Saturday, October 31, 2009

When Packrafts are for Real Boaters

Over on the Alpacka Forum “Esben” posted a response to Tim Johnson’s Roll where he referenced “Paddling Regression”s comments on thigh straps:

Esben said,

“…we should not forget what Paddling Regression said in the thigh strap thread:

Paddling Regression wrote: ‘In a packraft, at least IMO, they seem like more than is necessary even at the upper end of whitewater. IMHO if you feel you need thigh straps you should probably think about improving your technique or further developing your skills. Weather it be reading the water better and seeing the clean lines and hitting them or simply spending more time in the raft, one needs to have skills. Given their design, there are just certain things that will be difficult no matter what you do. eg big holes on big water. These things are already about as idiot proof as it gets. Don't get me wrong, there are probably a hand full of people that could really push what is possible in a packraft with thigh straps, but for most it will simply be a substitute for skill and ultimately not help them in the long run. In fact I'd be willing to bet that most packrafters would not be able to roll a raft even if they were glued into the thing. It is certainly more difficult than a kayak by a long shot. Not to mention much harder on one's shoulders as well.’

Although vastly appreciating the benefits of it, I agree, the addition of this feature will distract from the simplicity, the core idea of packrafting.”

First off, idle speculation and opinion is not as valuable as first hand experience. Not sure exactly what Paddling Regression is running in his packraft, but having seen more than a dozen people in Class IV up to 5000cfs, I can tell you that these thigh straps are going to give all of us a much better time on whitewater. Bandersnatching will not be as nasty. Lateral waves, a frequent bane, may be more tolerable. Boofing will be easier, turning, carving and bracing much more effective.

My feeling, having only limited experience – like two minutes – in Tim's beefy thigh straps is that it’s like putting on rock shoes after climbing in mountain boots, like running in lace-ups vs. crocks. Sure we all need to improve our technique and further develop skills, but boy when I put on rigid crampons for the first time I was able to go where I’d not gone before, places even Yvon’s flatfooted French technique in flexible crampons coudn't have got Gaston Rebuffat.

As far as big holes in big water, these thigh braces may well give you the ability to muscle through them – now you have something to lever against, a way to hold onto your boat besides pushing with feet and back and using your paddle like a tripod.

Yes, Regression is probably right, most of us may not be able to roll the thing “even if glued into” it, but the control that the thigh straps give you will be sufficient to justify the 8 ounces or so of additional weight.

As for the core idea of packrating, I’d opine that the core idea is versatility divided by simplicity. Packrafts are the most versatile craft out there, by far. We all know you can fly around the world for long wilderness trips, battle your way down big rapids, thread your way down local congested creeks, cross icy fjords, pack bikes or game – all in the same boat. Thigh straps will not detract from that versatility. They may well enhance all of that, and they are removable. If you want simplicity, you can paddle an open boat without a seat, you’ll just be wetter, colder, and more out of control than a seated boat with a deck and thigh straps, and the boat will weigh under five pounds rather than seven.

Hig and Erin style flatwater likely does not need straps (but I don’t know as I generally avoid flat, dead water). Looking for caribou on easy water or long wilderness trips on canoe-style rivers, no straps needed – although they might make portages quicker using them as shoulder straps. But Grand Canyon? Steep creeks? You bet. I will swim far less often with these in my boat.

Claiming that “for most it will simply be a substitute for skill and ultimately not help them in the long run” is like saying skiers shouldn’t use fat skis and should learn to ski powder on boards with no side cut; that if you want to rock climb you should learn to hand jam wearing sneakers before you get rock shoes; that you should learn how to make rocky descents on a road bike, sharpening your handling skills that way, before getting fat tires; or that you should climb ice with soft boots and flexile crampons so you learn how to place tools in the right spots and hang from your bones before getting rigid boots and points.

While I am not a kayaker, I sort of doubt that kayakers develop skill and abilities by paddling a long, fiberglass boat with no flotation, no spray skirt, and no wet suit, to really be sure that they can read water and balance their boat and paddle the line before they let the creek boat, helmet, elbow pads, wet suit and all the rest substitute for skill. It’d be a good way to become skilled, but pretty frustrating.

I am continually amazed by how many people have more “HO”s about packrafts than they have time in the boats! The honest opinions about packrafts and self-bailing, about their durability, about their spray decks, about whitewater and big-water, what’s runnable and what’s a tube…. While pioneers are able to enjoy an exciting sense of discovery they also have to endure scorn and speculation.

But, you know, it’s worth it.

1 comment:

  1. Actually, the straps weigh exactly one pound and the patches to go on the boat and hold them 5 oz, so with glue likely to add 1 lb 8 oz to your boat.

    So let's say you go with stock Alpacka weights for a Llama in red (max 5 lbs 3 oz) with a current model spray deck (8 oz), then the total weight is going to be 7 lbs 3 oz, and under 7 pounds for a Yak in some other color.

    With extra velcro and a Brad-style cummerbund, some extra patches for a full-on guard rail around the boat for safe swimming, I'd guess that the boat is still going to be under eight pounds -- with a reinforced bottom and side tubes for protection against dry rock pops and bottom deck slices, it's still going to be under nine pounds, light enough to strap on the PFD for day trips.


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