Ordering a drop stitch inflatable kayak from China
Because that is where they are all made anyway
This is a rather long story of how I got my inflatable kayak. When I started looking I did not know much about them. After spending many hours considering my options I eventually decided to have one custom made. The only place in the world where they make these kind of kayaks is in China. The whole process took several months, during this time I learned a lot about the manufacturing process and the trade offs that come with it. There were language difficulties, delays, quality issues, dodgy money transfers, shipping problems, but eventually it paid off, but now there is a one of kind boat in my shed.
- Why buy a boat?
- Considerations for transportation
- Introducing drop stitch inflatables
- Zebec: the Korean parent company
- KXONE and AirKayak: European brands
- Differences between models
- Made in China
- Sold on the web
- Production begins
- A boat on a boat
- Picking up a boat by bicycle
- First trip
Why buy a boat?
After having rented canoes and kayaks dozens of times I finally decided the look into owning one myself after kayaking in Lake Pleasant (AZ) in November 2015. Renting a kayak is quite expensive, so you get it for the shortest duration you want, and then still have to worry about the time. Buying a kayak yourself allows you to go out on the water as often and for as long as you like without worrying about the time.
A few days later I was in a large outdoor store where they sold kayaks, and then it dawned on me, anybody can buy one, why not me? t that point I already had plans to move, and the new house happened to be in walking distance from some water. Why not take advantage of that?
A decent kayak can be had from a few hundred dollars/euros, and there are plenty of second hand offerings. A kayak requires very little maintenance, the biggest problems with owning one are storage and transportation if you don't live directly on the water. Most kayaks are big and heavy, if you need to travel to the water first weight and size become an important part of your considerations.
Considerations for transportation
For cars there are roof racks and trailers to transport kayaks, but even then lifting a heavy boat on top of a car can be troublesome. People like me, without a car, have to get a little more creative. There are trailers for bicycles (like the Dumb Stick above), but towing a full size kayak is only practical for short distances. What I wanted is something more flexible, a boat that you can take in the train as well. I first started looking at inflatables, they are light weight, pack down small, and some of them not too expensive (less than 500 dollars/euros). It also had to be a tandem, which means bigger and heavier, but still lighter than two solo boats.
The lightest inflatable boats (that are not in the pool toy category) are pack rafts that are meant to be carried in a backpack, but you can also bring your bicycle. Soon after looking into various models I realized that these pack rafts are very slow.
The problem with most inflatable kayaks (IK) is the lack of directional stability (tracking). When you paddle left, the kayak goes right, you paddle right the kayak goes left, but never really straight. Another issue is that they are flexible and deform. Bending takes energy, energy that was meant to go forward is wasted in bending the hull. This is all fine if you just need to cross a river or are going down a stream, but when you want to cover any distance on flat water you'll be just pushed around by the wind while wasting energy snaking around. This is why inflatables are often associated with pool toys, not serious boats.
Since I want to go places, I need to cover distance. What I want is a sea/touring kayak, which has a long stiff hull with a pointy tip that make it go faster with the same energy input. There are some inflatable kayaks that are long, stiff and pointy but they are also heavier and more expensive (700 euros/dollars).
I briefly looked into folding kayaks, they have the benefits of a full rigid kayak, but pack down into a small package. Unfortunately most of them are expensive (more than 3000 euros/dollars) and still heavy (25+ kilos). There is also the added drawback that putting it together and taking it apart is a job by itself. A build up time of "just" 45 minutes is not a convincing sales argument.
Introducing drop stitch inflatables
I was almost ready to settle for a heavier inflatable kayak when I found out about inflatables using drop stitch fabric. Drop stitch fabric adds thousands of threads to the inside of an inflatable chamber, preventing it from expanding beyond a certain size. Allowing for higher air pressure without putting additional stress on the air chamber. It allows for a much more rigid structure than regular inflatables with little increase in weight.
Interestingly the concept of high pressure inflatables with internal threads was originally developed for an inflatable airplane in the 1950s, but has not been further developed until recently.
At the moment drop stitch technology for inflatable watercraft is fairly new. It is used for inflatable stand up paddle boards, and some manufacturers of high end inflatable kayaks (like Advanced Elements) offer drop stitch floors which replace the original floor to create a more rigid hull.
At the moment all products with drop stitch air chambers are flat with rounded edges, but as the technology develops we could see more advanced designs with variable length threads.
Sea Eagle FastTrack
Sea Eagle sells the FastTrack kayak which comes with a drop stitch floor and an inflatable keel which makes it track very well for an inflatable kayak. Weighing just 14 kilos for the tandem model (385 centimeters) this was my model of choice.
It was pointed out to me that the 385FT was quite a cramped tandem model. If you want to fit two adults plus some stuff comfortably, the longer 465FT (465 centimeters) is a better choice. Weighing in at 17 kilos it is 80 centimeters longer and can fit up to three people, or two adults comfortably with gear.
Sea Eagle RazorLite
However, at 17.2 kilos there is also the 473RL (RazorLite) which weighs about the same but is significantly longer. With its long sleek hull with a sharp rigid keel on the front to cut through the water it will go even faster. What is unique about this kayak is that it is made out of three drop stitch air chambers, which makes it the worlds first kayak made entirely out of drop stitch material. This makes not only the floor, but also the sides much more rigid, meaning it deforms less, and it faster. The narrower sides create more internal space. This unique design makes the kayak look unlike any inflatable before.
After reading some experiences and watching pictures and videos I was now convinced that this was the boat for me: the speed of rigid kayak, the weight of an inflatable without the drawbacks of a folding kayak for the price of 1500 euros. Since winter had just started I was not in a rush yet to buy a kayak, so I decided to do some more research, look for reviews and alternatives.
- Sea Eagle 473RL at Inflatable Kayaks & Packrafts
- Review of Sea Eagle 473RL at vanscapes.net
- Review of Sea Eagle 373RL at Inflatable Kayak World
Zebec: the Korean parent company
Soon I found out that although Sea Eagle claims to have the world's first, they don't manufacture it themselves. Sea Eagle is just the name of a brand that operates from the United States, and sell inflatables produced by a Korean company called Zebec.
Zebec claims to be the largest manufacturer of inflatables in the world. Browsing through their catalog you will see many familiar designs in inflatable dinghies, kayaks, surf boards, water park items sold under different brand names around the world with customized colors and logos. Their catalog is available online, and shows pictures of all the products that Sea Eagle sells, some even with Sea Eagle's colors and logo, others with other logos.
KXONE and AirKayak: European brands
Zebec also has a whole page on their website listing all the innovations they helped develop for many well known brands. Through Zebec I found another company called KXONE, which has a contact person with an email address ending with @zebec.co.kr, indicating that it is somehow part of the same organization. KXONE branded inflatables are sold in Europe. Their website lists a Dutch, German and Spanish dealer. If you look carefully you will notice the KXONE logo on the Zpro kayaks in the previous chapters.
The differences in the KXONE models os most likely due to an annual refresh which slight changes to the color scheme and other minor alterations.
The Dutch dealer has a online store on Kajak.nl where it states that they are selling the KXONE products through a partnership with the German importer. The German website Kanu24.de sells the KXONE kayaks, and also sells another inflatable kayak with the same shape, but with an orange and blue color scheme under the name AirKayak AirTrek 485DS. The name AirKayak is owned by the same German company, and that this kayak is yet another rebranded version of the same kayak. It comes in two versions, the regular which weighs 23 kilos, and an ultra light version which weighs 17 kilos, which is again pretty much the same as the KXONE Slider and Sea Eagle RazorLite.
Differences between models
By now it is pretty clear that all of these kayaks are basically the same thing. The hull is the same with different colors with minor variations. For example the AirTrek and KXONE have a drain valve in the rear. The Sea Eagle has a set of self bailing drain valves in the bottom.
Different brands have different packages with paddles, seats, pump and carrying bag. The basic package seems pretty similar, and all prices are around 1500 euros/dollars. The accessories can be upgraded as part of packages, or on request. Dealers may offer different warranty conditions depending on consumer laws in their jurisdiction.
In February 2016 KXONE announced new versions of the Slider kayak, which the Dutch and German dealers listed on their website announcing it to be available in April while discounting previous year's models to 1300 euros. The new KXONE Sliders have some minor but noteworthy changes. The most noticeable is a different color scheme, rather than gray/white with blue accents the 2016 model has red accents.
Functionally there are a few changes too, there is the addition of some small luggage straps on the front and back, but judging from the pictures I doubt their usefulness they are, since they don't even seem big enough to hold down a paddle. Adding lash points with a bungee cord yourself could probably yield similar, or better results.
Other changes are the absence of the self draining valves in the rear. Reviews have pointed out that these don't work very well. They only work if the water level outside is lower than inside the boat, which is useful for white water rafts, or very heavy rain, but not so much on flat water on a nice day. Sea Eagle claim they should be used to drain the boat when out of the water. User reviews noted that then water is still is left behind on other parts, so you still need to flip over the boat to drain it.
Since the drain valves are gone, the air valves have been moved from the front to the back. A minor change, but an improvement in my opinion.
This is what two different reviewers on Paddling.net had to say about the drain valves on the Sea Eagle 393RL:
To experiment we opened the drain holes to see if it would self-drain, but it doesn't, lots of water came in real quick. We do not use the drains at all, flipping the kayak over is easier. There are a few little "cups" in the bow and stern that collect water also, putting a small cloth in there can get most of it out.
The two drain holes just forward of the skeg are specifically for clean-out, not for self-bailing, so they need to remain closed when on the water. They help when draining the boat after a trip, but water collects in the stern, under the dark blue aft deck.
Made in China
Looking around on the internet for more information about drop stitch inflatables I stumbled across the page of Weihang Hi Wobang Yacht Co. Ltd on Made-in-china.com and through there also found their page on Alibaba.com. This is a manufacturing company of inflatables in China. They were using pictures of the Sea Eagle RazorLite with the logo removed to showcase their drop stitch kayaks. Zebec's website has a page about it's CEO, where it is listed that he is also CEO of Weihang Hi Wobang Yacht Co. Ltd, and Weihai Woosung, which is the parent company of Zpro.
If you look on the map you will notice that Weihai, China is on the east coast, very close to Korea. It is more than likely that a large part of Zebec's products are produced here. On the pages there are various pictures from the factory floor showing the Kayaks during various stages of being made.
The drop stitch kayaks have the same color scheme as the Sea Eagle (blue on white) but without a logo. There are some minor differences, the valves are placed on the outside of the sides, and there are no self draining valves in the floor. It also comes with different seats and a foot pump instead of a hand pump. In the background you can see other types of inflatables that are produced at the same location.
Sold on the web
Since Alibaba.com is meant for businesses looking to source parts and products there are no prices, you have to contact the supplier and ask for a quotation. Since I already had an account I sent an inquiry, and quickly got a response. For 350 US Dollars for the tandem, and 315 USD for the single. If you buy more than five, the price gets lower. Transaction costs, shipping costs, import duty and sales tax double that amount to about 700 USD. For that money you get it shipped to your home, no warranty to speak of, with paddles, carrying bag, repair kit, seats and pump of unknown quality. On top of that there is the risk that the seller takes your money, and disappears.
The fact that a product is produced at the same facility is also no guarantee that the products are of the same quality. There are infinite ways to cut corners and to deliver a sub par product for a lower price.
On the other hand you get basically the same kayak for half the price, and the option to have it customized to your wishes. This intrigued me, because I did not like any of the color schemes on the boats for sale in Europe.
Whenever possible I try to make my outdoor gear match within a certain color scheme. I don't know when it started exactly, but at one point I realized that my tent, sleeping bags, backpack, and much of my clothing and shoes and bicycle were some shade of green, brown and black, but never camo. It makes choosing colors easier whenever you are faced with products that come in different colors. The drawback is that it's really annoying when your only choices are blue, red and orange.
Since the product pages were lacking in details I had quite some questions, which sent to the sales representative. Although the answers were in English, there were sometimes some problems with understanding them, as some of my questions were rather technical about the positions about different kinds of valves.
Using Photoshop I colorized a picture of the kayak badly with army green sides and a light green top. I also indicated exactly where I wanted the valves and drain hole, which I thought would have a greater chance of being interpreted correctly.
After having sent the picture with the colored sides I got an updated pro forma invoice stating that because of the labor and extra material cost the kayak would cost 30 USD more. Since material equals weight I inquired about how it would affect the weight. They are using 0.7 mm thick PVC that would be glued on, and would add four kilos to have both sides covered. By that time I was pretty excited about the idea of having my own custom colors, but imagining my future self having to carrying four useless kilos made me reconsider. Having just the outsides covered would add two kilos, but one of the main reasons I want this particular kayak because it is light.
The seller did mention that the extra material would reinforce the hull. This explains why the Sea Eagle Travel Canoe (TC) which does come in green weighs so much. It uses the same drop stitch technology, is almost the same length but at 27 kilos it weighs 10 kilos more. This is what Sea Eagle's catalog has to say about it:
Unbelievably tough because of double wall construction with extra fabric layers inside and out on all sides of the drop stitch material.
Besides the weight penalty I am also weary of how it will perform. Laminated materials can separate over time, especially if you are bending it by folding up the boat. Scratches in the material might show the white underneath. At the same time, you might end up with just a scratch, while it could have been a puncture without the extra layer.
Since I don't plan to use the kayak in wild water rapids and there are not many sharp rocks around here I don't think I need the extra strength. The kayak is made out of 1100 denier PVC which is 0.9 mm thick and seems to be plenty strong against punctures. Extra strength could be a selling point for those planning to use it in more hostile environments. It would maybe also last longer against UV exposure, but I don't plan on leaving it outside all year around.
Settling for just a green top, we agreed upon payment terms. 30% upfront paid by credit card, the remaining 70% paid before shipping, after having received pictures of the finished, inflated kayak. Being able to pay by credit card provides at least some insurance in case the product never arrives.
There were various methods for shipping available. Some can even delivered door to door within a week, but since it was still winter I was in no rush and opted for the slower methods which takes 25 to 35 days.
Originally I was told it would take about a week to produce a custom kayak. After a week I was told that this was a particularly busy time, and that it would take a bit longer. Since I was not in a rush this as no problem. About a week later I got a message that there was a problem. They had started working on the boat but the hull was not completely symmetrical and forgot to install the drain valve. They realized their mistake and stopped working on it. There were no D-rings or other attachments added. They offered to redo the boat at no additional cost, but it would take yet another week.
Although the boat would probably function perfectly fine I didn't like the thought of having to tell everyone why my boat was slightly crooked, and then give them the idea that they can't make a straight boat in China. So another week went by, and I received pictures of the finished boat. This time they were more confident and had finished it.
Total time for production: 3 weeks.
A boat on a boat
Now it was time to ship the kayak. Unfortunately my contact informed me that economy express shipping (110 USD) that we had agreed on was not available anymore. The dimensions of the package were too big. They should have checked before, they offered the much more expensive express shipping (220 USD).
This was quite a steep increase in the cost, in the mean time it turned out that you cannot make two payments on Alibaba.com with a credit card. This is totally not clear, the website just shows a vague error code when I tried to pay. The only available option was that I paid by bank transfer, where you have fraud no insurance. This raised a lot of red flags, there have been many people who transferred money to China and never received what they paid for.
At the same time I was getting more excited about the idea of getting the kayak early. Originally I had planned to get it around July, but the process of ordering a custom made one, made me more anxious to get it sooner, even though the weather was still not very good for kayaking.
At the other hand, going though the process of manufacturing a green tandem kayak to scam somebody seems overly elaborate. While I was considering my options, my Chinese contact sent me a message saying that they could add my shipment to another one that was going to The Netherlands as well for just 50 USD making the total 400 USD. The address he gave was somewhere in a suburban area halfway across the country. This seemed too far fetched to be a scam, so I agreed.
I transferred the money by bank and got the email address and phone number from the person where the shipment was going to. The email address was from a business that sells dinghies. I sent an email asking if they were aware of the addition to shipment. After not getting a reply for a week I called the number (the business had limited opening hours). The man who ran the business picked up the phone and seemed vaguely aware of the email, but had lost it in his spam-folder. He was quite talkative and told me a lot about doing business with the Chinese, and told me he visits there every year.
The shipment was already loaded onto the ship, but due to Chinese holidays had not left port yet. The ship was scheduled to make several stops at other ports in China and Europe, and was expected to arrive early May 2016, and then had to be unloaded and transported to his store.
With the kayak on the way I had begun ordering accessories, most importantly the Burley Travoy bicycle trailer with some ROK Straps which I would need to pick up the kayak.
The ship was a bit late, and took over a month to arrive. Once it had arrived at the Dutch importer I planned a trip there. There are not many remote areas in the Netherlands that are far away from a train station, but my boat was in one of them. We left on Friday morning, had to take two trains and cycle several hours to arrive there, during the last hour the shop was open. The shop was more like a garage box on an industrial area outside of town stacked with large boxes and a few display models set up.
When I introduced myself, the man, who I had spoken to before on the telephone was a bit confused; he wasn't expecting a cyclist. We opened up the box, and found the kayak with all the accessories in there.
The cost for handling and import duties was 50 euros, which is considerably cheaper than if it had been sent through a parcel delivery service. We stuffed everything in the carrying bag and I put the bicycle trailer together and strapped it on there. It was bulky, and heavy, but it fit. I had purchased the trailer for this moment, and was very relieved that it actually worked as intended.
|Remainder and shipping||€ 250.13|
|VAT and import duties||€ 50.00|
The first trip
After picking up the kayak we stayed overnight at a hotel next to some water where we could go kayaking. I had hoped to go in the evening, but we had arrived too late. I still inflated the kayak and left it inflated overnight to ensure there were no leaks.
Inflating the air chambers goes slow at first. Once there is air in them the pressure increases very quickly. Once you get to 0.5 bar / 7 psi it only takes a few strokes to get to 0.68 / 10 psi.
Putting in the seats and the footrests was quite easy. The tree piece paddles were a different story, they were very difficult to snap together, I damaged my thumbnail trying to press down the ferrule.
I had brought some rope with a floaty to tie the boat to the dock, which worked pretty well. We got in the boat relatively easily and headed for the lake. The first thing that was noticeable was how well the kayak tracked. It went straight, like it should. Steering required some pedaling, but it was still maneuverable enough to make a turn in the narrow canal without having to brake.
About a month ago we went on RTM Brio 395, a European made hard shell tandem recreational touring kayak that weighs 33 kilos and sells for 850 euros. We almost picked another boat, but we were told that one tracked very badly. The RTM Brio was apparently the better choice. Getting the boat to go in a straight line was extremely difficult. When not paddling exactly in sync our peddles would clash constantly because of limited hull length.
It was early in the morning, the sun was just breaking through the clouds and we were making good pace. We were planning to be out for an hour before breakfast. Quickly we arrived at an island in the lake. Then the wind started to pick up. It was pushing us along quite well. However, turning against it was a bit problematic. The wind was so strong that we could not paddle against it, the water got choppy, and we went backwards, and were pushed further away from our starting point. After hiding out behind the island we decided to head to the shore with the wind sideways and try and paddle back along the shore.
Several times wind would pick up and the water would get choppy and splash over the bow. This was quite an exhilarating experience with the boat rocking, sideways. Maybe a bit too exhilarating for a pre-breakfast activity. Slowly we made it back, going buoy by buoy.
We were quite relieved to get back in to the canal. Almost there I wanted to try to go a little faster. I heard my pedal make a clicking sound on the left side. Before I could react, the blade had slipped of, and was quickly sinking in the dark water. I tried grabbing it, but with the boat moving forward it slipped between my fingers and disappeared into the darkness.
With me paddling canoe style we limped back to the dock. Being out on the water for one hour our legs were already a bit stiff, which made getting out slightly more difficult. The hiking shoes were also not very comfortable for bending my legs.
Drying off the kayak was remarkably easy. Despite the unexpectedly rough conditions not much water had gotten in. I deflated the floor and took it out. Using the drain hole in the rear most of the water that had collected under the floor was easily removed. With a small towel I was able to wipe the entire boat. Despite the relatively cold weather the remaining droplets evaporated quickly once they were spread out.
After packing the boat up we checkout out from the hotel and loaded it on the trailer again. After a cycling around some more we eventually reached the train station and got on the train with our bicycles and boat to return home with the latest addition to our family.
Differences with Sea Eagle Razorlite 473 / KXONE Slider
The boat I received is very similar to the Sea Eagle Razorlite 473 and KXONE Slider, but not quite the same. I have not seen the Sea Eagle Razorlite 473 in real life, so I have to judge from pictures. The KXONE Slider I did see on display a shop, and noticed some differences.
The Sea Eagle and KXONE Slider have the floor permanently attached, on my boat it is separate part. It takes a little longer to put in the floor, but it is easier to fold the boat without it, and to get all the water out. In the shop I noticed that the floor of KXONE Slider is also longer, the ends are more tapered and cover a larger part of the boat.
The front and aft spray decks on the KXONE Slider are different, they seem to be shorter. The valves for th air chambers valves are placed in the rear, there are additional warning labels and inflation instructions. A sticker with the logo helps covers up the bulging on the other side of the valve. On my boat the the valves in the side panels are in the middle without logos, labels, warnings or instructions.
The bow and stern are also different. On my boat the tip and rear are made out of generic round plastic cones which are also used for dinghies and boat fenders. on The KXONE these plastic parts seem custom molded. The KXONE also has a drain hole with a screw which has a much nicer finish than mine, where the tip of the cone was simply sawn off.
On my boat the front tip of the boat is slightly skewed, only noticeable when you sit in front, and does not seem to affect the performance, a cosmetic issue as a result of the manual manufacturing process.
In my boat and the KXONE there are no drain valves in the floor, the Sea Eagle does have them. My footrest straps are not adjustable, they are practically useless because of this. This issue can probably be resolved by replacing the straps. The D-rings for the footrests are also placed higher than they should.
I measured my boat to be 473 centimeters long, tip to tip. The weight of hull and floor plus bag 16.6 kilos, slightly lighter than advertised weights of the other boats.
The KXONE one comes with a compressible bag, mine came with a zippered bag measuring 110 × 60 × 35 centimeters. I think I would prefer the compressible bag over what I currently have.
The paddles are 3 piece aluminum, black without markings with drip rings and asymmetrical blades. They weigh 1092, each piece is 78 centimeters long and in total they are 220 centimeters. They are very hard to put together and take apart.
My original goal was to get a tandem kayak that I could transport by bicycle and train that performs close to a rigid kayak, at the start of the summer. By ordering it from China I was hoping to save some money, and get a color I liked better.
The product that I received met all my original criteria, and I am very happy with it. For less than the price of a Sevylor Pointer K2 (575 euros) I did not quite get a Sea Eagle Razorlite 473 (1300 euros), but something very close, which seems like a good deal to me.