Thanks to Tim E from BC for pointing out Feathercraft’s short-live Aironaut IK. As with their folders, FC managed to turn the usual IK sow’s ear into a very silky looking purse. With all kayaks, I believe it’s the sensation of gliding or responsiveness to forward paddle strokes that’s as much appeal as being in the outdoors, and judging from looks alone, the Aironaut might do that better than any other IK.
Intrepid, island hopping tourers are how we may like to think of ourselves, but day boaters is what we are most of the time. I get the feeling the new Airo is actually pitched as a convenient, nippy recreational day boat for folks who find Feathercraft folding kayaks a faff to set up on the spur of the moment and a pain to store or transport assembled. It’s the relative assembly effort and complexity as well as assembly time that can compromise spontaneity, especially if you’re at an age when you’re no longer as supple as Olga Korbut after a hot sauna. I’ve encountered the hard rock fragility of ally-framed folders to which IKs are immune, though both are susceptible to cuts and abrasions. With an IK you just tip it out of the bag, fit the skeg, pump up three chambers and get in ~ about five minutes including a couple for pumping. But for sea touring I still suspect that once assembled, a packboat like a Feathercraft Kahuna (above) is easier to manage in strong winds, something which I’ve found can limit an IK.
A few years ago I briefly owned Feathercraft’s Java, what they rightly call a ‘sit on top’ IK, but I didn’t get on with it for the various reasons you can read in the link. The new Aero is a conventional sit in IK, complete with a fixed deck like the discontinued but very hefty Gumotex Seakers. By IK standards, even the Aironaut name is clever too, suggesting a light, cutting edge boat. From the images below it’s got to be the slickest-looking IK out there, though the competition isn’t so great.
The magic numbers are: 4.5m (14’ 9”) long, 66cm (26”) wide, a weight of just 9kg (20 lbs) and a modest payload of 136kg. The rest you read here is my usual speculation based on those details and the photos I have pinched from the Feathercraft Aironaut webpage.
They achieve that amazing weight by fabricating the Airo from 210D urethane-coated nylon on the deck and multi-tubed black sides – and 420D in the hull (hard to tell the later two apart in most pics). So it’s a regular three-chamber IK. When I recall December’s Supai packraft was made from 75D polyester, triple that for the sides and six times for the hull sounds reassuring, though direct denier comparisons can be misleading; it may not be as simple as factors of fabric thickness, thread density or weight/area.
As with my old Incept K40, using ‘plastic’ coated fabrics means it can all can be heat-welded together which you presume is cleaner and less expensive than gluing by hand and then squeezing in a press. Urethane-coated nylon may not sound such a ‘high quality, technical fabric’ (to quote the FC blurb), but pack boat manufacturers are notoriously cagey about actual fabric specifics. As with Alpacka packrafts, exactly what type of urethane is key, as is the composition of the nylon base. Both may be custom specified from a source manufacturer to deliver certain properties. A nylon weave base fabric is supposedly more stretchy than polyester which is good against spikes, but less good in containing a rigid inflatable form. However, I would not be at all surprised to learn that some ‘high tech’ nylon fabrics might outperform the supposedly better qualities of some polyesters. These are old ways of describing all sorts of genetically modified fabrics. My Incept was a fast IK, aided by a notably slick PVC-urethane coating over a ‘1100 polyester dtex’ (= about 1000D) base. Knowing that, suddenly the Aero’s 420D doesn’t sound so robust, but that must be how Feathercraft managed to halve the weight of a K40 which otherwise has very similar dimensions (see table right). Another clue might be in the payload given at 136kg; the Airo’s many tubes may add up to a relatively small volume. The Incept by comparison was rated at 160kg and my solo/tandem Grabner takes 190 kilos.
Also like my old Sunny, Incept, Grabner and current Seawave, the Aironaut is a European-style ‘tubeless’ IK with no slip-in sponsons (‘inner tubes’) to give a hull shell its form. Perhaps that was necessary to run a high 4.5psi (0.31 bar) pressure, something which requires a good pump as well as good construction if it’s not to leak at weak points. Once on the water though, high pressure hulls have real benefits in terms of hardshell-like hull rigidity and paddling efficiency, especially when I compare my last two boats to previous, regular pressure Gumotexes. Look at the pictures above and below left and see how straight the kayaks appear, even allowing for light paddlers (and compare to the Java here). Then factor in the Airo’s Java-like cheese-cutting bow (left) and I suspect this may be the fastest IK yet made, and all without clumsy and bulky stiffening rods. It’s no great surprise that it was Feathercraft who managed it.
Good to see then that they have the same easy to use Halkey inflation valves as the Incept, and incorporate pressure-release valves too. PRVs are vital so the thing won’t stress its seams or pop if it gets hot (as happened to my Java). I’m always a little perturbed (or assured by the construction quality) that my high pressure Grabner has no PRVs.
FC are keen on you using their sea sock insert too (right), a fabric ‘body bulkhead’ which fits around the coaming and stops the boat filling right up in a capsize. I must say the thought of snagging that while trying to get out in a hurry is a worry, but I’m sure they’ve thought it through. Good to see they include a paddle float in the package too, admitting perhaps that getting back in may be tricky on the high and buoyant Aironaut. I tried it with the Incept once, but as we know, practise near the shore with a mate taking photos is not the same as tipping over out to sea, especially when alone. At 75cm long (26.5 inches) the Aironaut’s cockpit hatch is the same as my mate’s ally-framed Big Kahuna. In all my clobber and fluctuating girth I wouldn’t want it any smaller, though I imagine there is more’ squidging’ space and no Kahuna bars getting in the way. You also get a spray skirt, thigh straps essential for rolling and bracing, plus a detachable, low profile skeg which is also a good idea at sea; the latter in my experience much less faff than a rudder which I’ve found to be inadequate anyway once a tailwind gets beyond a certain strength. Good on FC for including all this in the package. Grabner and others take note.
The Feathercraft Aironaut is made in Canada and goes for around US$2500, about £1500 or the same price as an otherwise similar Incept K40 which seems hard to find in Europe now. Me and Gael were (are) the only owners of K40s I’ve ever heard of. Compared directly with the K40, the new FC is nearly half the weight, has a fixed deck which to me limits usability but of course keeps you drier, has a simple skeg instead of a complex rudder, is a little narrower but a little longer, and runs less payload. Judging by other FCs I’ve tried and owned, I bet the Airo will be better made than the K40 too, though you hope that amazing weight is at not too great a cost to durability. It’s less versatile than my solo/tandem, easy entry/loading/drying Grabner but I must say I’m intrigued to try an Aironaut if one ever comes within my orbit. In 2015 they released a tandem Aironaut.