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.

Capacity
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.

Seats
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!

Footrest
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.

Sprayskirt
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.

Skeg
A double-fin skeg...in 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). But...here 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. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Two Villages, Part 1 (10/15)

Paddlers getting ready to leave the village of Sel Pele at the entrance of the fjord-like Alyui Bay.      | Photo by Moira


Rudolph the red nose reindeer galloped into our ears from the massive sound systems at 6am. A few houses, with outward facing speakers, were blasting music till late last night, and it started early again this morning.  We had discussed social theories of massive speakers. One theory was that noise drove away spirits of the dark, another proposed loud music as the village alarm clock. It was a good thing we pre-ordered our Indo-mie breakfast at 7am. Our breakfast, however arrived late at 8.30am. Breakfast were served from the counter of Horas Jaya Wurung. The two shop keepers were both from Sulawesi, monopolizing everything from kreteks, petrol, snacks, and daily necessities. Some papuan youths were sitting outside at the store’s benches, not chatting, almost doing nothing. I sat among them while waiting for the team to get ready.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The Equator Crossing, Part 5 (9/15)


Conversing with Chan first thing in the morning before leaving for the search. Go to E9, the village of Selpele. We might need their help tonight. | Photo by Moira

The third time I crossed the Bhas Crazies, the water was calm. The tide was complete. Still it took me a long time to pass Johnny’s Beach. Inside the Crazies, a spitboat zoomed past me, heading north. Since my mission was now to get a recovery boat organized quickly at Selpepe, we simply exchanged a wave.