Friday, December 11, 2009

Pimping my ride.

This packrafting thing is eating me alive.
I'm paddling when I should be skiing -- and in a pool, no less, -- buying expensive, new stuff, like a 3 oz Tenkara fly-fishing rod to fit inside a 2 lb Sawyer packrafting paddle, and an airplane ticket to New Zealand. But most importantly I am modifying my boat, working on a Llama to make it the best wilderness whitewater boat in the world.
Now that I have rolled a packraft multiple times (more than a dozen!), and at about 50% success (albeit in a pool,) I wanna do it again and again. It's a fantastic feeling to be upside down and then roll on up, and "plop"! Super satisfying. It's like I have fallen in love with my boat all over again.
Last night four of us rolled over and over again in the APU pool.
Dmitry even rolled on his off-side, Luc rolled six times in a row, I rolled with a 5 pound load strapped between my knees, which, of course, Dmitry was able to do with strapped on his bow. Awesome!
By the way, Luc used Alpacka tie-downs for his thigh straps to save weight (1/4 oz vs. 1 0z) and money ($5 vs $15), but one ripped in half and off the boat last week! Word is they are only good to 300 lbs of force. He's back to the heavy D-ring wide diameter patches the rest of us have.
The Llama I am setting up for a month in New Zealand is a center opening, mid-oughts model (2006? My red boat is a 2005), pre-zipper, pre-backrest, pre-codpiece. Of course, it has thigh straps in the locations proven to work with a roll. The foot end of the thigh strap is near the floor, nine inches from the center bow seam, and the rear attachment is just above the valve, 33 inches away, remarkably similar to the inseam length of the Levi's I wear as I write this, which, as I am 49 years old, do not sag.
These thigh straps weigh a pound stock, so I took a tool to them and clipped off the big plastic buckles and trimmed off the 2-inch webbing, but left the loops that once held the plastic buckles and sliders. To attach the thigh straps I used shortish (like 12 inch) friction buckle accessory straps, 3/4 inch wide. Much lighter, and much more versatile than sewn on 2-inch. The thigh straps now weigh 11 oz. But they lack the quick release mechanism.
Next I set the seat free by cutting the stitches, then sewed the rear tab on the seat to the forward tab on the boat, conveniently moving the seat forward to just below the rear thigh strap attachment.
So what benefits does this give me? First it centers me in the boat making the bandersnatch less likely and allowing me to use a shorter paddle (197 cm, Werner Powerhouse, 37.8 oz, 4 piece), as I now sit forward and paddle over the narrowest part of the boat. The old placement of my seat put me paddling over the WIDEST part of the boat. This way I lighten the rear end of the boat, balancing the boat better, allowing use of a shorter paddle, and opening up gear storage space in back. It should reduce bandersnatching -- I checked this on Six Mile's 2nd and 3rd Canyons a month or so ago with my red boat and it's certainly true -- a centered seat equals a more balanced boat.
Ask anyone about Alpacka design issues and most mention that the Alpacka is too "back-heavy".
There are three typical responses to this design flaw:
(1) "Put weight on/in the bow." I think this is a a sub-optimal solution in whitewater. I need a light boat that responds quickly to my paddle strokes, so I eschew weight in general.
(2) "Make a bigger butt, or better yet, just make an inflatable kayak." I, for one, like the design of rounded bow and stern as the boat spins and turns more quickly and makes for a more novel craft. Besides, I can't afford a new boat.
(3) "Sit forward." Now, that's a solution I can agree with. Check out most other single-person boats and vehicles and see where the driver is located -- in the center.
The problem with the current Alpacka design is that the seat is so far back and glued in, that scooting forward sets up the bum for a bang on the bottom -- OUCH!
But in a standard, stock boat, sliding the seat forward means nothing to push against for the back, so there is no means of wedging yourself into the boat. Wedging into the boat is why Alpacka insists that you get the smallest boat that'll fit. But I find smaller boats are less stable than bigger boats. Still, "swimming" around inside a big boat gives poor control. That's where thigh straps come in.
So now that I am anchored in a big boat and don't need to shove my feet against the bow and my butt against the stern I can center the seat. To extend my legs, I slide off the thigh straps by extending my legs and let my feet go to the bow. Sweet!
So "What about a backrest?" you ask, loving that second toilet seat of your late-oughts model boat. You could either buy a "Fjord Explorer" seat, glue some 2 inch velcro on the boat and seat to keep it behind you as a new, removable backrest, and/or purchase one or two 15 liter P.O.E. WxTex dry bags and fill them with something soft, like your sleeping bag and sleep clothes, then glue in a single "strap plate" to secure the vertically oriented dry bag (glue the plate on the inside center of the rear-most seam).
Two strap plates on the floor of the boat, between the now bent knees held in position by thigh straps also allows a second 15 L POE WXTex dry bag that holding a tent and other camping gear/food to be secured near the center of gravity. The idea is that I am moving my gear off the bow and into the boat. There's still the opportunity for a bow load, but it is a bit smaller and by getting all the gear situated closer to the center of gravity, I can roll a loaded packraft. In the pool I tested this with five pounds and rolled it easily.
I doubt many are still reading such technical esoterica, but very soon I'll sew an additional two inches of velcro on the center opening of the deck making it more water tight. I will also have fixed the chronic Alpacka design flaw of sewing a draw string end to the outside edge of the waist velcro by using a second stitch. More importantly, abstracting the important design feature of the Meiklejohn commerbund, there'll soon be a bigger velcro closure on the top of the deck waist/belly-opening.
Finally, I will install a pair of pockets, one to either side of the waist/belly-opening at the top of the spray skirt. These will hold an air-filled 2 Liter Platypus. These Platypusses act as a water dam, obviating the need for a codpiece and keeping the easier wet (and dry for that matter) entry of a center opening boat.
Alpacka Rafts are now in a new stage of aftermarket design: aftermarket modifications now taking place with groups of individuals experimenting and learning from each other, as Thai Verzone, Hig Higman, Tracey Harmon, and I did last Saturday at Alaska Raft and Kayak (pic above).


  1. Always super psyched to hear about the evolution of the packrafts Roman. I ordered my thigh straps last week and should be out in the pool by next weekend!
    In regards to the glue that ya'll used, I'm wondering if its caustic nature weakens the boat fabric at all where it is used. That glue is pretty nasty stuff. Any thoughts?

  2. Also, I'd be interested to see pictures of the newly outfitted boat that you describe above for your New Zealand trip.

  3. Being a fairly tall (190 cm) owner of a Llama I'm interested where your feet go when you move the seat forward? My feet are stuck steadliy against the bow as it is... More pictures please :-)

  4. Nate, We used Stabond adhesive, two coats on each surface, dry to a knuckle touch (finger tips have oils that soil the patch). The glue doesn't seem to "eat" the fabric, but I only washed the boat fabric twice with MEK, altough the D-Ring patches I washed 6 times to fully etch it and prep it for gluing. MEK (methyl ethyl ketone) is a strong solvent used to clean/prep/etch the urethane coating to accept the glue.

    The bottoms of the Alpacka rafts are glued to the tubes as well, so it's OK to do -- Alpacka does it but you'd have to ask "Shaggy" on the Alpacka Forum what kind of glue Alpacka uses.... Be careful with he MEK -- do not brush on too much MEK at once as it will run down the tubes. Acetone or even alcohol are likely Ok to use but my understanding is that because they are not as strong solvent-wise, they don't etch as well.

    I will get more photos as the boat reaches completion.

  5. Staffan,

    You are lucky that your feet push against the bow. Are your knees bent, or locked? I can push my feet against the Yak steadily, and I still have to move my seat with the thigh straps, just not as far as in the Llama.

    I am only about 182 cm tall, so with the thigh straps in where I put them in the Llama, my feet no longer touch the bow. This is true in the Yak as well because I am using the straps to anchor myself rather than the bow and stern tube.

  6. Roman,

    Wondering if taking that quick release buckle off the thigh strap was a wise idea? That might save your life if you leg becomes entrapped upon a wet exit. Highly unlikley, but if the boat actually popped & instantly deflated around you there is a very good chance your leg will still be inside that strap. Just wondering if it is really worth the extra few ounces to compromise the safety release? Stoked to see you folks rolling:^)

  7. Yea Tim, I used lighter weight buckle (quick release: QR) and it was not strong enough -- broke under the force of rolling.

    You are so right about having some way of getting free should need be.

    Bottom strap/sliding buckle's way too big and no biggy to clip out -- but the idea was to replace the upper snap with something a bit smaller but still QR. Still looking.

    Yes, rolling again on Wed at 5:30 .... I am psyched to go to NZ and work on my roll in a river.

  8. I really liked the idea of storing the fishing rod inside the Sawyer packrafting paddle.

    A couple of questions:
    1. You don't plan to have the rod inside the paddle while paddling, do you?

    2. If not, how do plan to store the rod on the boat.

    3. How long is that segment of the Sawyer paddle?

    4. Did you get the SOLD OUT rod from backpacking light ?

    When do you go to NZ?
    Have a great trip !

  9. Moski,

    1) Yes! i plan to keep the rod in the paddle while paddling. I keep the sticks for the blow up bag in there now, so I like the spot for storage, as it keeps my boat safe from poky things and fragile things protected.

    2) Do you see a downside to putting the rod in there? It fits nicely.

    3) The segments I use are the two that fit inside each other: the skinniest one that's 45.5 cm and the biggest one that has the friction clamp: 56 cm.

    4) I pre-ordered my rod from BPlight as I figured they'd go super fast.

    I'm headed to NZ Jan 5. I'm going to have to avoid the big brown trout who'll break that little rod by fishing little streams or maybe swimming with the rod in my dry suit?

  10. Wednesday @ 5:30? I'll swing by & watch you folks. Jule wants to try some hardshell rolls to warm up & then try the Alpacka.

  11. 1)Great, i really like the idea!

    2)No, not really.
    But how do keep the stuff in there, go from end to end while paddling?
    Guess you could put two stoppers in, by some foam or something.

    3)Plenty room then, length wise.

    4)Damn, i know it! (happy for you).
    I will have to go for a originally one, the IWANA i think.

    Jan 5 , is very soon.
    Have a great time and take care of that rare/expensive rod :)

  12. Neat to see the mods and going mostly along with them.
    However, I think the deeper reason "Alpacka insists that you get the smallest boat that'll fit", lays in the issue of the "frame idea". See copy from Alpacka below. In this sense an intented feature, not a design flaw,

    I personally go along with the idea of moving the seat forward (as I did myself, we must not forget to do it reasonably. There is limit to center the seat/weight in the boat.

    I am sure everybody noticed the work and stroke in the low pressurized boat in heavier white water - an appreciated the ability to work against it by lateral body tension.

    "your body forms the structural frame of a low-pressure packraft. In a single-person boat, that creates a very desirable situation of an adaptive frame - the equivalent of dune buggy with big tires and an active suspension system, capable of enduring abuse and negotiating serious obstacles. As we stretch out a packraft, however, there's some tendency for the boat to buckle in the center, since it's not highly pressurized."


  13. I'd absolutely love to see Alpacka make a seat that is concave where the butt sits, that way you won't slide forward in the boat w/ thigh straps. Whitewater kayak seats have this design and it works very well to hold the paddler in the boat firmly. I intend to play around with some ideas, but the inflatable seat is very important. A solid seat made of foam would not have enough give & would cause the floor to rip at some point. What to do...hmmmm....

  14. Word is that Alpacka's listening to these discussions....keep them going!

  15. As for the seat issue: try out the standard horseshoe/backrest combo vice versa: sit on the backrest und lean on the partly deflated seat or double seat and backrest on top (one of my favorit for bikerafting or low class whitewater)

    The backrest has a shape of slight "uphill" down you butt, very comfy and stabe sitting.

    I also have good exp. with the "rippled" explorer seat.

    One more side comment: As much as I love the mods and enhanceings, the same I like the Scout as a contrast development. All the straps, plates, positionings etc bring us further in development of a good technical whitewater boat. The simple and reliable trailboat as packrafts originate from is another thing.

  16. Esben,

    Good tips about the seats and the seat/backrest reversal -- thanks for those!

    Absolutely spot-on about packrafts abstracted to their barest minimum being the essence of a trail or pack boat.

    I spent 20 years in a boat like the Scout -- no skirt, no seat, no mods. I used it for trips with upwards of four bicycles and four people for crossing rivers like the Colorado in Utah, the Nabesna, and the Delta in Alaska. My wife and I floated many Alaskan rivers in it with nothing but rain gear and backpacks. I consider "bare bones boating" the basis of my experience.

    That's why I am so excited about these whitewater boats. They do not replace the packraft concept at all -- they merely extend it to where it has never really gone before.

  17. Esben: is this you doing the roll?

    And if so, how did you do your thigh straps?

  18. Yes Roman, that is me, at least partly. There is a another guy with a decent roll. I am the only packrafter in my region. Anyway, in latest pool session I had a decent success rate. I knew how to eskimo a kayak before, so I was familiar with the trajectory. Concerning the thigh strap placement a little history first. My first packraft was an undecked Dory in early 2008. Coming from a kayaking back round, I immediately used the oar frame plates for thigh straps - but they proofed inefficient. Lacking a community here, I used the Dory further on primary as a double and so abandoned from the thigh strap idea. However, the plain Dory is still of my love for purity reasons stated above. My Llama came in spring 2009 and I put thigh straps likewise Tims location - but they failed on for glueing reasons. My Yak came in fall 2009 and I had Alpacka placed plates - but they proofed inappropriated placed (one above my thigh, one below my lower leg) - resulting in a true bondage of my thigh - ok in the pool, no option in the river, alternatively a lousy loop around the knee. We rolled in both configurations, however. I find thigh strap placement Tim likewise my preference, BUT there is a benefit of a third location directly to the knee making the shape of the straps a triangle, resulting in a stroke much more responsive to the whole body of the boat as well as the force distributing over the fabric (avoiding a leverage stress). I tested this idea with a third strap AROUND the bottom of the boat - very promising. I ‘ll try to cut a video from latest pool session in the near future. Also to address another issue: compare Tim's combat roll to the rolls in the pool session above. See the bow going high up for with the novices? I think this is a habit and result of quick learning (technically leaning way back to lengthen force) - and a potential issue in a real river. Imagine moving water (relative to the boat movement) getting on the stern while rolling - resulting in a potential "bandersnatch" and back flip. It is relatively easy to get up – a clean, plain rotation (proper hip bend, limit leaning back) is another thing. Something I have to work on myself too, as well as doing the glueing job over christmas(I have a promising glued ordered).

  19. It is so funny to see that this thigh strap & rolling gig has blown up exponentially around the world within a couple of months. Really cool to see so many people inspired to push new limits & inventing modifications of their own. I've entertained the idea of spinning the seat around, or even just seating on both the back support & the bottom seat (perhaps duct taping them together), but I have the old style seat, so that's not an option as there is no real backrest, just a small inflatable tube at the skirts lining. I'm planning on doing some home-made seat rotomolding to fix this problem & also bring the seat about 2 inches higher for a more natural paddling leverage position.

    You're right about bandersnatching immediately after rolling Esben. The most unstable position in whitewater is leaning all the way back (no matter what you're paddling), and upon coming up from a roll a good hole or wave could easily toss these litte rafts right over backwards again. Keeping as forward or neutral as possible will help prevent this, as well as protect your face, shoulders, and core much more effectively.
    After going to a few pool sessions, I feel it is really easy to roll these boats up with bad form (whereas a hardshell you almost have to have good form or you're not coming up), but with good form & practice you should be able to keep your body in a more forward/neutral position. I feel it's important to have your feet solidly planted into the front tubes of the boat, so that you can push downward & forward on your non-rolling side to lever the boat over & keep the bow down. Yep.

    Tim Johnson

  20. Just so I understand what you two experts are saying: it's not the leaning back aspect, per se -- as in all videos I have watched of both Esben and Timmy J, as well as the rest of us hacks, there is significant leaning back as the boat comes upright fully.

    The one thing that Timmy and Esben both seem to accomplish is that their bow is in closer contact to the water, yes? We neophytes will have to work on that.....thanks for pointing it out.

  21. I think we are all doing one of these types rolls, "Twist and Slice and Roll"
    where you come out leaning back.

    and what you two, Tim and Esben, would like to do is one of these, "C to C or hip snap roll" where the body ends up leaning forward:

  22. I'm still doing a sweep roll in my video, as a C to C roll is difficult because you can't get your hand on the bottom of your packraft. You can still do a sweep roll, but instead of leaning completely back with your head at the end you just snap it forward into a less vunerable position. This has 2 advantages:
    1) It allows you to better protect your face/shoulders/body 2) It helps keep the bow of your boat down so a wave or hole doesn't flip you immediately back over after rolling. As soon as the shoulder is good I'll try to make a few more rolling videos with the different techniques.

    Tim Johnson


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