Thursday, July 07, 2016

A home by the flowing river and paddle the sea

DAVE CHO, expedition kayaker (1969 - 2016)
A home by the flowing river and paddle the sea

Dave on the Xe Bang Fai River (Laos, 2008).   Photo by Yonghui

Today, we sent off Dave Cho.

My first paddle with Dave and Soo was to Sibu Islands in Malaysia. For a simple 12km crossing, we arrived at our accommodations on Sibu Island close to midnight! We were again in Laos together that year of 2008, being the first kayak team to explore Xe Bang Fai, one of the largest river caves in the world. Every day when we landed, Dave wandered around assembling a huge pile of wood and "boomed" we would have a fantastic campfire. It was shitty cold in Laos that year so no one complained. Bear Grllys was his first seasons on Discovery Channel, and Dave was hooked!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Further Adventures Of A Feathercraft Aironaut

Further Adventures on an Aironaut
Part II of The Aironaut Review

The Aironaut on a 12-day expedition to Bohol, Philippines.     Photo by Ling.

In Dec 2014, I tried out the Aironaut on a 12-day sea kayaking expedition in the Philippines. The expedition was semi-supported, and in this case we didn't have to carry tents and food. We just had to carry our 12-day gear plus water (together about 40kg). It was the NE Monsoon and there was 15-20km/hr wind blowing on most days, with northerly swells of 1-2meters common, sometimes reaching 3 meters on some sections. It wasn't rainy and was hot. Most of the paddling was circumnavigation of islands and there were a few crossings with distance of 4-10km on some days. Most days averaged 30km of paddling. 

The other paddlers on the expedition were on Feathercraft Wispers, XPs, and there were also 4 paddlers on 5-meter long plastic hardshell sea kayaks. So it provided a good performance comparison with the Aironaut thrown into this kayak group.

It had a seemingly larger capacity than the same-length Feathercraft Kahuna, since its flexible deck allowed luggage of unwieldy size to be squeezed into the kayak. There were no problems loading more than 18kg of water, and a couple of 30L dry bags on each end. Because it was an inflatable kayak however, the kayak can only be loaded on the water. Once heavy, it was impossible to carry the kayak without bending it out of shape. So loading on the water must be quick and pre-planned, especially in surf conditions. Otherwise, find a calm spot.

Deck space
Without a loaded Aironaut, the deck space was dead - just too flexible to even fix a compass properly. But with a fully stuffed kayak, I could attach a deck bag, affix a compass, and perhaps even a sail set. On this trip I did not attach a portage bag to the stern deck since everything fit inside the kayak. A stern attached portage bag would be necessary on longer expeditions, where interior space was simply not enough.

The Aironaut doing a crossing in cross winds and among whitecaps.      Photo by Victor

Effects of 40kg (on the sea)
Being loaded seemingly caused the kayak to track better, and having a "ballast" made the kayak moved with more purpose. 

The one negative effect of load was surf landing. In one such surf landing when I took my eyes off the waves, I was tipped over and rolled. Water collected inside the Aironaut together with the 40kg load made it impossible to recover the kayak. The kayak felt like jelly inside the water and it was with considerable jigging that I was able to empty half the water, and then pumped out the rest.

I could imagine some challenge if one capsizes in the middle of a sea, having to manage a loaded jelly kayak. It would not be rollable. And if the sea conditions are rough and you are alone, it would be a very risky situation. A sea sock becomes ever more important for an Aironaut than any other kayaks. It prevents the water from flooding the kayak to such a weight that it becomes dangerous. While I find the sea sock stuffy in tropical conditions (plus it hides all the gear I want access to anytime), I would certainly think hard about using it at the next expedition.

In Bohol, I also realised that there was a need to pressurise the chambers now and then. This could be due to higher temperature differentials, load, etc but it does mean the pressure release valves were doing their work. The K-pump became very useful (even important) both on and off the water, since I could give the kayak a few pumps of air sitting inside my cockpit. An Aironaut that was not 100% inflated also gave less than 100% performance.

Effects of 40kg (on land)
Two words - hard work! The Aironaut cannot be carried loaded, so it must be unloaded after landing before it can be carried safely on shore. I had 40kg of load, which included 15 water bottles, it was hard work bringing so many individual items, to and fro, up to the shore. It would be better if I had the load organised into 3-4 bags to minimise the tiring commuting. The happy ending was I could carry the ultralight empty kayak easily after it was unloaded while the heavy plastic sea kayaks required men-handling.

The Aironaut disappeared behind high waves!      Photo by Victor

Performance (with load)
In Bohol Philippines, there were many days with high waves and strong winds. Sometimes the winds and waves were behind us, sometimes in front, and sometimes side, sometimes cross. In all conditions the Aironaut was able to keep up with the Feathercrafts and hardshell kayaks. There was a saying "stability before speed", meaning you would rather have a stable kayak and paddle consistently, than a tippy/fast kayak having to do lots of bracing strokes. The stable Aironaut created a rather brazen attitude on a rough sea.

The Aironaut was such a stable kayak that even waves coming from behind were dismissed. Bracing was hard to do (anyway not really necessary due to the stability) as the two bracing straps gave little support. The surfing was lethargic unless the waves are big (>2 meters). Feathercraft's cockpit (same for Aironaut and folding kayaks) gave excellent hold for the sprayskirt and this kept out the water.

We might think that the lightweight kayak would be toss around by the wind. The Aironaut held its course very well in cross winds, when compared to the folding kayaks and hardshells sea kayaks on the expedition. When directions decided to go haywire, it was easier to correct (directions) when on top of the waves and much easier to manoeuvre a lighter kayak in confusing sea states. 

The Aironaut's speed however suffer when there were stretches of flat water. It was then harder to maintain parity with the longer sea kayaks. The footrest, as expected, was not much use when the kayak was stuffed full of gear. It was easier to kick on the gear bag in front of you than the footrest itself.

On long days sitting inside the Aironaut, I wished the bottom seat pad could be more puffy. The back support was excellent but the seat pad was not comfortable for me. It had a strange bridge in the middle that caused me slight abrasion and after a day, I deflated it completely. Instead I tried sitting on my paddle float for a couple of hours to seek relief but quickly abandoned this method on rougher seas. Whenever I needed to relax my feet, the roomy cockpit allowed me to just extend my legs (i am 1.82m tall) out for a nice stretch.

Loaded into an Aironaut: 2 dry bags, 15 bottles of water, and 2 coconuts!     Photo by Huey

With the excellent pressure release valves, welded seams, and expensive skin, the Aironaut is a very durable sea kayak. There is nothing to be broken. A simple repair kit would take care of most cuts and abrasions on the field. On this expedition, this Aironaut survived rough waves, coral landings, being carried while fully loaded, and multiple days of paddling in hot weather.

Final Thoughts
The Aironaut is a comfortable and dependable sea kayak suitable for most sea kayak expeditions. For paddlers with extensive experience in foldables or hardshell sea kayaks, it takes some time to adjust to the Aironaut. It is a kayak that can do everything, just that these would be done differently from the normal sea kayaks that we are used to. Still it is an inflatable sea kayak, to use the Aironaut safely on an expedition means understanding its limitation.

The Aironaut is simply a different category of sea kayak.

Monday, June 16, 2014

FEATHERCRAFT Aironaut Review

Feathercraft Aironaut Review
The Feathercraft Aironaut in Papua, Indonesia.

One of the most exciting kayak this year is the Feathercraft Aironaut, an inflatable sit-in sea kayak. While they are many sit-on-top inflatable kayaks, currently only the Incept K-40, Grabner Holiday, and the new Gumotex Seawave can be considered as sea-worthy sit-in inflatable sea kayak. 

As a folding kayak owner for over 15 years, portability ranks first. Folding and inflatable kayaks are the only truly portable kayak one could own, and take them anywhere desired. 

A sit-in inflatable sea kayak is thus interesting. It protects one from sun and rain, keeps gear better, and gives the kayak just a bit more shape when paddling in the windy conditions. And one that sets up within 6 minutes deserves more than ogling at the specs and personally testing it out on the waters.

Here's what I think.

Ease of Assembly
Aironaut package comes with a double action hand pump, sea sock, double fin skeg, kayak skin, sprayskirt, repair kit, paddle float (not shown), and a travel dry bag backpack (not shown).

In repeated attempts, the Aironaut pumps up in less than 6 minutes. The double-action hand pump that comes with the kayak, though small, pressurises the kayak easily. I have used the K-pump (without adapter) and the inflation time is about the same. The fast inflation time is due to the Aironaut's small chambers. It is the fastest inflatable kayak I have ever inflated and set up. For its length, this surprises me.

At 136kg payload, there is capacity to load 1 week+ of gear into the Aironaut even if one weighs 90+kg. The narrow air chambers make space for 20L bags to be easily inserted towards the stern and bow of the kayak. While we normally strap another bag at the stern deck on longer (10 days+) trips, the deck of the Aironaut is just a piece of fabric and not rigid to take load. A fully stuffed stern is necessary to provide the rigidity for the stern deck to hold a strapped bag. It is easier to load bags into the Aironaut compared to folding or rigid kayaks, the flexible deck fabric means I could peel and expand the openings to insert unevenly packed bags.

PRV (Pressure Relief Valves)
Aironaut's PRV (pressure relief valve).

On a hot tropical island where I live, the best performance feature is the pressure relief valve on all 3 chambers. One could inflate the kayak to its maximum pressure and not worry about leaving the kayak out in the sun during breaks or meals. When air expands due to the hot sun, the excess pressure inside the chambers simply purges from the relief valves instead of building up in the chambers and bursting the kayak. In long overseas expeditions, such features are life saving.

The inflatable seats (backrest and seat) however, do not have the pressure relief valves. They are black and expand rapidly in hot sun, so it is a must to check the seats and manually release excess pressure. I recommend inflating the seats to no more than 75%, as pressure builds up very fast.

The seat and backrest are adjustable (for stiffness) and they are comfortable. The seat straps directly on the floor of the kayak while the U-shape backrest can be adjusted for a snug or relax fit around the waist. It is all very comfortable much like sitting on an inflated pillow, but I just wonder if they could had made it a different colour other than black!

The Aironaut's footrest.
The footrest is a simple horizontal adjustable bar. It works. I can see paddlers discarding this item or customising a more robust kickable footrest. The footrest bar can be a nuisance when bow loading the bags into the kayak. On longer trips with the kayak loaded with gear, I would prefer to kick my feet on the bags than using the footrest.

Sea Sock
The Aironaut comes with a sea sock, which is a long waterproof bag that goes over the cockpit coaming and extends into the kayak. Its purpose is keep the interior of the kayak free of water and sand. It is also a useful safety gear upon capsize, to contain water inside this 'bag' instead of the entire kayak. One, there is less water to remove from the kayak. Secondly one just need to withdraw the sea sock to drain the water, and climb back in.

I have never use a sea sock on my Feathercraft as I like my interior to be roomy. A bilge pump will still a very useful safety gear to bring along to pump out water from the kayak.

A sit-in kayak with a sprayskirt makes it a seaworthy craft for rainy days and paddling with waves.  Sealed correctly, the Aironaut offers a dry ride and give lots of confidence in choppy waters. 

Paddle Float
Aironaut's orange paddle float is kept under a pocket on the stern deck.

The Aironaut requires a learning curve for those unfamiliar with sit-in kayaks. It sits higher on the water and is thus more tippy than a folding kayak or even a plastic one. Feathercraft provides a paddle float as a standard aid to re-enter the cockpit from the water. When deploy with a paddle, it acts like an outrigger stabilizer to climb back into the cockpit upon capsize. Beginners will find the paddle float very useful.

A double-fin terms of performance I am still figuring why a double fin other than it holds in place much better with no chance of dislodge during paddling.

Overall Impression

Surfing the Aironaut!

Is the Aironaut a fast kayak? The Aironaut tracks well due to its double-fin skeg, turns easily and paddles fast. It is surprisingly tippy for an inflatable kayak. It has a good secondary stability, so while the kayak tip side to side, it is hard to capsize. 

The 4.5m Aironaut is much faster than the Gumotex Solar (4.1m) and comparable to the longer Feathercraft Java (4.75m). Being a sit-in kayak, it has many advantages over the Java, as written above. The key difference is the pressure release valves...a high-performance inflatable kayak must have these valves.  

The Aironaut is ideal as a weekend kayak. The ultralight portability, fast set-up time, ease of maintenance, speed, and capacity gives a city apartment dweller like myself unprecedented ease of access to surrounding waters. Even without a car, it is easy to carry 9kg on public transport to the desired beaches. 

Paddlers will also appreciate the ultralight weight when carrying the kayak from the set up on the beach to the waters. Those planning an overnight trip will be please by the ample room within the kayak for gear and cookery. 

I have yet the opportunity to review the Aironaut on long unsupported expeditions. I think stretching the Aironaut for a week unsupported is within its operating design. On longer unsupported expeditions, the extras I look for would be the survivability of the kayak, ease of field-repair, capacity, speed in various water conditions, and options for customisations (whether sail or electronics). Knowing how the kayak performs and its operating limits make for safer expeditions. 

Then again, the Aironaut is not designed for extreme expeditions (we have a bad habit of pushing the limits of our gear!). It is conceived as a dream kayak, that one you think about amidst the routine of work and life, the 'sometimes I just wish to get out somewhere for a paddle' vessel...the Aironaut makes going that somewhere spontaneous.

Lining up the Aironaut with the Seawave.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Unexpected Feathercraft Aironaut

Received a surprise package from Feathercraft today and it is the prototype Aironaut! From what we know, the Aironaut is an ultralight sea kayak (9kg) and easy to deploy (6 minutes inflation). are some unexpected surprises about the Aironaut:
# It comes with a sprayskirt, sea sock, cockpit rim inserts, tracking fin, repair kit, & pump. 
# It takes less than 5 minutes to inflate as the chambers are quite small.
# All 3 chambers have a pressure release valve, eliminating the No.1 concern of using inflatable in our hot weather.
# It comes with an strange orange bag at its stern...guess what?
# The whole package comes in a nicely designed backpack dry bag.
# It is ultralight !
The whole package looks very attractive, but how would it performs as a sea kayak? Will find out later this week during the sea trial !

It comes with a sprayskirt, sea sock, cockpit rim inserts, tracking fin, repair kit, & pump.

All chambers come with safety pressure release valve

Less than 5 mins inflation!

Ultralight Inflatable Sea Kayak !

The Orange Paddle Float

The Feathercraft Aironaut

Inflatable Seat and Backrest

Friday, March 22, 2013

The pioneer kayaker of Sumatra

Abdul Halim (1963 - 2013)
Halim brewing coffee inside a 5-star hotel room!
Halim (Georg Jackstadt), was a german geographer living for 19 years in Sumatra, Indonesia. A self-taught kayaker, he got a team of Indonesians together to do whitewater rafting ("we thought there was business"), later whitewater kayaking ("when we realised it wasn't business - so we could still get to the rivers but had no customers to fill rafts").

He started in 1995 at Asahan river - probably the wildest whitewater in S.E asia. In the following years he built up a whitewater center, did first descents of many Sumatran rivers and competed at national and international events. One highlight was year 2000 when he went to France and was one of the 'wildboys' who became the first Indonesian ever at the Whitewater Racing World Championship in K1 ( he didn't become worldchampion... ).

Disaster hit in 2003 when a flashflood wiped out the village of Bukit lawang and his WWcenter. 150 people died. Tourism collapsed after that. The tsunami in 2004 made things worse. As if that wasn't enough, there are now plans for a hydropower scheme that would destroy most of the whitewater at Asahan river.

He never gave up pursuing paddling - and started exploring Lake Toba, the world's biggest crater lake. Coming from whitewater, he had no idea that touring kayaking could be so much fun. Nobody had ever done paddling trips on Lake Toba and he had absolutely no idea how many kilometres a touring kayak can cover per day or whatever, when he pushed his brand new kayak into the water. Since then, he had seen more shores on the lake than anyone else, and visited some villages not yet connected by roads. "You just feel like you're inside Lord of the Rings when you paddle in that scenery".

He later explored and paddled more of Sumatra's amazing landscape, including Pulau Banyak, Mentawais, Padang's coast, etc. He loved the waters and never tired of championing the rivers and waters of Sumatra. He was the founder and main mover of "Save the Asahan River". All international paddlers who wanted to paddle Sumatra seek him out. And Halim was always generous to share his knowledge and willing to help with logistics.

Halim was a friend, a colleague, a fellow kayaker, a fellow guide....we shared our love of Pink Floyd as much as the waters. We had an evil scheme going that anyone we took to paddle in Lake Toba must watch the Pink Floyd concert. In his youth, he looked a lot like David Gilmour, and while David went on earning his millions playing guitar, Halim touched the hearts of whoever paddled with him. He was a genuine person who loved life and kayaking. A true and kind soul who always had a pat and rub for animals and little creatures that wandered into his path. His gentle enunciated accent, funny anecdotes, and wacky jokes brought much silly laughters. He was never angry, never harsh.

Halim, no amount of tears shed today will bring you back even for a moment just to say goodbye. You had led ahead this time. I wish you good winds and good currents for the paddle ahead.

See you on the other side of the waters again.

Halim (right) near the summit of Gunung Sibayak. As a geographer, he also loved his volcanoes.  
One of the last photos of Halim taken on 16 March, 2013 on the Wampu River, Sumatra. He was testing his "gumotex experimental".  A modified Sunny. "We did sme mistakes, though, the manhole is so small - I can't wear a PFD in it...and no foot brace. Also takes about 20 minutes to tie the skirt on the kayak. So we leave it in inflated condition. I guess it needs some more experience n modifications till you can use it on Laos river. Two kayak air bags in front and back maybe wiser....but then you can't take much gear."

Friday, March 15, 2013

Gam. Home. (15/15)

All of nature's creations from E26 on the way to Gam island.     |   Photo: Huey, Tiak, Moira

Life was simple. We woke up in the morning and walked a distance to find a cozy place to dig a hole. The air was still cool and many birds were rousing at the same time. We then walked back to the tents, took our canteen, and sat by the stove. Kathy would had the stove on. The faint scent of coffee twirled in with the last of yesterday night’s embers. We watched the last part of sunrise while the birds, having their feathers dried by the sun, took flight. Light layered the water, which shimmered when the breeze rose. There was no time and this was our clock. 

Bloody Comforts. Part 3 (14/15)

Inside the wonderful, mazy, and beautiful Kabui Bay. 
The Mezzanie section of the camp promptly poked out their heads, aimed their headlights at the kayak, and watched.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Bloody Comforts, Part 2 (13/15)

The fernhill campsite at the entrance of The Passage. Waigeo-Gam channel.    | Photo: Moira

Tropical camping in tents was stuffy, especially in my single layer tent which was waterproof but trapped heat. For the past few nights it took some minutes of sweating, even in nakedness, before the body cooled. Last night was no different. But sleeping in sweat was no longer a bother. Sand, a small nuisance before, was no longer unwelcome guests in tents, but like hair and skin, felt a part of the body now.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Bloody Comforts, Part 1 (12/15)

Oxeye scads bought from Indonesian fishermen. 

Light was withdrawing faster than we could paddle. A bowl of darkness formed. 

I liked paddling in darkness, always searching for a night where there was absolute darkness. When there was none, like tonight, I shut my eyes. The darkness compelled me to focus more inside myself and less on the outside. I had seen what’s on the outside - lights. There was moon light, lights from the shore, and lights from the boats. If I opened my eyes, every of these little lights distracted attention, whether for a moment, and if longer, a puzzle of who were the ones who set out the lights. I wanted to see and feel what was inside.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Two Villages, Part 2 (11/15)

A nap after lunch before leaving the village of Mios Mengkara.    | Photo by Moira
Seen from the air, the grey-whitish village of Mios Mengkara stood out among the green coconut plantation, which was ringed by white sand, and then enclosed by a large spectacular lagoon of teal waters and dark corals. A long jetty constructed from the timber of ironwood trees cuts into the lagoon. A row of houses faced the jetty, behind a concrete road, then the school and church. Grass separated the houses, stilts driven into the sand between them created a shared area for hanging clothes and salting fishes. Flowering shrubs lined the paved road and in front of houses. A working well was sank into the beach. In late morning, we approached this island village and asked for permission to enter.