Sunday, November 9, 2014

Aquarius Sea Lion kayak initial review

I'm really not interested in doing product reviews, since the web is already flooded with them. They are usually also of rather poor quality, since people use them to draw traffic to their websites, without having a long enough experience with the products being reviewed. Since this blog is maintained on a pure hobby basis, I have no need to resort to that trick and hence have only done the occasional first impression post. My new kayak, which is of a brand rather unknown outside Eastern Europe, has however generated some requests to review it, so I'm doing an initial review post about it.

During the late summer when I started planning my Wilderness and Nature Guide studies in more detail, I came to the conclusion that of the two long specializations available, the Sea Kayaking Guide specialization is the one for me. Becoming truly proficient in the needed skills needs a lot of training, and my Prijon Kodiak, however good it is, isn't optimal for those techniques. I started looking for British style kayaks, only to find out that there are rather few easily available alternatives for someone of my size (192 cm and close to 100 kg). My long legs tend to rule out most kayaks. I tested a Seabird Scott HV, which I liked a lot, even though it was a tad big for me. The MV version might have been suitable, but I never got around to testing it, and as I understood there were difficulties getting the manufacturer to actually deliver kayaks. I sat in a few other models, like the Valley Etain and P&H Cetus MV, but my long legs caused problems. Most kayaks are big enough inside the kayak, but the cockpit opening and especially the knee braces are not made for long legs. At Bear&Water, one of the two big kayaking shops in Finland, I happened to test sit an Aquarius Sea Lion, and it was a nice surprise. It fit me like a glove. The knee braces were at the right place close to the knees and there was plenty of room for my legs inside. The seat fit me perfectly and it was still not a big kayak, being 525 cm long and 52 cm wide. The cockpit opening could have been a little longer, but I can still get into the kayak with my bum first and legs later, with some difficulty. After some short deliberations, I bought one. The price was also very competitive.

The first short test paddle was rather interesting. The kayak felt a lot less stable than the Kodiak and I almost capsized when trying to take a picture in the breaking waves from the 10 m/s wind. I soon adapted, though, and it no longer feels tippy. I also removed the seat padding, lowering the center of gravity. The seat is still a higher from the bottom than on the Kodiak, 15 mm vs 7 mm, which certainly is noticeable.

The keyhole cockpit is just long enough for me. The knee wings are unnecessary big and I might consider making them a little smaller. The skeg control is on the left side as it should be.

The laminating work is good. Several thinner mats are used instead of fewer thick ones, yielding a light, but strong result that flexes a little on impact. The use of carbon and kevlar gives strength at a rather low weight. The kayak weighs 22 kg according to the manufacturer and it really is noticeably lighter than most other kayaks, something which isn't entirely unimportant when transporting it by car. The only thing immediately indicating cost savings are the foam bulk heads. Usually you have have laminated ones on a composite kayak, but I think it is an acceptable place to save costs.

There is a place for a compass. I'll mount one after the winter.

The Aquarius Sea Lion is rather good looking. With a total volume of 326 liters, it is probably as small volume a kayak as I can have, if I at least want some cargo capacity. The hull design follows the new British style with a rather flat mid section (shallow V) for initial stability and surfing.

The manouverability is great, as it should be on a British style kayak. Edging it and applying a bow rudder makes it turn 90 degrees in a rather short distance, something not possible with the Kodiak. The back deck is low, which makes rolling easier. I've only done a few rolls yet, since the water temperature at the time of writing is around 5C, which isn't that tempting. Rolling feels easy with it and it should be possible to roll using technique rather than power with it. A great kayak for playing with.
Coffee is an essential part of any outdoor discipline, including kayaking.

The speed feels quite ok, maybe a little faster than the Prijon Kodiak. I've always felt that the Kodiak is one of the fastest kayaks in group paddles with sea kayaks.

The deck rigging was a little lacking in the bow. I added a plastic ball to make it easier to set the paddle temporarily aside...

... as well as a means to attach a spare paddle.

It remains to be seen how easy it is to pack for a week in it. It definitely is lower volume than the Kodiak, with smaller hatches. The skeg box also robs the kayak of some cargo space. With four hatches, it should at least be easy to organize things. In addition to the main cargo hatches in the front and back, there is a good size day hatch behind the cockpit as well as a small space in front of the cockpit, good enough for a camera and some snacks. The Kajaksport hatches are a safe and waterproof choice.

The kayak has not yet seen any surf waves, so I can't say much about that. On paper it should be a good surfer, though, It also should handle hard weather well, though I haven't been out in harder wind than 10 m/s.

This far everything has seemed really great. The Aquarius Sea Lion certainly has the fun factor and I'm sure I will have lots of fun in it.

Now to the bad part. The kayak I bought should never have left the factory because of some quality issues. The cockpit leaked a lot and during the first two hour paddle against the waves I probably got around 5 liters of water in, which is way too much. It turned out that the bolts keeping the seat in place had no sealings, which let in a surprisingly large amount of water. Bear&Water reacted quickly and sent me rubber washers, which solved the problem. I still had a leak in the front cargo compartment, which I later noticed was where the front toggle line was attached. This was at a place I couldn't fix myself. I contacted Bear&Water again and we decided that I should return the kayak to them, so that they could see what to do with it. One and a half week later they called me that they had gone through the kayak and fixed the leakage, as well as another small problem. I again drove to Sibbo, east of Helsinki, to get the kayak and the next day took it for a paddle. The cargo spaces were now absolutely water tight and had been pressure tested at Bear&Water. 

Since this is just a single case, I don't think one should draw too many conclusions from it. The quality control certainly failed in this case, but it was probably an isolated incident. Buying the kayak from a reputed dealer should be safe, as no dealer can afford to sell a product demanding as much after-sales work as my kayak for long. Bear&Water certainly handled their part of it in an exemplary manner, compensating me for my driving the car with and without the kayak for almost 700 km.

I might do a more thorough review sometime next summer, when I've had some more months in it. Currently the kayaking season is nearing its end here. Even if the winter has not yet arrived, the amount of daylight starts to limit things.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Vigu First Aid Course

A week before the Mammoth March I participated in the four day Vigu Outdoor First Aid course, which gives the Red Cross First Aid 2 equivalent certification needed by Finnish law for providers of outdoor program services, e.g guiding.

The course started in Kimito at noon, giving me enough time to ride the 60 km distance from home and eat and take a shower before the start. With a temperature around freezing, this was the first ride of the fall that was cold enough to make my poor toes uncomfortably cold.

Starting with theory. The course was mostly based on the excellent Outward Bound Wilderness First Aid Handbook. Henri, who held the course assisted by Danni, is a first aid professional and a great guy that also does long trips in different parts of the world on his Salsa Fargo bike.

Benjamin, who earlier worked with the course, dropped in just in time to explain an error in the slides he had made.

The theory was mixed with exercises, like stabilizing the neck in this case.

The free time evenings were spent measuring blood pressure...

... and glucose level in the blood.

More theory...

... and more exercises.

Anna used the opportunity to train with the 2300 page Wilderness Medicine bible.

A poor hypothermic patient...

... is being evacuated.

Cleaning wounds. The patient is probably lost, though.

On the third evening it was time to learn how to use an hypodermic needle. This was not mandatory, but everyone wanted to do it. This procedure is only allowed by medical professionals in Finland, but it was an important exercise anyway. One of the most dangerous insects in Finland is actually the honey bee, which some people are extremely allergic too. An anafylactic reaction might occur, which is an acute life threatening situation. An injection of adrenaline (epinephrine) is the primary treatment, and this can easily be administered using an auto injector like an EpiPen. Trying a manual injection was a good way to overcome the treshold for doing this.

Anna injects a little NaCl solution into my shoulder.

Simo is a brave man.

On Sunday it was time for the grande finale. I fell victim to an ordinary chainsaw accident and lost lots of blood and soon after the rescuers arrived fell into a volume chock.

There were a bunch of other patients too, with smoke and lots of screaming to make the situation as chaotic as possible.

An additional twist was that the rescue team leader also collapsed,

Getting ready to be rescued. Note how pale I am from the loss of blood.

Going through the exercise afterwards.

The course ended on Sunday afternoon and I rode back home.

This was again an excellent course and it went a lot beyond the Red Cross Level 2 course I've taken before.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Mammoth March 2014

It was again time for the Mammoth March, in my opinion the best cycling event of the year. The idea is to navigate from checkpoint to checkpoint starting in the evening when it is already dark. There are several different distances and you can go either by bike or by foot. We naturally chose the longest bike distance with 25 checkpoints and 170 km (the theoretical best route for runners). Our group consisted of the usual gang, which was complemented by Tommi a year ago or so. Matti opted to run this year as well, and managed to get through the 100 km course. Hence our team, MTB-Turku All Night Long, consisted of me, Toni, Jarkko and Tommi.

This time the Mammoth March took place in the area around Nuuksio, a bit northwest of Helsinki. Part of it belongs to the Nuuksio National Park, which has restrictions imposed for cycling, something to take into account when orienteering.

The bike packed and ready. My Salsa Fargo is an optimal bike for these kinds of outings, as well as for a lot of other things.

I'm now using German quality Lupine lights. The Piko 4 is a really excellent light. It is very light, which is of significance when being used as a running light, and the light output of 1200 lm is certainly enough. The beam is narrow enough not to be a problem for others when riding on a road and an optional diffusor can be used to widen the beam when riding trails, but it really isn't necessary.

The Lupine Neo 2 is a new budget alternative from Lupine. With its 700 lm max effect with a tighter beam it is an excellent complement to the handle bar light. It is also very light and works well for running and other activities. In additions to these lights, I also had a Petzl Tikka+ around my neck illuminating the maps all the time, which worked very well.

We started at 20:30. The first checkpoint was easy to find, but I did make a small orienteering mistake, which cost us a few minutes. The next time I will mark the route on the map and not just rely on my memory of the planned route. Jarkko had learned to orientate since last year, and after him having adjusted to the speed of the bikes, we backed each other up quite well. Photo by Tommi Jansson.

Toni on the way to checkpoint 1. Photo by Antti Nousiainen.

The weather forecast had promised almost optimal weather: A few degrees below freezing and dry weather would have meant hard mud sections. We did however notice that it rained. At first we just considered it a glitch in the matrix, but when our clothes started to wet through and it became cold the rain could no longer be ignored. After some time it stopped and when the clothes were dryish again, the rain started. It finally stopped some time after midnight.

Checkpoint four offered a small puzzle. Measure exactly four liters of water, using a three liter and a five liter vessel. This was no match for Jarkko.

After that a rather muddy trail section followed. Jarkko tested if it was soft to fall on.

Tommi pushes through the mud. It was too slippery to ride on.

Toni has salted peanuts.

Checkpoint eight was in place not reachable by bike, so we left the bikes and hiked there. Me standing with Jarkko at checkpoint eight. Photo by Toni.

On the way to checkpoint nine, Toni was starting to have difficulties staying awake on the bike. It wasn't really a question of tiredness, but rather sleepiness.

Toni almost fell asleep everytime we had to stop to switch maps. Photo by Tommi Jansson.

After checkpoint ten in Veikkola we had a short break in a tunnel, eating sandwhiches and drinking coffee. I gave two of my four sandwhiches to Toni, since thought I had enough energy anyway.

We continued and after checkpoint 11 we arrived at the Nuuksio National Park. The four checkpoints in Nuuksio had us ride a wide path several times, because of the cycling restrictions. At this point Toni started to have real difficulties and didn't even speak clearly. After some deliberations we decided it was best and safest if Toni would quit. He had had a very tough week on the job with much too little sleep, so this was just too much and  falling asleep on the bike is never a good thing. We gave him directions to the Kattila trailhead and a firestarter to keep warm while waiting for the evacuation car. The rest of us continued to checkpoint 13, after which Toni called us to tell us that the evacuation telephone number was wrong. It took some time and calls, but we got the evacuation car ordered to the right place. This waiting made us really cold and we rode towards checkpoint 14 in a rather hard pace. On the way we decided to see if Toni was ok and had a fire going, since we were quite close to Kattila. Tommi got the fire started before we continued.

Checkpoint 14 demanded some hiking and checkpoint 15 was at the Kattila trailhead, where we saw Toni get into the evacuation car. The sun was now rising, and we soon could turn off the lights. My battery strategy had worked. I had a 6.6 Ah battery for the handlebar light, which I switched out to the 3.3 Ah spare battery about one hour before sunlight, when it gave the first low battery warning. The handlebar light was used at 450 lm, which was actually enough, but I think the batteries would have sufficed for the 650 lm mode. The helmet light had a small 2.2 Ah battery, but I only used the helmet light on downhills and tighter trails, always at 700 lm.

The next checkpoint had the mandatory swimming task, which was very easy this time, since it was at a nice sand beach and it was light outside. The water temperature was 5C, which isn't as shockinly cold to the body as 0C water is. Close to the beach was a fire with grilled sausages and coffee, which tasted great at this point.

Going to checkpoint 17 we had a good route planned, using a trail that was found on the map. The trail wasn't great and became worse. The dashed line mark on the maps for small trails seems quite unreliable. Some of the trails marked with that were really excellent, while others were nonexistent. This trail disappeared and we found ourselves doing some really hardcore bike-pushing.

Photo by Tommi Jansson.

The section north of Luukki was nice and easy, except for a really heavy uphill section, which we later found out was unnecessary. A new trail not on the map would have been easier and faster. Generally, the landscape around here was very different from our home in one sense: It was a constant up and down, and we started to feel the climbs in the legs.

Jarkko sends the checkpoint code by SMS.

Visual proof that we were at checkpoint 19. The checkpoint code was so well hidden that we couldn't find it. Others had similar problems.

Tommi has a chain. It is good to have a chain when you are riding a bike. It is even better to have an unbroken chain on your bike.

Jarkko is a good bike mechanic.

The route to checkpoint 23 looked good on the map and the beginning was quite ok, but it quickly deteriorated and we found ourselves pushing the bikes again.

Photo by Tommi Jansson.

While we hadn't made any bad orienteering mistakes, at most twenty minutes or so, the misjudged trails had cost us a lot of time. Our speed remained quite ok, even after 20 hours, and I felt like could continue for several hours still, provided I could get something to eat. My own food was already consumed and I had just enough energy to make it to the finish. I could already feel the taste of the hot mammoth tail soup in my mouth, when Tommi's rear tire said bang less than two kilometers from the finish.

The rear tire had for some uncomprehendable reason jumped of the rim. The cut probably came afterwards. The rim also took a hit and was not usable for anything else than getting to the finish.

It was temporally fixed by gorilla tape and zip ties.

The fix held to the finish line, but we were now really cold due to the break to fix the tire, low energy levels and a temperature that had sunk to -4C. We eventually finished at 20:30 hours or so and 215 km. Toni was there to photograph us. The text on the T-shirts says through-sufferer of the Mammoth March 2014.

This was a very memorable race. It was the longest one I've done measured in time, but it didn't feel bad at any point. There was really not much suffering on my part this time. I'm actually quite surprised how strong I felt, considering most of my outdoor activities since Midsummer have consisted of kayaking, which really doesn't prepare you for 20-hour cycling races. I think I could have continued for hours still, had I had something to eat. I didn't even have the usual bout of sleepiness, which I generally get around five o'clock in the morning during all-night rides. The team was great and we had a good spirit with lots of laughs through the entire night and day.

And finally, a lot of thanks to the arrangers. An event like this takes a lot of works from volunteers, with the money going to charity.

Check out Toni's report here.
Jarkko's report (in Finnish).