Vagabonds and Vinyl: Folding & Inflatable Boats...and Bikes!
by Michael Edelman
A lot of us have two incompatible characteristics. We've got that nomad urge, that desire to cut loose and travel the seven seas, but we're also pack rats. We covet Stuff. This is hard to reconcile. But when I was 14, I had an epiphany of sorts.
I was getting off the ferry on Isle Royale, up in Michigan's Lake Superior, when I met this fellow with a pair of tweedy-looking canvas duffle bags, which kind of stood out as everyone else getting off the boat had Kelty and Camptrails frame packs, with the occasional Duluth portage pack. As we chatted he took what looked like a bundle of sticks from one bag, and a big floppy skin from the other, and began assembling the bundle of sticks into the skeleton of a boat. In about ten minutes he'd assembled the very first Klepper folding kayak I'd ever seen. Wow. Here was a boat you could store in a closet, or under your bed. Back home I discovered ads from Folbot between the covers of Popular Mechanics. Not only did they sell folding boats, they even had kits to make your own folding boats! Unfortunately even the kits were beyond my means. Over the years I looked at a few inflatable kayaks, but nothing I found had the quality and the allure of that Klepper.
The folding boat dream was forgotten for 25 years until I picked up Paul Theroux's "The Happy Isles of Oceania" a tale of travels through the South Pacific by boat, plane and folding kayak. Here was Theroux paddling island to island, off for weeks at a time with only his little 15' Klepper, camping on beaches, trading with villagers, and just setting his own pace of travel. I could easily picture myself in his place. Blissfully paddling along Hawaii's sandy white beaches. Camping under the stars. My kind of life.
Not long after finishing Theroux's book I came across Ralph Diaz' "Complete Folding Kayaker", a treasure trove of information drawn from the pages of Ralph's Folding Kayaker newsletter. I carried that book with me everywhere, devouring it, memorizing it. I was ready to BUY. I bought a Nautiraid double from New York Kayaks. As soon as I pulled the pieces from the carrying bags I was enveloped in a marvelous feeling of deja vue; it was 1968 again, and I was 14, marveling at the wizardry of those clever gnomes who designed this thing.
Now, nearly four years later, I own three folding kayaks and I'm in the process of restoring a Klepper Master folding sailboat, a curiosity from the 1960s.
I love folding kayaks, and it goes deeper than just portability. Most modern kayaks are made of rotomolded polyethylene or fiberglass or other synthetics. They're rigid, unfeeling tools. Folding boats are alive. They move. They don't resound like thunder when you slap them. Paddling a folding kayak you feel more in touch with the water. The boat flexes with every wave. Press your leg against the side of the boat and you can feel the waves roll past. You are the sea.
Modern folding boats are just like the kayaks, baidarkas, curraughs and other skin-on-frame boats made by people around the world for centuries. The skins are now synthetics, and the frame materials include aluminum and plastic, but they're still the same boats.
Sometimes I think hard shell kayaks are like insects. They have a rigid carapace but there's nothing inside to hold them together. Pierce the shell and that's it. They're dead. You can slap on patches, but they're never quite the same. Skin on frame boats are more like mammals, with a flexible skeleton and a highly evolved outer skin. Smash a folder with a sledge hammer and you won't even scratch the skin. You can break the frame inside, but there's so much redundancy it's almost impossible to damage the boat to the point where it's unseaworthy. The worst damage can be repaired with a roll of duct tape and a few found branches. Once home you can buy or make new frame parts and the boat is like new again. This is why so many old boats are still around
Okay, you say, I'm sold. I want to sail the oceans and paddle the tropical Isles. I'm ready to pack up and move out. What's this going to cost me?
That's sort of like asking "what does a car cost?" You can buy new or used, for one thing. Folding kayaks have been around for around 100 years, which means there are a lot of used boats out there in various states of repair. There are a lot of 25 and even 50 year old Kleppers and Folbots out there sitting in attics and garages. I've seen old Kleppers going for as little as $250, and Klepper is the Cadillac of folding kayaks.
New boats from the major manufacturers can be had for anywhere from $800 to $5500. The cheapest boat I know of from one of the big 5 is the Pouch from East Germany. Pouch has been around for a long time, and anyone buying a Pouch can be sure of good factory support for years to come. The more adventurous buyer might look into some of the ex-military boats from the USSR that pop up now and again; supply is spotty and you may find yourself without parts down the line, but the clever OYB reader could probably fabricate any wooden or metal part they might need.
Used boats are always available. I've got a Folbot Aleut, a "mini" that's 12' long and weighs around 40 lbs. that I paid $600 for, half the new price, and after replacing a couple of pop rivets you can't tell it from one straight from the factory. And in the real spirit of OYB, you could make your own boat. Clark Craft has plans for a Percy Blandford designed wood and canvas folder from the 1950s that a few dedicated souls have put together for around $200, complete. I've got a set of plans on my web page for a really simple folding flatwater boat you could probably build for about $75 using all new materials.
At the other end of the financial scale is my Klepper Aerius II Expedition, a 17' boat that weighs 77 pounds, can be paddled as a single or a double and costs about twice what a decent fiberglass boat would cost. But while the glass boats have a useful life of maybe 20 years, the Klepper will outlast me, Klepper frames are said to be good for at least 50 years, and the new hypalon skins will probably last that long and maybe longer. And this boat defines seaworthiness for kayaks; it was an older model of this boat that Dr. Hannes Lindemann paddled and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1956. When other kayaks are bracing like crazy to stay upright, I can take a nap in my Klepper.
Folding kayaks aren't the nomad's only option. There's an even greater variety of inflatable boats out there, ranging from fancy innertubes propelled by swim fins (a favorite with fishermen) to the giant 20-person river rafts. You can get kayaks, canoes, pontoon boats, rowboats and even simple sailing dinghies that are held together by air. At the bottom are those cheesy-looking boats from the orient made of thin vinyl usually found next to the swimming pools at the local toy store. Skip them. For a few bucks more (well, $275) you can get a nifty kayak from Seyvalor that'll last a few years with care and a patch kit. Just stay away from the sharp rocks.
If you can squeeze together $400-$600 or so you can get into a nice reinforced, heavyweight vinyl, nylon or hypalon boat capable of some serious river running. REI is carrying the mid-priced Innova boats, nylon hulled inflatable kayaks said to be used by Canadian Rangers for remote patrols. And near the $1,000 mark there's a big selection of singles and doubles, some of which are pretty roomy and seaworthy.
Inflatables have a lot of qualities that make them the ideal river boat. They're just about indestructable, for one thing; you can drop them, jump on them, bounce them off of rocks and in general abuse the heck out of them without a bit of damage. Just keep them waxed and store them in a cool, dry place and they'll last for decades. They're unsinkable for all intents and purposes, they're incredibly stable (they make great dive platforms) and they just slide over a lot of rocks that would wreak havoc on a hardshell boat. They're not great touring boats, as they're bulky and catch the wind easily and they're a lot slower than most touring boats. Still, some have taken long trips in suitibly equipped boats.
Folders and inflatables make possible a kind of amphibious vagabonding. You can carry the smallest boats in a backpack, and even the largest can be carried by a pair of travelers. Bill Longyard is an adventurous guy who spent a month touring Europe with an Aleut, camping gear, a lightweight luggage cart and a Eurail pass. His entire load was probably under 80 lbs, which is less than some people pack for a week in New York City.
We don't have the same kind of regular, subsidized train service that most of Europe has, but we do have a pretty good system of roads, and it's occurred to more than one paddler that if you could combine biking and kayaking you'd have the ideal human powered all-terrain system. Carrying the boat is no trick, as there are a lot of good bike trailers on the market. Carrying the bike on the boat is the problem. Finding a decent folding bike is easier than you might think, if you're willing to pay the price. A few custom makers are using stainless steel fittings from S&S to turn ordinary road bikes into two-piece bikes. The problem is getting a folder small enough to fit below deck that still a decent quality bike. There's a fair number of really small folders on the market, but most of them are junk. Cheap imported toys, the kind of thing you expect to see in a Sharper Image catalog. They look slick, but always end up being crude junk, more for show than for real riding.
The Dahon folding bikes from Japan are a step up from the catalog trash. They seem to be a favorite of owners of big boats who like the idea of a cute little bicycle they can stash belowdecks. They're good for a run from the dock over to the 7-11 for a bag of ice, maybe, but a 25 mile ride with a trailer in tow? We're still not there.
Then there's Bike Friday, a gang of fanatics out West who don't like compromising. They make real road bikes, time trial bikes, cross bikes, city bikes, ATBs and even tandems you can fold up and stash in a knapsack. Any one of them would easily fit under the deck of the smallest folding kayaks on the market. Bike Friday bikes have tiny wheels, funny frames and weird gearing, like a 3-speed Sachs hub combined with a 7-speed freewheel to give 21 speeds. But they're real bikes. The first one I saw was setting a 22MPH pace on a 40 mile ride. You can get a basic off-the-shelf hybrid model for $675, or you can spend $1200 and up for a serious made-to-measure bike. Fancy a full-suspension bike for your next shot at Paris-Roubaix? They've got one you can take as carry-on luggage.
Okay, you say, you've got your backbackable boat, your pocket sized bike, and you're still not satisfied. There's another whole dimension that we're not taking advantage of. How about a really small airplane you can carry on your bike or kayak? No problem. They're called paraplanes, and they 're nothing more than a motorized backpack and a ram-air parachute wing. Strap it on, fire up the engine, take a few steps and you're flying. No runways needed. Tempting. But I crash often enough on a bike that I think I'll leave that to someone else.
http://foldingkayaks.org - My world folding boat HQ.
http://www.nrsweb.com Northwest River Supply- inflatables and accessories
http://www.bikefriday.com The folding bike people
http://www.rivendell.com A great bike maker who will build any model as a folder