Northern Lights Aleut inspired paddle review, manufacturing quality, paddling style and Aquabound Manta Ray

 

I liked this paddle for a little while.  One thing that most reviewers mention which is worth mentioning again here is that it is really like 2 paddles in one with the 2 different faces, the convex one for normal strokes and the slightly concave side for when you need or want more power.  I used the power side a number of times in following seas.  There are many other reviews out there that describe the virtues of this paddle so I won’t get into any more of them here.

I was a bit disappointed with the manufacturing of the paddle though.  For one thing if you’re lazy like me and sometimes let the paddle float in the water next to the boat while attached with a paddle leash then the paddle blades will actually take on water.  Many times I could hear water sloshing around inside the blades and had to let it slowly drip out later.  I tried to make a habit of not letting the paddle float in the water for any amount of time but I was still getting water in the blades if it was in the water for any more than just a few seconds.  If you’re practicing rolls or wet exits the blades will definitely take a on a lot of water.

I also found that the blades didn’t fit that tightly where they slide onto the center piece, or “loom”.  The screws that secure the blades had to be tightened more than once until I stopped getting any flex at the joints.  Even after they were super tight I still seemed to detect a very slight flex though I’m not 100% sure about that.  I can say that the way the thing was held together didn’t inspire quite as much confidence as it should it have.

I ordered the paddle directly from NL and the first one they sent me was clearly defective.  There were bits of plastic rattling around inside one of the blades that also appeared to be slightly curved and not straight as it should be.  NL was quick to send a replacement that did not have the same defects.  I did notice however that the joints where the blades meet the loom were not so smooth.  There was about a millimeter offset in some places in no consistent pattern.  I was not sure if this was a problem or not so I asked NL about it and they said it was definitely not normal and promised to send me another one.  This one took much much longer to arrive after reminding them a couple times.  When it did arrive it was no better or worse than the one it was supposed to replace in terms of the offset at the joints though they told me they had checked this one personally before sending it to me.  One of the blades on this 3rd paddle seemed rather loose compared to the ones on the previous paddle so I ended up using the 2nd one instead of the 3rd just because it felt more solid.  I also realized later that the joint being slightly uneven is not an issue because my hands are always on the blade part and are not gripping or sliding over the joint.

After a little use I noticed other things I didn’t like about the paddle, things that probably would not be issues for other kayakers who are more used to Greenland and/or Aleutian paddles.  Immediately I found the paddle allowed a lot of water to drip into my cockpit so I started using a spray skirt even when I didn’t really need it.  Also there was nothing I could do about my hands being constantly wet.  Again someone who is used to this kind of paddle already knows about these issues and knows how to live or deal with them.  I don’t think I can do either, at least not in the summer.   I think that these kinds of paddles are better suited to colder conditions when you’re always going to use a spray skirt and gloves anyway.

For some reason it also seemed like the paddle, or the way I was using it, was causing more water than usual to slosh into the cockpit under choppy conditions.  I also felt that I was dragging the paddle through the water as opposed to using it to pull the kayak forward.  Again this is probably just me and my technique.  It seemed to work much more efficiently with a faster, shorter and lower angle stroke but it’s pretty clear to me now that I just don’t like to paddle like that.

It got to the point that I was starting to lose interest in paddling because of this paddle.   I ordered a 215cm, 4-piece Aquabound Manta Ray to use instead and when it came I immediately felt much more comfortable with it.  Last summer I was using a Werner Ikelos in the same length but it seemed like there was just a little too much paddle blade surface area for me as I experienced a lot of stress in my shoulders and some flutter when I wasn’t careful with my stroke.  The Manta Ray has nearly the same amount of surface area but I find it much more comfortable with no flutter ever.  The difference may have something to do with shape of Aquabound’s blade.

I wouldn’t recommend buying one of the Northern Lights paddles unless you’re already familiar with Greenland or Aleutian style paddles and appreciate the qualities of “stick” type paddles.  They’re just not for everyone as I found.  If you do decide to go for one hopefully they will have worked out the manufacturing issues by then or maybe you’ll just be luckier than I was and get a better one as there seems to be a lot of variability between individual paddles.  NL recommends buying from a dealer as opposed to purchasing from them directly and I definitely second that recommendation as NL was a bit difficult and just kind of weird to deal with.  I do appreciate the fact that they didn’t require me to send back the defective paddles before sending replacements, which was very nice, so you may want to take that into account when deciding who to deal with, though on the other hand I have no idea if that’s their policy or just how it happened with me for some reason or no reason at all.

Grabner Discovery 2 inflatable kayak review and comparison with Incept Tasman and Feathercraft Heron

Ready for adventure!


 

The Grabner Discovery line consists of 2 boats that are a hybrid between an inflatable and folding aluminum frame kayak.  It seems that Grabner has a lot of experience with inflatable boats and that part of this kayak is well designed and made with very durable high quality material.  Unlike most inflatables that have 3 air chambers these ones only have 2, one on each side while the frame components eliminate the need for a bottom chamber to keep the hull rigid (more on that later)

In the spring of 2011 I purchased the larger of the 2 Discoverys, the Discovery 2, for better cargo volume and weight capactiy.  Before purchasing this boat my only kayaking experience had been touring with an Incept Tasman 1 person inflatable so it’s inevitable that I should compare the two.  A major difference is that the Discovery 2 is an over 18 foot long tandem model that can easily be adapted to solo use whereas the Tasman is Incept’s solo kayak model at only a little over 14 feet long.    I found that the Grabner would glide through choppy water much more easily than the Tasman which would only glide easily on very calm water.  Whenever conditions got a little choppy it felt like the Tasman bow was getting bounced around a lot and thereby detracting from forward momentum.  I think though that the Tasman surfed in following seas a bit better than the Discovery since the longer boat is also more flexible (again, more on that later)

I liked how the Tasman has built in pressure relief valves and the input valves are accessible from inside the cockpit with a hand held pump so you can easily top off the air while on the water in order to maximize hull rigidity as much as possible.  With the Discovery there are optional inline pressure relief valves that I found very useful while pumping up the chambers without a pressure gauge.  The 2 valves are not accessible from the cockpit, though maybe they would be in tandem mode but then maintaining maximum pressure shouldn’t be as important in this boat that has a frame to help maintain hull rigidity.  I still think it would be nice though to have built in valves just to eliminate the possibility of damaging the air chambers when the boat is on a beach under the sun when you’ve stopped for lunch.  As it is you have to remember to manually let out some air in those conditions.

My Incept Tasman in Hvar, Croatia! It wasn’t hard to lift it out of the water there, one end at time, while still loaded! Being completely inflatable does have some advantages…

 

I like the spray deck for the Discovery which attaches to the hull with 2 velcro strips and a number of small metal hooks that fit in tiny holes in an extra layer of rubber on both sides of the boat or can be left off entirely for paddling on very flat water.  Although these hooks are quite numerous once in place you only have to undo a few of them to access the generous cargo areas behind the seat and in front of the foot pedals.  I was concerned that some waves might  wash up under the deck and contribute significantly to bilge water but I found this was not the case at all and even though a little bit did leak in from time to time it was very minimal.  In contrast the Tasman has a spray deck that is permanently attached on one side and with a zipper on the other side which is quite long and affords even better access to the cargo areas.  I had quite a bit of trouble with water dripping off of my paddle onto the this zipper and into the boat pooling right in the seat so I often ended up sitting in a pool of water which wasn’t a pleasant experience.  It seems that when Incept manufactures these boats they are supposed to punch 2 small holes in the section of rubber that connects the zipper to to the side air chamber BUT somehow they had neglected to do the boat that I ended up buying.  Many months after the problem was identified they finally emailed me instructions on how to punch these holes myself but before I got around to actually doing it I had bought the Discovery and had mostly forgotten about the Tasman which I later sold on Craigslist.

When considering the Discovery’s aluminum frame it would seem that Grabner has much less experience in that area.  I don’t think they designed this frame as well as they could have.  Their implementation makes the boat rather fragile and a bit too flexible.  You cannot pick it up by a gunwale, you need to use either a kayak cart or have two people carry it from either end or risk damage.  I was also able to move it very short distances by “walking” it along the shore, lifting it alternately from each end, always fully unloaded of course.

The frame consists not only of aluminum tubes but also 3 large interlocking rigid plastic floor plates.  They do a good job of keeping the hull rigid as long as they are pushed together very tightly which depends on the rigidity of the aluminum frame.  I found the latter to be the biggest flaw in Grabner’s design.  The aluminum tubes are connected with short plastic connectors that seem quite rigid but can get significantly bent out of shape especially in the 2 most critical joints along the hull in the bow and stern.  I believe that handling the assembled boat out of the water on the cart and also trying to use the storage shelf provided to me by my kayak club caused both of these joints to bend to the point where the hull line was very noticeably not straight and insufficient pressure was put on the floor plates so that the boat felt weird in the water as the whole thing had become very flexible!  I procured replacement plastic connectors from Grabner but they were soon bent out of shape also.

I was becoming somewhat disappointed with my purchase at that point and I decided that the only way to salvage my investment would be to replace the plastic connectors with a more suitable material, at least the ones in the 2 critical, high stress joints.  I think that the connectors should have been made with aluminum though Grabner told me that when they were considering different materials they ruled out aluminum as they felt that could cause difficulties in separating the tubes.  I had extreme difficulty separating these joints where the plastic pieces were very bent and deformed and ended up drilling one of them out!  Feathercraft makes some of the best aluminum frame kayaks in the world and they don’t seem to have any problem using aluminum connectors to connect aluminum tubes, they just recommend to put some lubrication on them periodically which doesn’t seem like an unreasonable burden on the end user.

The outside diameter for these connectors is about 21mm or 13/16″ which is not a standard size for aluminum tubing or even wooden dowels.  I ended up having dowels custom made from white oak by a local wood shop that was only willing to accept such a small job because business was slow at the time.  (I hope they’re doing better now!)  I replaced 4 of the plastic connectors with the dowels that I had coated with spray on polyurethane and found them to be much more durable holding up well over a 2 week expedition from Brooklyn to Montauk Long Island!  The poly didn’t hold up so well on the 2 joints along the hull that were often exposed to bilge water but at least they didn’t get bent out of shape.  I might try marine varnish instead of polyurethane if I ever feel like working on this frame again but I’ve since realized that seat posts for older bicycles are just about the perfect size at 13/16″ and as they are made out of stainless steel shouldn’t suffer from the salt water so much as long they are greased or lubricated.

Another issue with the Discovery is that the shock chords that keep the tube segments connected when disassembled became unhooked.  This was not such a problem because I would have had to unhook them myself anyway to replace the 4 bent plastic connectors,  bow and stern, along the hull and under the deck .  There are only 4 other connectors in the whole frame, making 8 total, and those are 2 each in the gunwale tubes on each side of the boat.  The chords on those are intact and the other ones are easy enough to place when you consider the layout of the other frame parts.

At the time I purchased the Grabner boat I was enticed by a very substantial discount they were offering on a 2nd quality boat with some purely cosmetic defects in the rubber.  I have never noticed these defects myself.  This unit was one of only a few number of remaining stock which is all gone now.  I don’t know if Grabner plans to manufacture any more Discoverys ever, though if they do I hope they try to correct some of the issues with the first models.

Now if I had known at the time that Feathercraft had just come out with an all new model I might have passed on the Discovery but I didn’t find out about the Heron until a few months later.  I was aware of their K1 model that was extremely suitable for my activites but more expensive and some reviewers mention it being a little slow.  I knew of their Khatasalano model as well but that seems too sporty and unstable for me since my principal kayaking activity is expedition touring.  I think I also used to favor inflatables because of their simple assembly but after all the hours I have spent messing around with the Grabner Discovery frame I now welcome the opportunity to work with a better frame designed and built by the experts in aluminum frame folding kayaks.

So then about a year after purchasing the Grabner, with my sights set on a summer spent paddling in Sardinia, I went ahead and ordered a Heron.  I got it through Folding Kayak Adventures in Colorado instead of directly from Feathercraft in Vancouver in order to save on foreign transaction fees.  Hopefully this is the last high end travel kayak I ever have to buy for myself.

Having already received the Heron and assembling it twice I’ll say I’m very impressed, especially when comparing it’s frame to the one in the Discovery!  Yes there are many many more sections of aluminum tubing and more connectors, but most of them are shock corded together and the ones that aren’t are color coded in a way that eliminates any possibility of confusion during assembly.  I am very impressed by one feature in particular where the whole frame length can be adjusted to 5 different possible settings in order to make it fit as tightly as possible into the skin and keep the boat rigid.  I’m told that the skin can expand and contract depending on temperature and moisture and I’m assuming you may have to stretch it further after it has been well broken in, but we’ll see…

At this point I can’t compare how the Heron handles on the water because I am still just a warm weather kayaker and the water is pretty cold around Brooklyn this time of year.  I do however like the bag and cart system I got for the Heron much better than what I got with the Discovery.  The Discovery bag is very flexible with only flaps and straps with buckles to close it up but then it’s never really sealed because it has no zippers like the Feathercraft bag which while not as flexible is perfectly suited to the boat, with plenty of extra space for extras like a Northern Light aleut stuyle paddle, bilge pump and inflatable pfd.  Removing the voluminous sea sock that Feathercraft provides I’m also able to fit in a Wheeleez mini kayak cart with it’s fat wheels deflated and shoved side by side down into the bottom of the bag.

For the Discovery I had purchased the optional Ekla convertible cart provided by Grabner that can be used as a luggage cart for the kayak bag or as a kayak cart for the assembled kayak.  This is a great idea but in practice it ends up being a little too bulky and awkward for either application.  As a luggage cart the wheels are too big and rub against the bag as they roll.  It would be ok if they were positioned differently but that would require even more aluminum tubing and make the whole thing even more bulky than it already is.  This thing is capable of other configurations besides these 2, presumably for other applications with other types of equipment though I have no idea what they might be.

For the Heron I purchased their optional pack cart that attaches to the outside of the kayak bag converting it into a wheeled piece of luggage.  It is very light and simple and can be taken apart and stowed inside the bag itself when you get to the baggage counter 😉  I can’t really imagine checking in the full Discovery bag and cart.   Feathercraft also offers a folding kayak cart but it’s not super light weight and the wheels don’t look suitable for many types of terrain so I instead opted for the Wheeleez mini which is supposed to be a bit lighter and should be able to roll over many more surfaces, including mud and sand.

It might seem that a comparison between a Grabner Discovery 2 and a Feathercraft Heron is somewhat unfair considering that the Heron costs more and they are actually 2 different types of boats.  In reality though the Heron doesn’t cost that much more than what the brand new first quality Discovery 2s were going for with comparable accessories added on and although the Discovery is an inflatable and the Heron is not they both have aluminum frames, are about the same length, weight and capacity, pack to about the same size and are suitable for the same kinds of expedition touring adventures.   I’ve learned quite a lot here and it seems to me that there is still room for innovation in the field of light weight, high performance, high capacity, collapsible expedition touring kayaks.  Hopefully others can learn something from my experiences here also.

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How to break-in & stretch a pair of boots: Zamberlan Tofane

So I figured that if I needed a new pair of heavy duty hiking boots I might as well invest in good ones that are built to last with welted soles that can be replaced when they wear out.  There aren’t that many choices in this category these days though some of the best are made in Italy by Zamberlan.  I first tried their Sella model and found them to be quite comfortable but just much more boot than I think I’d ever need.  I returned those and ordered a pair of their Tofanes.  These also felt very comfortable and quite robust but a bit more reasonable for my average on and off trail hiking and treking needs.

Now that I’d decided to keep them it was time to start breaking them in.  It didn’t take long to realize that they were a bit too narrow for my relatively wide feet.  They felt fine around the apartment but you can’t really judge a pair of shoes until you walk a mile or more in them, past the point of no returns.  I tried loosening the laces and that helped a lot on the width but made them feel pretty sloshy allowing heel abrasion and blister development.

Since it was too late to do anything else I decided I had to do something more than just walk around in them in order to get them to the point where I could use them on an actual hike or trek.  Any shoe repair joint can stretch leather shoes for you with the instruments they have at their disposal but the results are going to be variable and arbitrary.  I figured I could do a better job myself with my feet as my only tools.  I started by making a conscious effort to spread my feet wide and press back against the pinch I was feeling on the outer sides of the boots.  That helped a little.  I also wore the boots while seated and pressed hard against the sides.  That helped even more and soon most of the pinch around the widest part of my foot was gone but they still felt way too tight further back around the narrower part of my feet.  This is when I got really aggressive, balancing and walking on the outside of my feet during parts of an extended walk.  My feet were killing me after that, the right one took 2 days until if felt right again. I think I could have done permanent damage if I had kept it up much longer.  A couple days after that I tried the boots again and now they felt as if they were custom made for my feet with no pinch at all even when laced as tight as I could get them!

If anyone wants to try this I would suggest a somewhat more gradual course of action, don’t ruin your feet just trying to break in your boots.  Also I’m sure the quality of the leather used by better brands makes them more apt to stretch and conform to your feet sooner or later.  I’m sure that the way I did it made it happen a lot sooner.

Solar powered kayak bilge pump and device charger system.

I originally got the idea for this from Rogue Paddler and also Gnarly Dog. You can purchase a ready made system from BlueWater Kayak but as of this writing their solar panel option is not ready, their battery capacity is only 2200 mAh and the system isn’t setup to charge other devices though that would be an easy modification.

These are all the major parts that I used:

  • PowerFilm 7W 15.4V Rollable Solar Charger $127 (buy)
  • Tenergy Li-Ion 18650 14.8V 7800mAh PCB Protected Rechargeable Battery Pack $133 (buy)
  • MPPT Solar Charge Controller for 14.8V Li-Ion battery pack $110 (buy)
  • TLP-2000 Tenergy Universal Smart Charger for Li-Ion/Polymer battery Pack $22 (buy)
  • Underwater Kinetics 406 UltraBox $17 (buy)
  • CPI Waterproof Switch $60 (buy)
  • Rule 500gph 12V Bilge Pump $30 (buy)

Small items used:

  • Power Film RA-7 15 ft. Extension Cord (to connect the panel to charger input)
  • Ancor Marine liquid tight wire seal 765002
  • Tamiya Kyosho power connector (found on ebay)
  • Delphi 2 pin weatherpack connector (found on ebay)
  • 2.5 Amp fuse
  • RTV
  • twist on wire connectors
  • 12V to USB adapter
  • heat shrink tubing (to hold the 2 pump leads together as one cable)
  • bilge pump hose
  • NO-OX-ID (http://www.sanchem.com/aSpecialE.html *added May 29, 2012)

Since the solar panel and included cables use Delphi connectors I used those for the connection to the bilge pump as well.  This way you can unplug the bilge pump and plug the PowerFilm cigarette lighter adapter into the same connector.  I didn’t think about what would happen with these connectors sitting unplugged inside the hull of the kayak while the battery unit is removed to charge other devices.  Luckily the plug for the cable leading to the panel is female and the one for the pump is male and they can be plugged together so you don’t have to worry about bilge water getting in and corroding the contacts while the system is disconnected.  The corresponding plugs that come out of the box can be plugged together to protect them also.

For the connection between the solar charger and the battery inside the box I used Tamiya Kyosho connectors so the battery can be unplugged at home and plugged into the AC charger to top off the pack before you head out. I used one medium sized cable seal instead of 3 smaller ones to keep things simple.  It can’t create a watertight seal on all 3 cable at once so I used RTV to seal the gaps between and around them and also where the seal housing is screwed down on to the box. As per the instructions for the pump I installed a 2.5 amp fuse inside the box on the negative lead going to the power output.  The switch leads are wired inside the box to connect the positive output lead. PowerFilm solar panels can be daisy chained, so you could easily add another one to the system to really up your solar power gathering capacity if you have deck space for them

I used the system recently on a 2 week tour of Long Island, New York.  I did get to use the bilge pump twice, once was after landing in surf.  I did not get to charge my VHF radio because that device failed on the first day!  I did, however, recharge my phone twice while watching 2 movies on it.  I don’t know for sure how much of the battery capacity was used each time, or how long it took the the solar panel to fully charge the battery again each time.  The control unit only indicates if either the battery is fully charged or how much current it’s getting from the panel at the moment.  There’s no charge level indicator.  I couldn’t find one as an extra add on either.  I’m hoping that the combination of high capacity battery, efficient charger and high quality panel will be more than adequate for the needs of small electronics and occasional bilge pumping.  It could charge a laptop with a car adapter but it would take much longer to recover the lost potential and you always want to have enough power left for emergency bilge pumping!  Of course I also carried a hand operated bilge pump just in case.  I think I might reduce the chance of electric pump failure by using a dedicated cable without a detachable connector and have a separate cable for charging devices.  I don’t want to have to open the box for anything in the field so an external connection is necessary for that part.