeg, so skeg-free tracking clearly varies from boat to boat.

spey1304

If you’re an experienced paddler you’ll have acquired the knack of going straight without a skeg – handy for paddling shallow rivers where the skeg would ground. A little more paddling finesse and constant small corrections are required, especially if powering on.
It’s good to learn the technique before you need to: fix your eyes on a tree or marker on a distant bank and paddle as gently as you like towards it, not looking away and keeping the nose of the boat in line with the marker. By using very light strokes you’ll see it can be done if it’s not too windy when again, a skeg helps with tracking (going straight).

IK&P Tip: drill a small hole in your plastic skeg and attach a ring or zip tie, or find some other means of attaching it directly to you boat during storage, not chucked in the bottom of a bag. It’s annoying to turn up and find you misplaced your skeg.

razorskeg
Generic slot-in and peg skeg found on most Chinese PVC IKs. A bit on the tall side but easily chopped down.

I even found I could paddle a ten-foot Solar 300 (below) without a skeg. Once you know you can go straight without a skeg, it’s just a matter of adopting the same finesse but with a bit more power. Only when you attempt the speeds of a Maori war party will the bow deflection or yawing get too much because to paddle faster and still go straight you need a skeg. Out at sea or on busier rivers, I always use a skeg.

cezesolar

I’ve often thought a hinged retractable skeg would be a good idea: it would pivot backwards when dragging in shallows, then drop back down when there’s enough depth. It seems SUPs need skegs and in the US, FrogFish have made such a thing for boards, but you hear the spring can be a weak point.
If your kayak has a rudder mount (or you can make one), another way of doing it is fitting a swing-down skeg similar to kayak rudders. It works the same way as a rudder with a looped cord swinging the skeg up over the stern, or down into the water. The pivot skeg shown top right is made by Advanced Elements for their AirFusion IK and costs about $/£80. Or have a look here.

Packrafts

On shorter, wider, slower packrafts the consensus used to be that skegs made little difference. Especially when unloaded and with a full-weight paddler, the bow yaws merrily left to right as your paddling pivots the boat from the back. Or so I used to think until I tried the skeg on my Rebel 2K. Up to then I’d been ambivalent about them – using the same boat fully loaded a few weeks earlier on a fast flowing river, yawing had not been an issue. But unloaded (and with my generous 95kg of ballast) yawing was notably reduced with a skeg. Speed however, was not any greater, or was too small to measure.

One reason some packrafts may manage without a skeg is that way back in 2011 Alpacka invented the ingenious extended stern (right). It helped limit yawing much like a skeg, and effectively positioned the paddler more towards the centre of the boat, like a kayak, while also adding buoyancy. This idea has been widely copied by just about everyone since and it definitely works, compared to the earlier, original Alpackas like the blue boat, right. But as mentioned, once there’s a good load over the bow, yawing is reduced in any packraft.
Anfibio sell a detachable skeg and glue-on patch for €21.

Tracking – going straight – is not the same thing and not really a problem on a packraft because you can’t go that fast, skeg or no skeg. You move along with a moderate left-right bow shuffle which it’s true, does limit your speed, but speed is limited by a packraft’s hull shape anyway.