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Which Kayak: Advanced Elements Convertible or Innova Swing II?

Last summer, my brother and I have paddled for two weeks in Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island's West Coast. This was an opportunity to compare side by side two inflatable kayaks: the older version of Advanced Element­s Advanced Frame Convertible and Innova Swing II.

West Marine - branded Advanced Elements Advanced Frame Convertible (left) and Innova Swing II (right)

First, a bit of history. Advanced Elements Advanced Frame Convertible in its West Marine-branded incarnation has been my trusty companion through many solo ocean kayaking expeditions, each ranging from three to six weeks, in remote areas along British Columbia's Pacific Coast. You will find my photo diaries here. This kayak has many virtues but also a few vices, most a result of inevitable compromises required by its design, some covered in my findings after the first expedition, here. Overall, it is a tough kayak well suited for rough remote travel as long as large waves and strong winds can be avoided.

Ready for departure: Advanced Elements Advanced Frame Convertible on Vancouver Island's North Coast

However, every year, when packing for my typical multi-week expedition, I have found myself with five duffel bags and a carry-on, containing my kayak and kayaking equipment, and everything else including a full ration of food. This has been manageable if traveling by bus and ferry; however, flying or moving around with all this gear would have been prohibitively expensive. Over the years, I have started dreaming about alternative "light-weight" expeditions with only a duffel bag and a carry-on. A bare minimum amount of food, only for a few days: the rest I can buy on location or mail in advance. Scaled down photo gear and other equipment: essentially, a version of ultra-light backpacking, only in this case kayaking.

Going on an ultra-light trip with my Advanced Elements kayak is not an option. This kayak is heavy, close to 30kg, including the zip-on single deck and the Back Bone (an optional paddle-like bow-to-stern frame element providing rigidity and improving tracking), and packs into 1.5 duffel bags. And so, I had started looking for a light-weight alternative: something no more than 12kg, compact when packed yet with enough space inside for one person with an ultra-light camping set, a few weeks of food and at least 20 litres of fresh water. I needed a decked kayak that would stay dry inside in spray, mid-sized waves and rain. Nothing seemed to be available here in Canada, until in 2013 I had found Innova's Swing II: a recently released model.

Innova Swing II at a lunch stop in Clayoquot Sound while on a half-day exploration trip

At exactly 12kg and packing reasonably small, so far this two-person kayak was meeting my specifications. However, how it would stand up to the challenges of ocean kayaking? Would it survive barnacles, surf landings and departures? Would it stay on course in cross winds and waves with only one person inside? I was about to find out: my brother was coming for a two-week kayaking trip in Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island's west shore, starting and finishing in Tofino. With only one ocean-capable kayak in my possession, we had to either buy or rent the second one. Although renting a hard-shell in Tofino would have been cheaper than buying Swing II, this was an opportunity to test two different inflatable kayaks side by side and to hopefully keep them both for future paddles.

First, a few more words about these kayaks. Advanced Elements Convertible can be used either in two-person or one-person configuration. This is done by swapping zip-on decks. Unlike Advanced Elements Convertible, Innova Swing II comes in a two-seat configuration only: there are no zip-on decks to swap. Both boats have almost no storage space left inside when paddled by two persons, and have to be used as singles on long trips.

Advanced Elements Convertible has a removable inflatable floor, two donut-shaped inflatable tubes that are inserted into a zipped compartment attached with Velcro to the kayak's skin, providing rigidity, flotation and redundancy, as if one tube deflates, the other one still offers some flotation and can be pumped up to return the kayak back to the normal shape. There are also several smaller inflatable elements, and a couple of aluminum pieces that shape the wave-cutting bow and the stern. Spray skirts are fastened around inflatable coamings, providing a somewhat water-tight seal.

Swing II has a one-piece inflatable body with three air chambers, three aluminum arches for keeping the shape, and a removable skeg. Two spray skirts fasten with Velcro to “collars” sewn into the deck. Before the trip, I had done a fair amount of research on paddling solo in a double kayak. The primary concern was the off-centre positioning of a paddler, with the main challenge that the bow could be blown off course by winds and waves. I have also talked to Tim, one of Innova Kayak owners, who was very helpful with feedback and ideas. Overall, paddling Swing II solo did not look like a serious issue. Although the paddler would be positioned off-centre, the kayak itself was relatively short, around 4.5 metres. Weighting the bow down with something heavy seemed to be an answer. Testing at home had proven that this kayak only needed around five minutes to assemble and inflate with a foot pump. So far, only one little part was giving me worries: a slide-in skeg that supposed to stay inside its pocket without any positive lock. Indeed, based on the attachment design, it should not be able to fall out when paddling forward. However, if reversing it would be kept in just by friction, assisted by the pressure from the inflated bottom. According to various reports, the skeg was important for tracking, so removing it was not really an option. Well, one more reason to test this kayak in rough conditions!

A few weeks forward, and we were staying on shore in Tofino with all the bags piled up and a sunset only a few hours away. Several hours later, we were arriving to our first campsite: I was paddling Advanced Elements and my brother Swing II, and we were moving at about equal speed. By the time our kayaks were unloaded and the tent up, it was already almost dark.

Next morning had brought an unpleasant surprise: the skeg was missing! It was hard to say if it fell off in Tofino while we were loading the kayaks or at the campsite, while we were unloading and Swing II was shifting back and forth in shallow waters, with the skeg possibly in contact with bay's sandy bottom or seaweed. The fact was that there was no skeg, and testing this kayak without one would not have been fair. I had spent at least half an hour searching for it along the shore, unsuccessfully. Black in colour, it would have looked like a yet another rock or piece of dark seaweed blending into the environment. At the end, I had given up and attended to preparing our breakfast. My brother, who had likely felt responsible for losing the skeg since he paddled the kayak, took over and started combing the shore. Several times I had asked him to stop, but he was persistent. Finally, a success: he had located it entangled in seaweed and deposited on shore by the overnight surf! This was indeed like finding a needle in a haystack!

Needless to say, the departure had been delayed until the skeg was secured, and my brother had stepped in to do this job. First, he wrapped a yellow electrician tape over one side of the skeg foot to make it more visible if lost again and to increase the bulk and friction when inserted into the holding slot, making falling out more difficult.

Next step was tying up the skeg to the slot in the kayak with a piece of cord making it impossible to fall out. After this fix, the skeg had never given us troubles again.

The rest of the trip has gone with no more losses. We stayed in inner passages avoiding large waves of the outer coast except on one occasion, when we tried to get into the open but the already sizable and building up swell had persuaded us to turn back. Overall, the trip has given us a chance I was looking for, to compare these two kayaks side by side in the intended environment: ocean kayaking in relatively calm waters with occasional winds and moderate waves.

In general, these two kayaks are actually quite similar in many ways. They have comparable speed when paddled alone. The storage space inside is also similar. Tracking is not very different, if the Swing II's skeg is attached. Advanced Elements has a built-in skeg, As anticipated, paddling alone in Swing II sitting in the back seat had not posed any problems as long as the front part was loaded with heavy items.

My brother paddling in Swing II in Clayoquot Sound

There are also some noticeable differences. On the positive side for Innova Swing II, it is much faster to assemble and pump up: 5-10 minutes is a reasonable estimate, while Advanced Elements takes about twice as long; the additional time is needed primary to install the optional Backbone and the removable inflatable floor. Swing II is also much lighter, and so easier to carry. Drying Swing II after the trip was not as prolonged and complicated as Advanced Elements with its complex modular design that trapped some moisture inside.

Among the challenges, besides the issues with the skeg, Swing's skirt attachments are quite different and less functional. Advanced Elements has an inflatable coaming, and a bungee on the skirt fits over it reasonably tight. Not tight enough to withstand a crushing wave, but tight enough to keep splashes and rain out. In fact, the seal is so good that people perform Eskimo rolls in the smaller single model of this kayak. Swing II has a skirt attached to a collar-like coaming with several patches of Velcro. There is no seal; moreover, numerous holes between Velcro patches tend to open and expose kayak's interior to water. Another challenge is the front seat opening in Swing II. While Advanced Elements, with the one-person deck, has only one opening, Swing II comes with a built-in deck and if only one person paddles, the second opening needs to be covered from the elements. Our solution was to use the second skirt, tied up, as a cover. However, this skirt could be torn away by a sizable wave and, if this happened during a solo crossing, there would be no way to reach the front seat and reattach the skirt. The only option would be to keep paddling and pumping water out of the cockpit.

Another subjective observation, and this is purely subjective, as we fortunately have not had a chance to test this yet, is that Swing II's skin does not have the feeling of the same toughness and durability as that of Advanced Elements. With my Advanced Elements, I have been in some rough situations, including bruising by barnacles and sharp rocks, with scars on the skin telling the tale. I do not think that Swing II would have survived the same level of unintentional abuse. Even if the Advanced Elements' skin were to get cut/punctured all the way through, the air inside the air chambers/inflatable bottom was still one-two fabric layers away. The feeling of relative fragility of Swing II skin was so profound that we were taking all possible precautions avoiding any abrasive action against the bottom. Our typical surf landing looked like this. After selecting the least active area, I would land first and, leaving my Advanced Elements in the surf, to get pounded by waves and eventually deposited on shore, run to assist my brother who would get out of his Swing II before it touched the bottom. Then one of us would hold the kayak in water, while the other person would quickly unload dry bags. Afterwards, we would pick up the empty kayak and carry it on shore. Then we would attend to the Advanced Elements already washed ashore by the surf, sitting high and dry.

Apart from the skeg and skirt attachments, which I consider design issues, there is nothing wrong with Swing II. You get what you pay for, in this case in weight. A lighter kayak inevitably means more compromises, in this case manifested in a much thinner skin.

Primarily due to the “recreational” design of the spray skirt, and secondary to the thin skin of Swing II, in my view the two kayaks actually do not compete, but serve different needs. Going to a tough area for some expedition kayaking, where moderate waves, winds and rough grounds are expected? Advanced Elements is a good choice. Going for some recreational kayaking on calm rivers, lakes and in protected ocean bays? Need something much lighter and easier to handle and assemble? Swing II is a good option. If the manufacturer comes up with a better design for the spray skirt attachment, providing a reliable water-tight seal, I would be happy to recommend Swing II as an alternative to Advanced Elements in expedition environment, subject to being very gentle with the kayak skin and avoiding touching rough bottom, especially if loaded.

Finally, one may ask what I am going to do with my Swing II? Eventually, I will likely improve the skirt attachment and then upgrade this kayak to the “expedition-capable” category, with the above reservation about the more fragile skin. For now, I will be using it in calmer environments, whenever I would want to get away for a week or two, staying in protected areas.

Have I given up on the thin skin models of Innova kayaks? Not at all! In fact, I have done exactly the opposite. Recently, I got Innova Twist: a one-person day-paddling open kayak that weights only 7kg making it perfectly hikable, so I can use it on remote lakes, in quiet bays, even possibly challenging to an ultra-light overnight camping trip. Stay tuned for the Innova Twist test and stories!

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