Gear Tests

Inflatable Canoes

Searching for a way to win back her figure and fitness, but without the expenditure of any unpleasant effort, Jill discovers canoeing. There is just one problem, and that is the matter of stowage. If you think a couple of canoes take up a lot of room in your garage, try fitting them onboard a yacht! Clearly, the answer lies in acquiring a pop-up version which, at the end of the day’s play, can be magicked away and hidden under the bed. A spot of on-line research turned up half a dozen different makes of inflatable canoe and two dozen different models, but can any of these vessels really be paddled along like the real thing? Our intrepid team of testers set out to discover the truth.

For some time I had been contemplating the increasing girth of my thighs and the depressing degradation of my mortal husk. The mind is still pin sharp, of course, and the spirit and the soul are swinging along in the usual way but the flesh is weak, and becoming weaker and flabbier with the passage of every summer.
“Something must be done,” I said to myself. And since going hungry did not appeal, I resolved to take some exercise.

When I was young I exercised all the time, and without intending to. At the age of 18 I used to think nothing of walking 20 miles in a day, and a bicycle was my only means of transport. I used to play hockey and squash, swim once a week, do circuits round the gym, and sit out my Laser as if my life depended upon it. Then I gave up dinghy sailing, left the squash club, dropped hockey, and bought a moped.By the time Caesar was born I could no longer perform my “party trick” : I could no longer swim the length of an Olympic-sized pool under-water. By the time his sister arrived I could not even do a width, sub-aqua, and since our youngest crew member entered the world I have not even had the inclination to try. Motherhood slows you down. Living on a boat doesn’t help, either. It provides the opportunity for occasional bursts of frenetic activity – getting the anchor up is quite physical, for example, and so is making sail – but as a general rule this lifestyle encourages indolence. There is too much sitting around. Laziness had crept upon me – and so had fat.
“Something must be done!”

Lacking the energy to fix them myself I got Caesar to mend the punctures on my bike, and then I set out to cycle my way back to health and a Twiggy-like figure. I’d travelled about 200 yards before I was saddle sore, and after two outings I remembered that I hated cycling and always had. (Hence the moped). Jogging was out of the question; I would sooner grow as fat as the Michelin man than go jogging. Swimming was okay – until the water grew chilly. That seemed to just leave rowing around the marina in our old rubber duck. I was contemplating this tedious pursuit, and wondering whether Caesar or Roxanne could be persuaded to bale the boat for me, when someone flashed past in a kayak. “A kayak!”

Paddled hard, a canoe provides plenty of exerciseAs the canoeist calmly paddled himself along, expending the minimum amount of effort for a huge gain, I thought back to those far off days when I was fit instead of fat. Besides doing all those other athletic things I also canoed. Not much, and not often, but often enough to know that it gives the body a really good workout. Calves, thighs, the waist, and your arms are all compelled to do their bit, and if you pull hard enough the heart and lungs are also obliged to do some overtime. Yes! – a canoe or kayak was what I needed.

Being sceptical of my staying power, Nick insisted that before we buy, we try . And so we borrowed two cheap-as-they-come plastic kayaks and embarked.
“Yikes!” Canoeing was tippier than I remembered it, and wetter too. But it was just as much fun. There was only one problem, and that was the matter of stowage. At 10ft, the borrowed canoes were about as small as these things come, but hoisted onto the deck of our boat they were a complete liability. We did not even have room for one, still less for two. Try as I might I could not resolve this difficulty – until I chanced upon an advert for an inflatable canoe.

The Stearns Yukatat is a kayak (as opposed to an Indian style canoe)Our venture into the world of inflatable canoes was a leap of faith. Since we could not find anybody who owned one we were unable, this time, to try before buying. Indeed, we could not find anyone who had so much as seen an inflatable canoe on the water, so that we could not even gather advice. We could only advance by trial and error, and the errors were obviously going to be costly. Some of these canoes cost over £400. Thus we began the business by doing some hard thinking.

Inflatable canoes come in three types – the kind you sit inside and manoeuvre, Indian style, with a short, one-bladed paddle; the kind, known as a kayak, which you sit inside and drive with a two-bladed paddle; and the kind shaped like a wide, voluminous surf board which you sit on, rather than in. Since none of us was attracted to the idea of paddling Indian style this kind of canoe was immediately removed from the running, and we were left with a shortlist made up of Kayaks and sit-on-tops.

The Ladies RaceNext we had to decide whether to go for two one man vessels or one two man one. (Did you follow that?) Having pondered this matter at length we decided to buy one of each, since this would allow a variety of combinations and reduce the scope for quarrels. When one of the girls wanted to come canoeing, she and I would be able to go together, in the two-seater; when both wanted to come we could spread ourselves around the two boats; when the kids all wanted to go I could stay behind – and when nobody else felt like it, I could head off on my lone, in the single-seater.

This decision also reduced our options to such an extent that it now simply became a case of examining the design of the prospective vessels in order to decide which ones looked likely to provide the best combination of speed through the water, manoeuvrability, and durable construction. It was plain that the simple PVC jobs were not going to last, and it was clear that the sort which is inflated by mouth would not remain rigid. We wanted something with a synthetic canvas outer cover and proper dinghy-type valves.

Our Stearns canoes, with the Spree on the left and the Yukatat slightly nearer to the cameraEventually we plumped for two kayaks manufactured by Stearns and marketed by the well-known marine safety equipment company, Secumar. Given Secumar’s reputation we felt that if they wanted to associate themselves with this product it must be pretty special.

Of course, the first job when the kayaks arrived was to assemble them and pump them full of air. In the case of the two-man Spree, all that we had to do was put the inflatable floor in position and pump, but the one-man Yukatat had first to be fitted with bow and stern supports. These are a bit of a fiddle to insert and are not without their drawbacks (as I shall shortly explain) but they give the canoe a remarkably rigid form.

As a matter of fact, both vessels were surprisingly firm. They were also surprisingly stable – much more stable than the borrowed hard-shell canoes – and they delighted us with their speed. A rubber dinghy is a pig, compared with a hard dinghy, and we had greatly feared that an inflatable kayak must also be a second rate thing, with all the grace and agility of a lilo. So far as the Stearns canoes are concerned this is definitely not the case. Far from it. Being light and efficiently shaped the Spree and the Yukatat both slip through the water at least as well as the equivalent plastic or GRP models. Clearly they are not racing machines but we have found that we are able to leave similar sized PVC kayaks in our wake.

Caesar and Roxanne are our fastest teamWhich is the faster of the two? When both are paddled solo the shapely Yukatat pulls ahead, but two-up the Spree is unbeatable; our two weakest paddlers are always able to thrash the lonesome boatman.

Before we invested in the kayaks we were seriously tempted by the idea of a sit-on-top. One can see at a glance that the sit-on-top will be relatively slow, but we imagined that it would be safer. If you rolled a kayak and fell out you would not be able to get back aboard, we reasoned, whereas scrambling back onto the broad, flat sit-on-top ought to be a doddle. As a matter of fact the very opposite is true. When Gran-ma and Gran-pa bought Roxanne an inflatable sit-on-top we soon discovered that it was not all that we had expected. Besides being slow it is also surprisingly unstable. A child can paddle it without too much danger of falling off, but an adult, being that much heavier, has to be careful; if he heaves too hard, he risks heaving himself over!

Roxanne aboard her sit-on-topGetting back onto the sit-on-top is far from easy – although, again, it is easier for a child than for an adult. When an adult lunges onto our sit-on-top, it just flips over. By contrast, boarding either of the kayaks is relatively easy, provided that you have the energy to throw your weight to the far side of the vessel. (I must stress that we have only ever boarded from the water after jumping out of the kayaks. They are so stable that one can stand up in them, or clamber from one to the other, and we have never been rolled or fallen out.)

We have now had two-season’s use from our inflatable kayaks. On the whole we are pretty satisfied with them, but there are one or two niggles. The first thing to bear in mind, if you are thinking of buying an inflatable canoe is that they are nowhere near so durable as their hard-shell counterpart. They are not designed to be dragged up the beach, for example. Nor is it a good idea to introduce anything which will abrade the canoe from the inside, and so one needs to cultivate the habit of rinsing the feet before hopping in. Any pieces of sand or grit which do get aboard will work their way in between the cloth-covered inflatable tanks and the PVC floor, threatening to make pin-prick holes in the latter.

Our inflatable kayaks are surprisingly stableA second gripe concerns the frames in the bow and stern of the Yukatat. Essential though these undoubtedly are they appear to be an after-thought on the part of the manufacturer. They push hard against the inside of the inflated canoe, causing a ridge in the PVC floor. Inevitably, this hard ridge is prone to chafe. All that is needed to remedy the problem is a small doubling patch in exactly the right spot, on the outside of the hull. One hopes that the design of the vessel has now been modified, in this simple way, to provide the necessary hull protection.

Finally, the seat in the for’ard end of the Spree ought to be more securely fastened to the boat. Whereas the seat in the Yukatat clips in place, the one in the Spree is secured only by a velcro patch. When the kids flip the canoes, in the course of their play, the seat falls out. Again, this small flaw could very easily be modified by the manufacturer.

Nick attempts to prove that he is still the alpha maleThese are really the only things that I can find to say against our Stearns Secumar kayaks. They are a splendid addition to our flotilla. When not in use they pack into kit bags no bigger than a suitcase – but with three kids in the crew they don’t spend much time packed away.

When the children were small they used to spend a lot of time rowing the rubber duck, and in Kids in the Cockpit I recommend equipping your family cruiser with two dinghies – one for the youngsters and one for the Skipper and Mate. As a matter of fact, I still make this recommendation, but if I were writing that book now I would also add a paragraph or two in favour of inflatable kayaks. Although Roxanne still enjoys rowing herself around in the dinghy our teenage crew have long since outgrown such pursuits. Windsurfing, diving, and racing around in the kayaks are now their favourite pastimes, – and since the windsurfer is tedious to rig on deck, and the diving gear tiresome to don, the inflatable canoes get much more use than the other two combined.

Your Correspondent is left trailing in the wake of the SpreeAs for me, I also love “canoodling”. If I had the time I would go out every day for half an hour. But… well, you know how it is. Yes, the road to ill-health is paved with good intentions. But once we get to the Cape Verde islands I’ll be out there, paddling around the anchorage, every day; just you wait and see!

We have now published two more articles about canoes/kayaks:

One Comment

  1. Ahh-ha.

    I have discovered Inflatable canoes too!

    I ordered one before we set off to Antarctica for some months.

    It was great as rolled up under a bunk, & yes you could paddle it about, BUT……….

    Of course……….

    You could tow it up a snow covered hill & toboggan down it far too high a speed to be safe!
    They are surprisingly strong as it did not seem to recommend that in it brochure, but it got plenty of goes with out complaining.

    I have some pics & video which I will endeavour to put online some where soon for you to look at.

    Cheers,

    The Bear

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