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Bottom line, it appeared that the Yukatat and the AE kaykak were largely identical except for minor features. I chose the Yukatat, despite the criticisms here, because I frankly preferred the look and style -- it just looks nicer to me, more professional, etc.
I had some issues with the delivery -- the valve cover and a seat belt buckle were missing. However, Amazon refunded me $40 for the valve cover alone, and I'm going to try to get more cash for the buckle, which should make it a worthwhile trade-off overall. (I figure I can replace the buckle elsewhere or directly through Stearns.)
On the water (first time yesterday), I noticed the following things: First, my overall experience was pretty nice. It moves fairly slow in standing water, but I got this to float down moving rivers. Once I got to the river, I was surprised how quickly I was moving. Paddling, of course, increased the speed further. As long as I kept alternating sides, as normal in a kayak, I had no trouble keeping a fairly straight course. I also got decent glide for several yards after I stopped paddling, even on standing water. Left to its own devices, the kayak will pretty much drift aimlessly. Maybe a skeg would be helpful for this -- I do know my kayak has a shallow, 1-2 foot long fin in the front that may help produce some stability. However, compared to the tubes and rafts I've experienced in the past, this wasn't a big change. All I really needed to do to keep it straight was an occasional correctional paddle in either side, if I just wanted to drift.
I did notice that the natural tendency is to recline in the chair. However, I'm not sure if this is such a bad thing -- I liked being able to stretch my head back and relax on the stern when I wanted to. For those desiring a more constant upright posture, I would recommend creating some kind of harness that hooks up to the bow D-rings and provides further back support. Another option is to simply stuff clothes, towels, etc. behind the seat in a drybag of some sort. This greatly improves support while also providing storage. (While the storage area under the deck, behind the seat is not huge, is is large enough for a sleeping bag, and/or a few other items.) Again, though, personally, I liked being able to stretch back, and even put my feet on the front deck, and/or dangle my feet in the water, when I felt like taking a break. I could still paddle in this position if I wanted to, especially for steering.
I'm 6'1, 205 lbs, and with my feet in the kayak, they were fairly close together, but I could fully stretch them out with room to spare.
Bottom line, for me: I don't think there's a huge difference between this and the Advanced Elements (Airframe). The Airframe may have a small skeg that helps with tracking somewhat, but they otherwise appear essentially identical. I would recommend you therefore check out the Airframe Reviews, most of which will apply to this boat as well. I'm sure as a softshell, this lags the performance of a hardshell in some respects, and a purist may not be completely satisfied. However, I found this extremely comfortable, due to its inherently cushioned nature, and I definitely enjoyed my paddle. The ease of setup was very nice, and I was able to break it down in about two minutes when my ride back to the car was ready to go.
Let me note a couple things that others may find helpful. While the carry bag that comes with the kayak technically "fits", it requires a bit more effort to fold the boat down perfectly to that point. Also, the bag doesn't have a shoulder strap, so it's more unwieldy than necessary. Finally, the bag doesn't really breathe, which can be problematic with damp items. Here's what I did: I looked for a large "mesh/net sack" type bag that could more easily carry the deflated boat. I found a Boat Cover Holder from K-Mart for $5.00 that was 30 X 34 inches, and the boat fit almost completely into that. I then hooked up the shoulder strap from my suit bag to that bag (it has the adjustable clips on the end), and I had a carry bag that was easier to load, unload, and carry, while letting the vinyl further dry in the process. Dunham's online has a slightly larger (30X36) cover which I may eventually order. I also found a larger mesh/net ball holder at Dunham's which I'm going to try out. (I'm not sure if the netting's strong enough.) Basically, the larger the better, so you can cinch the end and hook up the shoulder carrier on a horizontal axis, distributing the weight better. Anyway, that's my suggestion for the board. Aside from that, I think this is a great first kayak for beginners, in terms of cost, comfort, and fun. You can always get more hard-core and purist with more experience, and I probably will as well. However, for now, I can see myself taking this kayak on all kinds of rivers all over the country. It seems very durable, and seems almost impossible to capsize. While I haven't had any other kayak experience yet, this definitely was easier and more fun to deal with than a canoe. (I also seemed to move more quickly than the canoes I encountered.)
I'm looking forward to taking this thing on a 2-3 day trip down some rivers, with my sleeping bag and tent strapped on the kayak. Seems a lot more fun and easy than hiking.
I also broke the zipper on the outer hull. Even though this was my own stupid fault trying to force the zipper closed, STEARNS replaced the whole kayak at no cost to me. That's why I'm rating this kayak as a 7 instead of a 5.
I strongly recommend buying the Advanced Elements Airfram if you are interested in this style of kayak. It is designed by the same people, but it has better valves and most importantly, it has a skeg!
I think I would have been happier with an inflatable sit-on-top.
I read through all the reviews for the AirFrame and they seem to match my experience with the Yukatat. Here are main differences I’ve noticed:
There is no spray skirt available for the Yukatat. The designer at Stearns said he has one made but the company chose not to put it on the market. I bought one that was made for the AirFrame and found it to be a perfect fit. I tried rolling over with it my pool, but the deck wasn’t rigid enough to keep it from coming undone.
You have to be careful when setting up the kayak. You may have to readjust the inflatable tubes a few times as you’re inflating it to make sure they are centered within the outer hull, otherwise the boat will keep turning to one side. It helps if you put the floor in last. Also, the valves don’t always line up with the access holes in the shell, making them hard to get at.
There were some complaints about the seat in the AirFrame sliding forward, and I had the same problem with the Yukatat. This problem was easily fixed by sewing a strap to each side of the seat to keep it at a 45 degree angle. I had some problems with the two buckles that clip the seat into the kayak; the strap would not stay adjusted to the length I wanted because it fit so loosely through the buckles. I was able to fix this by attaching some additional sliding buckles to the free ends or the straps to hold them in position. I also noticed that the aluminum frame inserts had sharp edges that needed filing down.
I bought a 240cm Bending Branches Whisper paddle. I’m 6’ tall and this is a perfect size. I wouldn’t go smaller than 230cm since the sides of the kayak limit how close your hands can get to the water.
Also, there is a misprint in almost every advertisement I’ve seen stating that the Yukatat is 12’4” long. The designer at Stearns verified the mistake and said the kayak was in fact only 10’4”.
Overall, I am happy with my purchase. The Kayak tracks very well despite not having a skeg, and it is very stable. I’ve bottomed out dozens of times on a shallow river and there were no signs of wear. Best of all, it fits in an elevator and I can store it in my closet.
If I had to choose over again, I’d probably buy the AirFrame instead just because it has been around longer and been through more testing and improvements. Feel free to contact me if anyone with an AirFrame lives in northeast Ohio and would like to go for a paddle to compare the two side by side.
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