Sunday, August 28, 2005

Folbot – A Geek's Kayak


About 9 AM on a sunny weekend with tides running in the right direction, you can find us at a put-in point, assembling a complicated-looking apparatus covered in heavy canvas from two suitcase-sized bags. We start with a layout of gear, no piece of which weighs more than 10 pounds—most are in the single pound-range.

Fifteen minutes of organized flurry, and voila! A kayak!

A two-person Folbot® Greenland II kayak geared for ocean expeditions, to be precise. For weekend paddlers in relatively calm water, we're ridiculous "over-boated" with the expedition gear, but the dream is that someday, we will be ready to explore the open ocean.

This is our windfall kayak, purchased when we came into enough money to fulfill our dream of having a folding boat. One of the beauties of Folbot is their practice of selling direct to the consumer. The standard craft today in this two-person model is under $2500. With a discount for buying in July (offered every year), we got it with the $300 expedition add-on for substantially less.

Folbot Greenland II two-person kayak, Hosted by

Our Folbot doesn't look this clean anymore!

Commercial folding boats designed like the Inuit kayak have been around longer than hardshell sport kayaks, with a 100th anniversary coming up in 2006. The earliest models featured frames of wood and a skin of rubber-coated cotton canvas; present-day craft use aluminum, high-tensile plastics and waterproof rip-stop Dacron canvas with a synthetic rubber coating.

Kayaks are usually reviewed on five qualities: Stability, Handling (including speed), Durability, Portability, and Equipment Detail. For folding kayaks, an additional parameter must be considered: Ease of Assembly.

Ease of Assembly: Most folding kayaks take 15 to 20 minutes to assemble, with practice. Critical differences hinge on whether one needs to learn a specific sequence of assembly, with a scale of forgiveness that ranges from 1 (most parts can be assembled in any order, sequences that do exist are obvious to the beginner) to 5 (rigid sequence, deviation makes it impossible to complete assembly).

Assembly of a Folbot is a 2 on this scale. The frame is partially-assembled in two segments outside the skin, then shoe-horned into the skin and locked into place with the remaining frame members. Aluminum coaming strips slide onto the edge of the opening and lock onto the frame with T-bolts. Frame members are labeled to indicate which position they fit on the base of the frame, but it's easy to mistakenly rotate them all—in which case, the coaming doesn't fit.

Stability: The inclination of a kayak to tip over to the side (capsize or roll) is called primary stability. Hard-shell kayakers learn a technique called the Eskimo roll, which is designed to let the kayaker right the capsized craft with them in it. (Secondary stability, or tracking, which reflects the craft's inclination to turn away from a straight-line path in response to waves and wind, is usually discussed under Handling.)

For Folbot, forget your roll-over training. The broad beam and inflatable sponsons of this craft make it almost impossible to tip. But make sure you learn how to get back into the kayak from the water—the eerie stability of the craft may tempt you to try standing up in it. An additional benefit from this stability is ease in stepping down into the craft from a boat dock. (In deference to my spouse, I won't mention the possibility of relieving oneself off the side during a longer expedition.)

Folbot showroom with several boats, Hosted by

Skinless Folbot frame, photo courtesy Folbot

Handling: The length and sleek finish of modern folding kayaks allows them them be quite speedy. A greater primary stability and better tracking is often traded for ease of turning, particularly in the longer two-person craft. You also consider the response to broaching and following waves and wind.

With a 17-foot length, the Folbot Greenland II zips along, especially with both of us paddling steadily. The broad beam (34 inches) means we have to reach out to avoid knocking knuckles on the coaming. In quiet water, our Folbot tracks well, but chops or wind mean a battle to keep it straight—we routinely assemble the foot-rudder to the craft, and this corrects the boat's handling for straight-line paddling. It also assists us in turning. Without the rudder, turning is a chore best done by a single paddler, with the other sitting idle; with it, you both keep stroking, and let the rear paddler steer.

Durability: People who've only experienced hard-shell kayaks sometimes look askance at a canvas-and-frame folding boat. Surely that can't be as durable as a solid Fiberglass craft! An argument to the contrary is briefly stated in a Canoe & Kayak Magazine review of folding kayaks by Ralph Díaz:
Durability is sometimes raised as an issue with folding kayaks. After all, they have soft sides. But folding kayaks have proved themselves in expeditions for nearly a century. Some models are used by special-operations forces from at least a dozen nations. If they weren't up to combat demands, the military would not risk using them. The hulls hold up well to abuse. When they are damaged, folding kayaks are easier to repair in the field than hardshells.

In addition to this overall durability, the Folbot company prides itself on a lifetime warranty for their craft, and they mean it. If something breaks during normal use, they replace it. The most common replacement item Folbot owners purchase is a $3 T-bolt and nut-knob, but you can replace anything that breaks, up to and including the skin. Our boat came with a repair kit that includes a skin patch-kit and several other items for emergency repairs, but so far we've only used the spare T-bolt.

Portability: Folding kayaks have two modes of portability: assembled and disassembled. The most-portable craft are easy to carry from assembly-point to the water, and light enough to portage around too-shallow waters. An additional factor for a folder is whether you would want to back-pack or carry it disassembled for any distance, to allow kayaking in remote areas.

Disassembled and stored in the two included bags, the our Folbot weighs a total of 62 pounds dry. (I swear it weighs 100 pounds wet, but that's because my arms are generally tired from paddlng by the time we're ready to disassemble the craft.) One bag is large-suitcase sized, while the other is military-duffel sized. Each comes with a shoulder-strap as well as a hand-grip, but I wouldn't want to carry either for a long distance. On a scale of 1 (a child could carry it) to 5 (after 20 feet, you wish you had a fork-lift), the Folbot is a 3.

Assembled, the craft really takes both of us to lift and carry. On our scale above, it would be 4 for us, though some less-sensitive paddlers might rate it 3. I would be reluctant to shoulder this boat, as light as it is, for any distance—the aluminum coaming bites deep into the shoulder. On the occasions when we've been forced to portage, a jacket folded into a shoulder pad was needed to prevent bruising. Carried between us, with each of us gripping the coaming on one side, the boat is an awkward mass. You need to pick your lift-point so the craft is balanced, and the sharp under-edge of the coaming bites into the palm. What's needed is a trailer or a pair of carry-handles, neither of which is standard Folbot equipment. (We bought a folding trailer for this purpose, and bungee it to the forward deck while we paddle.)

Equipment Detail: The standard Greenland II kayak comes with two 260-cm folding paddles (they come apart into two pieces), repair kit, two float bladders, two carry bags, and several short bungee cords that serve to tie down equipment to the decks. Two sleeves of hull material protect the exposed keel points when they are folded into the bag. The expedition package includes a spray-skirt, a coaming-mounted nautical compass, a foot-rudder assembly, perimeter bungees that surround the cockpit, and a mount for an upwind sail rig.

The boat is comfortable even for my large body, and is designed to have enough room for expedition gear—or for an extra passenger (child, dog, slender friend) and a fully-loaded picnic basket.

In addition to Folbot, other manufacturers that have been around long enough to build a solid reputation are: Klepper (the original folding kayak builder, in Germany), Feathercraft, Nautiraid (a French company), Long Haul, and Pouch (the other German folding kayak). We have paddled Klepper and Feathercraft kayaks, and they handle in much the same way as our Folbot. The price for these craft is typically much higher for the same kind of equipment, however. With the ironclad lifetime guarantee for Folboat parts, the cost-per-value comparision wasn't hard to make.

The bottom line, after all these factors are considered, is fun. The simple, fast assembly and "Gee Whiz" factor of the Folbot make kayaking easy and inviting, and the handling is beautiful in water conditions from shallow, fast-flowing rivers, to deep quiet estuaries and reservoirs, to the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay.

Under the twilight sky, each year for three years now, we paddle out on the Fourth of July to lie near the fireworks barge in Richardson's Bay, just off Sausalito. Rocked by the waves, we pop the cork on a bottle or two of late-harvest Zin, pour a glass for each of us (and several for the many other kayakers around us), lie back and watch the fireworks burst above us. Our toast to independence has several layers of meaning.


Please join us at BlogCritics to comment on this review.


Blogger Brad said...

Thanks so much for this review. It's one of the most complete and balanced looks at the Folbot I've found online, and it reinforces that I'm making the right decision as I move towards getting one.

Happy paddling!

3/10/2006 1:52 PM  
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2/05/2009 5:55 PM  
Blogger samraat said...

4/03/2010 10:57 PM  
Blogger Linda Bennardo said...

Fast forward 2012: What a helpful review! Your geekdom shows a great pitch for what I now realize--thanks to you--is an awesome product. We are sold!

11/04/2012 7:31 PM  

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