This entry describes early experience with an Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Expedition inflatable kayak. At 65, and only moderately mobile/active, I'm hardly the "model" kayaker. Or even the model AdvancedFrame Expedition kayaker. So I offer this with the hope my experience will encourage other older folks to expand their enjoyment of nature from this different perspective.
Since March of this year I've been learning to kayak in a wide and very stable Sea Eagle 330. It's been a great boat. Very forgiving. Durable. And fun. Ideal for learning. A great take-along on camping trips near ponds and lakes throughout South Carolina. But after a couple of months of paddling, those trips began to stretch from two, to five, to eight or nine miles. And to several hours each. As nice as the Sea Eagle has been, it simply isn't the sort of boat designed for those longer trips.
So, I scoured the Internet for additional information, and found a number of options. They included several very attractive offerings in the $950-$1,600 price range. Well, that's just too much money for a soon-to-retire country school teacher to justify. In addition, some of the most attractive folding models appeared to take longer to assemble and disassemble than I could afford. And also appeared to require more attention and care than I might be competent to provide. Several of them were very attractive boats. But all were beyond my economic and technological reach.
The Advanced Elements AF Expedition seemed to be the ideal compromise. Judging from the on-line information available. It was a combination foldable/inflatable. With a simple, reliable design. It was considerably longer and sleeker than the Sea Eagle 330. With a spray deck that could even accommodate a spray skirt for late fall and winter paddling. It was an inflatable that seemed to represent a logical step up. So I ordered one from Campmor and a healthy discount. It arrived week before last.
The Expedition arrived via UPS in one large cardboard box. Our friendly UPS driver brought it to the back door, and then offered to bring it inside for us. Point being, this is not a puny boat! It's considerably heavier than the tandem Sea Eagle 330. Though certainly lighter than many, if not most, hard-shell kayaks. I brought the box into the living room and immediately unpacked everything. Assembly was simple. Just follow the printed instructions. To learn more about the construction of the kayak, this first time I took everything apart before the first inflation. Though I left the two inflation chambers in their canvas tubes since they didn't appear to be crooked. I looked over every inch of the boat, with special attention to seams and zippers. The quality of materials and construction is impressive. I didn't expect this much at such a modest purchase price. It really is well constructed. And I liked the simplicity of the design. Keep in mind, my experience with kayaks is very limited. And textile engineering isn't my field. This is just the initial impression of a particularly fussy consumer. But this particularly fussy consumer was impressed!
The initial installation took me 45 minutes, including disassembly and inflation of all chambers. I immediately deflated and did it again. The second time it took 14 minutes to unfold, align the floor properly in the pre-assembled kayak, and to inflate all tubes. Given the Expedition's greater complexity, I was surprised by how little time it takes to assemble it, compared to the Sea Eagle. I then deflated the boat, folded it up as prescribed in the instructions and returned it to its sturdy canvas carrying case.
A word about carrying cases. The Sea Eagle 330 came with a very sturdy canvas carrying bag. But it was impossible for me to carry comfortably. The canvas bag for Advanced Elements Expedition proved even nicer than the Sea Eagle's. Sturdy canvas; sturdy zippers; solidly attached carrying handles; and plenty of room for the boat and paddling accessories. It was some improvement over the Sea Eagle duffel bag-type design. But not by much. It too, at least for me, was cumbersome to carry for any distance.
So, I abandoned the Advanced Elements Expedition carrying case and put the Expedition in a folding case sold as an accessory by Sea Eagle. It is a simple design. An oblong piece of sturdy canvas with squares cut out of each corner, and straps and d-rings positioned to make it possible to lay the folded kayak and accessories in the center of the canvas, fold the longer ends of the canvas over the kayak and accessories, tighten the two straps provided, and then fold the remaining sides up over the whole thing, cinching it all down with three straps. The long carrying straps make it possible to throw the packed boat and accessories up over a shoulder and carry it along quite comfortably. Well, comfortably for a while, at least. According to our house scales, the boat and accessories all packaged weighs in at 63 pounds. Much heavier than the Sea Eagle. But made manageable by one person by the Sea Eagle special carrying case. Perhaps Advanced Elements will offer their own fold-over-and-strap-up case in the future.
The next day I took the Expedition to a small lake at a nearby state park for its first paddle. I was concerned about getting in and out of the Expedition given the cockpit size. The open-deck Sea Eagle had been no problem. This was a different matter. Well, the closed deck and cockpit did make entry and exit more difficult. I didn't attempt a totally dry entry from the shore. Rather, I waded the boat out into water deep enough to float it and entered the cockpit one leg at a time. The first attempt was challenging. I managed it without tipping over. [As I had with the Sea Eagle's first attempt.] But the second and third attempts were much easier. As everyone on the newsgroup said they would be.
The Advanced Elements seat with the inflatable lumbar support proved far more comfortable than I expected. The straps that connect the back to the side chambers must be adjusted to their proper length. And the footrest must be positioned properly for maximum comfort. But once adjusted it's a comfortable ride.
One surprise was the benefits derived from a closer fit in the cockpit. I'd read about this but didn't understand it. The closer fit between hips and boat make it easier to control the kayak, and, I believe, make it a more stable ride. So, I would encourage other older kayaker wannabes to try paddling an Expedition before deciding they need the more comfortable-looking Lazy Boy recliner-type large inflatable seats in an open-deck kayak like the Sea Eagles.
That brings up another point of importance to novice kayakers and kayaker wannabes. Stability. Just how easy is it to keep these boats upright in the water. Even though we wear proper paddling clothing and effective PFDs, most of us prefer to stay relatively dry when we paddle. Prefer to stay inside the boat rather than execute a paddle float-assisted wet entry in the middle of a lake. I certainly do, anyway.
I found the wide-beamed Sea Eagle 330 very stable, even encouraging. It took some serious effort to turn it over, in fact. And it handled moderate swells and waves very comfortably. Now, I'm not qualified to make a professional assessment of the relative stability of the Expedition and Sea Eagle. But the Expedition seems to me after a dozen or so paddles to be at least as stable as the Sea Eagle. I've yet to purposely turn the Expedition over. But that seems to require some effort. It's not a "tippy" boat in other words. Not at all. And the tighter fit of the boat at the seat makes it more responsive to corrective movements. Also, I've yet to paddle it in anything but moderate swells, with a 15-20 knot gusting wind. I'll try to report on both experiences once accomplished.
I was delighted with the performance of the Expedition when I finally got to paddle it across the small lake in our nearby state park. It's more responsive to the paddle. Easier to get up to speed. Glides nicely. Tracks nicely. And, according to my trusty GPS, cruises comfortably at between 30 to 35 percent faster than the Sea Eagle 330 with a similar level of paddling effort. Again, keep in mind I'm only beginning to learn about kayaks and to learn to paddle properly. So my assessment should be taken with a grain of salt. This Expedition certainly is faster, though. Moving along comfortably at around 3.5 knots when propelled by even an amateur paddler. It also takes more time and effort to turn than the Sea Eagle 330. Which in some environments might be a disadvantage. But not for my sort of paddling.
In sum, based on the preliminary experience described above, I would encourage Kayaker Wannabes to test paddle an AdvancedFrame Expedition kayak. Especially those who, like me, are well over the age at which most folks discover kayaking. And who may have limited physical mobility and/or economy-size body weight. It's feasible. It's safe. And it's a lot of fun!