Paddlefest in Ladysmith was a fine event for boat trials, though the Saturday programming was a little more scanty than I would have liked. There was only one land-based workshop at a time, and only two of the four time slots were filled. In previous years there were more land-based workshops than that during a Saturday or Sunday. Really, for next year, there will have to be more local paddlers contacting the organizers ahead of time with proposals for either a land-based workshop or a presentation. There are plenty of topics to suggest, including the many environmental support activities in the news.
But for 2009, I attended no workshops and instead tested out kayaks and paddles that were new to me. I found a line of inflatable kayaks that really caught my attention, by Airis. I tried three of their sit-on-top inflatables and their inflatable dock.
It’s worth mentioning here that I use an inflatable kayak a couple of times a week for recreational paddling in the bay where I live. I’ve had this 8.5 foot kayak out in many conditions year-round, mostly in good weather but sometimes the wind and chop have caught me playing out in the little rock garden or treadmill paddling into the wind in front of the beach. As well, I’ve taken this folding inflatable kayak on buses, commuter trains and planes for several outings of what Dubside calls “commando kayaking.” And this spring I’m trying out two larger models from the same manufacturer, so I feel pretty confident about what I’m looking for in an inflatable kayak.
And I found a lot of what I’m looking for in the Airis boats I tried. All three felt firm and rigid to the touch, and didn’t bend like a taco in the middle when I launched. (Though I’m short, my 160 pounds is “adult-size.”) The boats all felt taut and airtight and very supportive. While a cheap inflatable feels and looks like pool toy or a beach ball, these kayaks looked and felt instead more like very thick surfboards made of rigid styrofoam covered in waterproof rubbery vinyl. What they’re actually made from is “a heavy duty, seven layer polymer coated fabric that is joined inside by thousands of drop-stitch fibers,” as their website says. There’s a little window on the side so you can peek in and see the fibers. Check them out at http://www.walkerbay.com/products/airis/index.html
Each Airis kayak has only two inflation chambers: one for the boat itself and a removable one inside for the floor. All three models I tried had the floor in place, so the ride felt like a rigid sit-on-top kayak made of rotomolded plastic. When the floor chamber is not used, the paddler sits some two or three inches lower, and the ride may feel a little more like sitting inside a kayak. As for relying on only two inflation chambers (or one, without the floor), I’m reminded of one of the reasons why I like the Advanced Elements inflatable kayaks with their multiple chambers: in the unlikely event of a major leak and complete loss of air from one chamber, the other chambers feel like they would be enough to keep a paddler afloat. The Airis design confirms for me my belief that for practical safety, a paddler in any inflatable kayak must be more prepared to swim than a paddler in a rigid kayak.
The Airis kayaks don’t feel like touring boats for paddling long distances at great speed. They feel like recreational kayaks, for paddling in sheltered bays and lakes, maybe for a total of five miles (eight kilometres) in a long day of playing and fishing. I could easily imagine the shortest model, 8 feet long, being used on a river in Class I whitewater or in surf if the thigh straps were used. The longer models had bungee cords criss-crossed on the front decks, and all three models I tried had bungee cords on the back decks, so it would be easy to carry fishing gear or a few drybags of camping gear, or perhaps a small picnic cooler.
Their 10 foot Sport model was a treat to paddle: long enough to have some glide and not much wag with each stroke. I particularly liked the addition of a rear hatch with a drybag rolltop to fasten it shut, though I don’t know how long the flexible material would last if it got a lot of direct sunlight. Perhaps the manufacturer knows if a spray protectant such as 303 is recommended. Both the rear hatch and the wide open cockpit coaming have a small, rigid lip about a finger width above the deck, which I was told can be used to hold a hatch cover or a spray skirt for cold weather paddling. There were no foot pegs or heel cups, so my feet were sliding a little; my long-legged friend Marlene who tried the 10 foot model said her sneakers were sliding around. In the shorter Airis models, I’d probably clip my dunk bag to the front bungee cord and use the bag as a foot brace.
The 12 foot model, the Velocity, did have heel cups, so both Marlene and I felt better with our feet having something to brace against. This version had the smoothest ride of the three models I tried, with more glide per stroke. I could easily imagine fishermen preferring this model for carrying a lot of gear, for getting into a lake’s quiet places a mile or more from the launch site, and for giving a very stable feel when a fish is struggling on a line. Marlene said that the high-backed seat with its side straps made her feel very secure so that she wouldn’t fall out.
The 8 foot model, the Play, is the smallest of the Airis line, which includes 9 foot and 9.5 models as well. I liked the little 8 foot model! It weighs only 15 pounds (about 7 kilograms), and portaging it over rocks onto the beach was easy. This is the model that some people carry in along hiking trails so they can paddle lakes far from roads. To me, the boat felt like something kids and teenagers would use to play at the shore, with swimmers alongside it. Almost at once I wanted to try to flip it over, to see just how hard it would be to fall off the flat top. The very high initial stability suggested to me that these kayaks would be hard to tip but would turn right upside down if one leaned far enough. I wanted something to brace my feet against, but a taller paddler would be able to press his or her feet at the front of the wide open cockpit.
The 8 foot model turns on a dime and gives you eight cents change. As with any kayak this short, there’s no point in trying to use a long stroke or to put a lot of “push” into the stroke. The boat just wags. Use a short stroke with only a medium amount of effort. Increase the cadence if you want to increase speed, but it will top out at only about half the speed of a 15 foot rigid kayak. For big, strong paddlers that might be frustrating, but for kids or small adults that is no problem at all. This is not a speed boat, it’s for enjoying a quiet and relaxing outing. But the sales rep says it’s a lot of fun to take the 8 foot model out into surf as a playboat.
Marlene and I both found the inflatable dock felt as solid as a wooden dock and didn’t tilt under our weight. With the sales rep as well, the dock supported three adults and felt like it could hold a tangle of playing and jumping kids. The dock was the same thickness as the kayaks, so it was very easy to hold the rope around the edge with one hand and a kayak with the other, and roll off the kayak onto the dock, or off the dock onto the kayak. This was particularly good for Marlene, who has restricted mobility and needs assistance when getting into and out of an ordinary kayak.
Trying out equipment like this is the major pleasure of attending Paddlefest. I had a good time this year, and I saw many families enjoying the child-centred activities. Perhaps that’s why there were fewer land-based workshops on Saturday than I expected. Still, there was plenty to keep me busy and I ended up with sandal-shaped sunburns on my feet. Good enough!