Jan 022013

We purchased a folding kayak in the Summer of 2012, after two years of thinking about it and several months of research.  Our choice of boat was based upon four criteria.  First, it had to be a two-person boat.  Next, it had to be expedition-capable, meaning it had to have a large load capacity, be of solid construction, and lend itself to repairs in the field.  Third, the boat had to be light enough, and pack away small enough, that it could be transported as baggage on commercial aircraft.  Finally, the boat had to be capable of accepting a sailing rig that could also be shipped as baggage.

The choice of boats came down to three: the Aerius Quattro II by Klepper, the K2 Expedition by Feathercraft, and the Mark II Quattro by Long Haul Kayaks.  This last one is a close relative of the Klepper — Long Haul’s owner sold and repaired Kleppers before starting his own company, and that experience is reflected in his boats.  All three kayaks appeared to be quality products that met our criteria, so the final decision was made on cost.  Here, the Long Haul kayak was the clear winner, with a price tag of about USD $4,800.  This was USD $500 less than the Klepper, and USD $2,500 less than the Feathercraft.

Construction and delivery of the boat took eight weeks, and everything arrived in good order.  Long Haul had thrown in some additional items at no cost, including extra sponsons and upgraded seats.  We watched the video on assembly and disassembly, practiced the procedure in our house, and found the boat fairly easy to construct.


Maiden Voyage: The Exuma Cays

In late August of 2012, we took the kayak on its maiden voyage in the Bahamas’ Exuma Cays.  The kayak spent eighteen days on the water, during which we paddled from Great Exuma to Compass Cay and back, camping on beaches along the way.  Our route kept us on the southwestern, lee side of the island chain.  The straight-line, round-trip distance was about one hundred nautical miles; although the paddling distance was likely twice that, as we followed irregular shorelines in order to reduce our exposure to wind and waves.  Our longest days of paddling were twenty nautical miles of straight-line distance.  Fully loaded with water, food, and us, the boat weighed in at 570 pounds — 330 pounds less than its specified maximum capacity.

We were affected by two storms during the trip.  We weathered Hurricane Isaac by holing-up on a remote cay for three days, and we dealt with less-than-ideal weather and water conditions during the days before and after that storm’s passage.  On the final day of the trip, we dealt with significantly heightened wave activity, produced by Hurricane Leslie as she passed east of the Bahamas.

During most of the trip, we experienced two to three foot swells, topped by sometimes-breaking wind waves.  Wind speeds were typically in the mid-teens (except during Hurricane Isaac, when we experienced sustained winds in the sixties and seventies).  Wind directions were southeasterly to easterly; and the seas were following during our outbound leg, which had us heading northwest and up the island chain.

There are many channels, or cuts, between the islands; and transiting them was often a significant physical challenge.  The cuts exposed us to larger waves and the full force of the wind, and tidal changes sometimes turned channels into fast-moving rivers.  Hard paddling was required to clear these things, with the rear paddler calling a cadence to keep everyone in synch.

We managed to avoid all but one surf landing during the trip.  That one exception came on the last landing of the last day, and it involved three-foot breaking waves.  The landing was not gracefully done, and it produced a moment of minor mayhem.  Only our pride was damaged, and we were thankful for a beach free of spectators.


Outfitting the Boat

Finding the right stowage configuration was a real challenge during our preparations for the trip, and this was largely a function of finding the right dry bags.  Two of the dry bags we used were tapered Seal Line Kodiak Sacs.  We used the 35L long bag in the bow, forward of the first rib; and we used the 35L wide bag in the stern, aft of the seventh rib.  They were a decent fit, and they kept their contents dry.

Another bag we used was the NRS Outfitter Dry Bag in 62L size.  We placed it in the stern, under the deck, between the sixth and seventh ribs.  It is a well-constructed bag, but it is a little too big in diameter for this application.  It could not be packed and then slid into place.  Instead, the empty bag had to be inserted into the boat, and then the contents inserted into the bag.  It worked, but is was a pain in the ass.  We have since purchased a replacement bag, the NRS Expedition DriDuffel in size “small.”  In a test packing, it slid easily into place.

Protecting Jen’s camera equipment was a real concern, and she opted to leave her best-quality equipment at home during this maiden voyage.  Instead, she brought a waterproof point-and-shoot and an old DSLR camera.  The DSLR was stored in a small dry bag, which was then packed into the NRS Outfitter Dry Bag.  The camera stayed safe from the elements, but it was packed away in a manner that made it inaccessible while paddling.  We have since acquired what we think is a better solution, one that will allow her to bring her best cameras.  That solution is a Watershed Chattooga Dry Duffel with liner.  It fits well under the forward deck, between the first and second ribs, in a location from which Jen can access her cameras while paddling.

We quickly discovered that we needed an easily-accessible bag to carry our lunch, along with the stove, gas bottle, pots, and utensils needed to cook and eat it.  During the trip, we improvised a solution with a spare dry bag, but what we really needed was a decent deck bag.  We have since purchased a NRS Taj M’Haul Deck Bag.  We have yet to give it a field trial, but in a practice load-out it seemed to attach well to the boat’s forward deck.

On the aft deck, we used a large, shapeless, mesh laundry bag to hold our snorkel gear and wet clothes.  The bag was secured under the deck’s bungee cords.  It worked, but not well.  We have since purchased a mesh duffel bag for this purpose, with a size and shape that fits the deck and the intended contents.

Another storage problem was drinking water, as there are few freshwater sources in the Exuma Cays.  We used MSR 10-liter Dromedary Bags, and they are a good size for placing in the bottom of the boat.  We carried five bags on the trip: one between the first and second ribs; two under Jen’s legs, between the second and third ribs; and two under my legs, between the fourth and fifth ribs.  This configuration gave us a six-day storage capacity.

We used Camano paddles, manufactured by Werner.  They are two-piece paddles with fiberglass blades and straight, carbon shafts.  We appreciated their light weight, and they performed well under all conditions.  For transport, we packed the paddles into the bag that contained the boat’s long frame components.  This worked, but it also added to the challenge of keeping the bag’s weight under fifty pounds.  Three-piece paddles may be in our future, as they could be packed in a shorter, lighter bag.

We acquired inexpensive paddle leashes manufactured by Harmony, which attach to the boat by plastic clips.  They did the job, although they were never tested severely.  We think more robust leashes are also in our future.

We used fingerless paddling gloves by Warmers and NRS.  Both worked as advertised.

For personal flotation devices (PFD’s), we acquired a men’s Trekker and a women’s Flo, both manufactured by Stohlquist.  The backs of these PFD’s are half mesh, half flotation; with the flotation material high enough to ride above the back of the kayak’s seats.  They were a comfortable fit all the way around, and we had no problems with their construction during the trip.

We carried a Paddlers Bilge Pump, manufactured by Seattle Sports.  It was never put to a real test, as we were never capsized or swamped.  But we did have occasion to use it for removing accumulated rainwater, and it seemed to work well for the size and type of pump that it is.  As to potential problems, there is a metal pin that joins the handle to the piston, and it is rusting rather nicely.  The two other visible metal fittings show no rust at all, so the pin in question must be a poor metal for this application.

A piece of equipment that we wished we had was a platform or clamp that would allow the forward paddler to securely lay her paddle across the forward cockpit coaming.  Jen takes photographs, and whenever she did the natural thing with her paddle before grabbing a camera — the natural thing being to lay the paddle across the cockpit coaming, in front of her — the paddle was eventually caught by wind, wave, or motion.  It would then slide and pivot on the coaming, send one its blades aft to hit me, and flop into the water  Securing the paddle to the boat’s existing deck anchor points is not a viable alternative, as it takes too long and both paddlers to get it done properly.  What is needed is a simple, secure holder into which the paddle can be laid, and that can be attached to the coaming without modification.  We have yet to find an appropriate commercial product, and we may end up constructing one of our own.


Packing for Plane Travel

When we purchased the kayak, our vision for its use involved loading it on planes, along with all our equipment, and flying to overseas destinations.  While that vision is still alive, transporting the boat as commercial airline baggage proved more challenging than we had expected.

The boat packs into three bags from the manufacturer: a large, squarish bag for the skin that comprises the hull and deck; a large, long bag for the long components of the kayak’s frame; and a smaller bag for the frame’s ribs and the rudder components.  The spray skirt, seats, and seat cushions are intended to be packed into the skin bag.  There are three canvas inner-bags to further protect the skin, the long keel pieces, and the remaining long frame pieces.  We purchased the upgraded, heavy-duty packing bags, which are better-able to handle life as airplane baggage.  When everything is packed as intended by the manufacturer, only the small bag with the ribs and rudder assembly meets size and weight restrictions for flights between the United States and the Caribbean.  Both the skin bag and the long bag exceed weight allowances, and the long bag also exceeds size allowances.

As of this writing, for flights between the United States and the Caribbean, the baggage weight and size allowances are fifty pounds and a combined measurement (length + width + height) of sixty-two inches.  Fees are charged for exceeding these allowances.  On the carrier we used, an item that exceeds the weight allowance incurs a fee of USD $100, and an item that exceeds the size allowance incurs a fee of USD $200.  These fees are cumulative, and they apply each way on a round-trip journey; meaning that a bag exceeding both the size and weight limit will incur a total fee of USD $300 each way, or USD $600 for the round-trip.  For two people traveling with a boat and all the equipment needed for a three-week excursion, staying within limits is a significant issue.  As much as $2,400 is at stake, and even more if things cannot be confined to four bags and two carry-ons.  Baggage fees can quickly become the most expensive part of the journey.

We did several practice packings before we found the best possible solution, and even then it put us at risk of additional fees. We stripped all three bags of their straps and back-pack style carrying systems.  In the bag for the boat’s skin, we placed just the skin and its protective canvas.  It weighed in at forty-nine pounds, just one pound under the limit; and we compressed it with luggage straps to meet the size restriction.  We ditched the spray skirt; and we packed the seats and seat cushions into a parachute bag, along with camping equipment and personal flotation devices.

For the bag with the long frame pieces, we ditched the canvas inner-bag used for the keel.  We kept the canvas bag designed for the other long pieces, and when it was loaded we rolled the keel inside of it.  This allowed us pack our paddles into the long bag, which brought the bag’s overall weight to forty-nine pounds — again, just one pound to spare.  But, no matter what we did, the long bag exceeded size limits; and it was therefore subject to a fee of USD $200, each way.

Everything else — the bag with the ribs and rudder, the boat’s seats and seat cushions, personal flotation devices, the bilge pump, dry bags, clothing, tent, camping equipment, eight days of dehydrated meals, snorkeling gear, camera equipment, and more — was packed into two canvas parachute bags and two very-heavy carry-ons.  We made it work, but it was a real Rubics Cube.  And no matter what we did, we could not escape the excess size and fees of the long bag.

During the outbound flight, all the keel and gunwale pieces developed scratches.  These scratches were at points where the metal horseshoes and tungs met wood when the pieces were folded for packing.  In the case of the bow keel piece, the scratches were sufficient to allow water to penetrate into the top layer of plywood during the trip, causing a 1″ x 1/2″ area of de-lamination.  After the trip, we repaired the scratches with varnish, and we fixed the area of de-lamination with an epoxy fill.  We also applied a layer of epoxy to high-wear areas in order to create a more scratch-resistant surface.  On future trips, we will tape some lightweight packing material around the horseshoes and tungs.

On the return flight, one of two coaming studs was bent.  The coaming studs are metal fittings attached to the sixth rib, and they join components of the coaming at the rear of the cockpit.  I sent the rib to Long Haul, and the manufacturer replaced the fitting at no charge.

Related to transporting the boat as airline baggage was our interest in insuring it against damage or loss.  Sure, the boat could be damaged during actual use, but we were more worried about leaving an airport luggage carousel with a bag of splinters.

Our insurance research revealed more non-solutions than solutions.  We checked into a travel insurance policy, but it only covered USD $250 per item, which does not help much with a USD $5,000 kayak.  We next talked with two companies that offer boat policies.  Neither company’s agent had ever received a request to insure a folding kayak — it is not your typical, covered watercraft.  One company agreed to insure the boat for a monthly premium of USD $24 a month; but they would only cover use within seventy-five nautical miles of the United States’ coastline, which does not help with overseas travel.  The second company had nothing to offer.  We also checked with the carrier of our high-value property policy, but we were told that boats cannot be covered by it.

Our existing homeowner’s policy is the best option we found, but it is still only a partial solution.  In our case, watercraft payouts are limited to USD $1,500, and there is a minimum deductible of USD $500.  So, if the kayak suffers damage of USD $2,000 or more, we will be paid USD $1,500.  It is a cup one-third full, but at least the coverage is worldwide.


Kayak Performance

The boat performed well, even in sometimes-difficult conditions.  In calm conditions — which we rarely encountered — the fully-loaded kayak was easy to paddle at speeds of four knots.  On the outbound leg of the trip, we had the wind and seas behind us, and we made equally-good speed; but the conditions demanded that we paddle hard to maintain steerage and avoid broaching.  At those times when we attempted to paddle against winds in the mid-teens, we pulled with everything we had to make any headway at all, and sometimes we were forced to abandon the effort altogether.  On the last three days of the trip, we took advantage of greatly-improved weather to complete an upwind, return leg of fifty straight-line miles.  Hugging lee shores to minimize our wind exposure, we managed average daily speeds in excess of three knots.

The boat had good lateral stability, and we never felt at real risk of capsizing, even with the swell and waves on our beam.  With following seas of two to three feet, it was fairly easy to keep the boat from yawing; but in seas of four feet and higher, we think there would have been an unacceptable risk of broaching (although that risk probably attends any seventeen-foot kayak).  On our last day, we encountered six-foot and larger, steep-faced waves that swept through shallow areas.  We steered clear of these areas, because such a wave would have been catastrophic.

We think that Sea State 3 is the upper limit for reasonably safe use of the kayak, with Sea State 2 and lower being optimal.  Sea State 2 dominated our trip, and the boat performed with confidence.  We rarely experienced Sea State 1 or O, and then only in small, heavily-sheltered areas.  But Sea State 3 was a frequent occurrence, particularly in and around channels between islands; the boat performed well under these conditions, but it sometimes required heavy work to maintain steerage, and it sometimes felt like we were reaching the limit of controlled paddling.  Consequently, we think that Sea State 3 is the boat’s upper limit, and that Sea State 4 would carry an unacceptable risk of broaching and capsize.  And Sea State 3 is a pretty high threshold for a small boat — during my Marine Corps service in units that used inflatable Zodiacs with outboard engines, Sea State 3 was considered the limit for safe, peacetime operations.

Throughout the trip, we wished we had a sail for our boat.  Since returning, we have purchased one: the Kayaksailor by Kuvia, which we selected for its relatively low cost, minimal intrusion into the cockpit, and transportability.  We purchased it through Klepper America, which manufactures a custom mounting platform that also works on Long Haul kayaks.  The platform attaches to the cockpit coaming and existing mast bracket without any modification to the boat.  We have yet to put the sail to use, so we are not able to comment on its performance at this time.


Maintenance Issues

We encountered a few minor maintenance issues during the trip.  The first dealt with the sponsons.  Within sleeves attached to the interior of the boat’s skin, there are four inflatable tubes that run its length, two tubes on each side.  These tubes are the sponsons, and it is their inflation that tightens the hull and deck to the frame of the boat.  Without at least one functional sponson on each side of the boat, the boat will not work well, if at all.

Both lower sponsons developed leaks in their end-welds.  One leak developed on the second day of the trip, the other on the third.  We think they were the result of over-pressure from heat expansion as the boat sat on beaches, when the hull was fully exposed to the sun.  We had not anticipated this now-obvious problem.  After repairing the sponsons with the boat’s field repair kit, we made it a standard practice to release some air whenever we were not paddling, and to fully open the sponsons when the boat was beached for the night.  We never had another issue.  Nothing was mentioned in the boat’s literature about the potential for over-pressure due to heat, or the need to release air to prevent a leak.  We have recommended to the manufacturer that, at the risk of telling owners the obvious, it may be something worth mentioning in the boat’s manual.

Long Haul Kayaks has since improved the end welds of its sponsons; and they sent us a full set of the improved sponsons, at no charge.

While patching the sponson leaks, we experienced a small, but potentially significant problem with the field maintenance kit.  The liquid glue used to effect the repair is contained in a small bottle, and its plastic cap shattered into five or six pieces when we screwed it back on.  We were left with a cap-less bottle of glue that we obviously needed, and we had visions of becoming stranded on a deserted cay for lack of a two-cent plastic cap.  We ended up sealing the bottle with duct tape from the repair kit.

There was another small problem with this little bottle of glue: there was no brush integral to the shattered cap, so we used a small stick from a nearby tree to apply the cement.  A brush would have been a big help.

There are plastic clips that attach the rear of the seat cushions to the seats, and these clips are attached to the cushions by webbing that is sewn into the seam of the seat cushion covers.  With one of the seat cushions, the webbing pulled out of the seam.  This happened with both clips after four days of use.  Jen repaired the seat using needle and thread from the field repair kit, and we experienced no further problems.  After the trip, Long Haul Kayak restitched both seat cushion covers, at no cost to us.

Our dive into the field maintenance kit caused us to take a harder look at its contents, during which we noticed two shortfalls.  The kit contains numerous solid, round-head rivets; but there is no means to install them.  Without something like a handheld squeezer, the rivets are pretty much useless.  We mentioned the rivet issue to Long Haul’s owner, and he told us that frame damage almost always involves wooden components, not rivet failure; and that he saw no real need to carry a field riveting capability.  Nonetheless, if a capability is wanted, we imagine a hand-held squeezer could be added to a larger repair kit.  An alternative might be to carry a few stainless steel bolts, nuts, and washers to serve as temporary rivet stand-ins.  Regardless of the choice — carry a squeezer, buy some bolts, or forget about it altogether — the rivets in the kit, as sold, appear to serve no real purpose.

Another shortfall is the lack of a proper patch kit for the hypalon hull.   The existing repair kit contains a small roll of duct tape, and the instructions say that one of the tape’s uses is hull repair.  While we appreciate duct tape’s wide-ranging utility, we are not comfortable with betting everything on a piece of tape immersed in saltwater — not when there are better solutions available.  We are adding a proper hypalon patch kit to our packing list.

There are many stainless steel fittings that join the boat’s wooden frame: hinges, pins, rib locks, t-fittings, and rivets.  Noticeable surface corrosion developed on them early in the trip.  We managed to remove most of the corrosion with a light scrubbing once we got home, but we were still a bit concerned.  We have since discussed this with Long Haul Kayaks, who assured us that this is a cosmetic issue, and not a matter of maintenance or structural concern.  Long Haul conveyed that the grade of stainless steel used in the boat’s construction was recommended by the fittings’ manufacturer as the best material for use in the kayaks, and that this grade is more prone to minor surface corrosion than are some others.

The rudder control pedals are joined to the frame by large, stainless steel hinges.  The hinge for the right rudder pedal bent during the trip.  The most likely cause was me bracing on the pedal while paddling.  The hinge still worked, but we did not want to head out on another trip without a repair or replacement.  Long Haul Kayaks replaced the hinge, at no cost to us.  They also bent the original hinge back into shape and returned it to us as a spare part.

We noticed a potential problem with a small metal fitting on the wooden bar that forms the boat’s forward deck.  The fitting holds a wire landyard, that in turn holds a cotter pin, with the cotter pin being used during assembly to join the deck bar to a frame rib.  The fitting is attached to the deck bar by a single rivet, and somewhere during our trip it managed to pivot upward, pushing a sharp corner into contact with the deck material.  This could have caused a tear in the deck, which would have been a serious problem.  As it happened, we discovered the issue before any damage occurred, pulled the fitting back into parallel with the bar, and inspected regularly thereafter.  After our trip, we brought the issue to Long Haul’s attention.  At no charge to us, they changed the location of these fittings for both the bow and stern, repositioning them to the ribs that join the deck bars.  This new configuration shows no risk of the problem we encountered, and our conversation with Long Haul indicates it may become the standard for their boats.

The boat’s rib locks were a minor irritation for Jen.  These metal fittings join the third, fourth, and fifth ribs to the cockpit coaming.  On the third rib, they are positioned in just about the right spot to make contact with the forward paddler’s knees, which happened to Jen repeatedly.  After the trip, we mentioned this to Long Haul.  They sent us two prototypes for protective covers, at no cost to us.  One shows particular promise.


Final Thoughts

Despite the minor maintenance issues discussed above, and the challenges of transporting the boat on commercial aircraft, we left the Exumas very pleased with our Long Haul kayak.  It was put to a real test, made all the more challenging by unexpectedly adverse weather conditions.  The kayak got us through it all, and we became increasingly confident in its capabilities as the days passed.  We never worried that the boat would fail us.

We have been equally impressed with the support provided by our boat’s manufacturer.   The owner of Long Haul Kayaks has engaged us in detailed discussions on our observations and recommendations, and he has gone out of his way to correct the issues we identified.

We look forward to our next excursion — this time armed with a sail.

 Posted by at 8:54 am