Thursday, October 22, 2009

09 Observations on Gear and Technique

One of the great things about packrafting is you can feel like an explorer -- and not just on landscape crossings or the steep creeks and big rivers claimed unsuitable for packrafts -- but by exploring gear and technique. Many people enjoy tinkering and experimenting with their boat and their gear. Just look at the assortment of pack attachments on packrafts!

After our round the world trip where we used a single packraft for wilderness trips in five different countries, I came back to Alaska with a new focus on running Class IV creeks and remote rivers. Fortunately, an assortment of skilled and athletic enthusiasts invited/joined me. These are creative, observant and intelligent adventurers with lots of water and wilderness experience. Watching them and tinkering myself left me with a few observations at the end of the 09 boating season:

  1. Many whitewater boaters favor bigger boats (i.e. Llama sized) for their stability and have found the main disadvantage of long inside length is fixable by putting in a space filler under the deck in the bow. For example, on the Happy River Thai put all his camping gear “under the hood”, so to speak, so he could push against it with his feet. Thai is not tall but he does weigh 190 and so likes the stability of the Llama but his legs don’t reach the bow. With the weight and the space-filler up front, Thai found his big boat not just more stable, but also very maneuverable. Brad, who is tall but for a time crammed himself into a Yak, has gone so far as to take a box-wine bladder, blow it up and put it into a dry bag, itself velcroed under the hood at his feet. He feels locked in and no longer must shove himself up all the time after bigger drops. Nathan Shoutis of Media Feliz fame also fills the foot area of his Llama with a dry bag full of stuff. What we really need is a more centered seat, preferably adjustable. Then you could feel like you’re sitting in a Yak but have the stability of a Llama. What would go behind you? More air in a bigger back rest, perhaps? Bottom Line: sure, a Llama is too long, but shove some stuff in the feet for a stable and snug-fitting boat.
  2. The spray deck of 08 was great a qualitative improvement with its inflatable codpiece. Speaking from experience (I paddled for maybe four years with center entry Velcro and always had the driest boat – the air dam around the waist on my old skirt was great, but the codpiece is better) it’s not the center-entry Velcro of earlier boats that allows water in so much as it is the waist fit and the small width Velcro. Small width Velcro also wears out much too fast and peels open at the waist far too easily. Brad put in snaps to hold his closed waist closed. I am not as skilled at gear modification, so I sewed 3 inches of Velcro along the opening and this stays shut and keeps water out. But the stingy stock Velcro on the boats is a design flaw. If my experience with zippers on jackets, gaiters, pants, tents, packs and everything else is any indication of zipper weakness, then having a zipper on the spray deck indicates weakness, too. Why doesn’t Alpacka listen to Brad M’s suggestions? If Alpacka is listening to somebody who paddles more than Brad does, I’d like to meet them! Bottom Line: for a drier boat, sew on more Velcro – 3 inches wide from opening to stern.
  3. As an advocate for the “packraft roll” -- that is, falling out of your boat, up-righting it while swimming and reentering the boat -- for several years now, I must say that I have more trouble getting into the side-entry boat with the codpiece than I did with my old center-entry boat with an air dam. Three inches of side-entry Velcro is sticky and holds the deck shut, especially with the codpiece preventing the boater’s butt from seating on re-entry. In contrast, a center-opening three-inch Velcro deck with an air dam was far easier to get into as the Velcro (also three inches) was much less likely to re-stick unless done so manually. Bottom Line: boats need to be made more safe by making entry easier, maybe with a center entry.
  4. Over a three week period my poor boat got damaged three times: the rear skirt was ripped off, I dropped a tripod on a tube, and I bumped a dry granite shard. Over the season I saw two other punctures and a floor rip on other people's boats. Everything but the floor rip and one of the punctures was repaired with duct tape. I ran waterfalls and remote Class IV and made a week-long trip with these “temporary repairs” and never had a leak. Take-home message: Duct tape around the paddle 3-4 times and a piece of dry cotton in your kit to dry off the wounded area is all you need in the field for 90% of damage.
  5. We had several trips where weight was hypercritical, both because of weight limits for fly-in trips and because a totally unloaded boat responds a better in Class IV+ (‘cause I’m not as good a boater as I’d like to be and any weight makes my boat response a bit more sluggish). So I took to packrafting without a pack. I simply strap my folded boat (I’ll post a video on this easiest, fastest and most compact way to prepare a boat for carrying) onto the back of my foam PFD (unlikely you could do it with an inflatable one). TIP: try carrying your packraft strapped to your PFD back and leave the pack at home.
  6. Thai is a real proponent of abstracting gear. He likes to “use his dry suit as a dry bag" to keep gear dry inside it. Me too. Unfortunatley my vintage 1996 Kokatat Dry suit isn’t so dry, so rain pants and rain gear inside the dry-suit keep me warm dry and happy. I also like to overdress in my drysuit as I seem to swim more than everyone else, but somehow don’t need gloves, even when it’s close to freezing. Tip: dry-suit sorta slithy? Try wearing rain gear inside it. Your butt and elbows will stay drier and you’ll be warmer.
  7. JT Lindholm has a short, fat, and four-piece paddle that I desire. While a long paddle is still better for long days on flatter water and for beginners, the high tempo and aggressive “man-hands” of something like a Werner Sho-gun or Player shows itself useful on steep creeks and waterfalls. A four-piece -- not because I like to break it down all the way, ‘cause I am fine with two pieces (I seem to lose one when they’re in quarters), but because I have taken the little sticks out of the blow-up bag and put them in the "paddle-to-blade space", the compartment where the blade meets the shaft. Then I can paddle without poky sticks anywhere dangerous. On the topic of paddles, the wooden Sawyer is tough and Brad uses it on his bigger water fly-in trips, and it's adjustable, so would be great for the float-a-river-paddle-its-steep-creek-trib trips too, as he proved on our Happy River journey.
  8. As for technique: Thai Verzone has taught me a lot about creeking, how to work with a partner and "swing leads" down a series of drops. And I’d like to paddle stroke like Paul Schauer. What this means is I need a shorter paddle and to go with him when he’s in a packraft. He’s positively beautiful to watch. Finally, Tim Johnson in a packraft was good to watch as he put kayak body English into his hucking moves. If you can get a Class V kayaker in a packraft, go creeking with them. They'll learn that packrafts are fun and you'll learn a bunch of new boating skills.
  9. The Kokatat Orbit PFD I bought has hampered my ability to self-rescue, as has any PFD with pockets I stuff with food, camera, tow ropes and other do-dads. The bulk hampers my re-entry, so I have gone to a simple and cheap and super light LTI Livery PFD. Much easier to get in as long as I don't fill my clothes pockets with food and gear inside my drysuit!

I don't really expect anyone reading this to follow my advice. Just looking at how people continue to strap gear on their boats and roll them for packing and all the other things they do is enough to tell me that my ways certainly don't appeal to others, but I thought I'd write all this down here now, so that when next season comes around, I'll look back and see what I learned this year.

'Cause this year was the best year yet for packrafting.

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