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Using our double-bladed kayak paddle as a hiking staff, spider-web sweeper, and snake stick, we skirted thick coastal lowlands in Florida to strike a brackish creek flowing with the outgoing tide into a shallow bay. Halting to get his bearings, our hiker leaned forward on the paddle shaft in human tripod mode, shrugging the weight of his 50-pound backpack and speeding blood flow to his arms for awaiting mosquitoes.
No white lab coats and clipboards here. When launching into the wild with an inflatable kayak, why let crash-test dummies have all the fun?
Our aim: Test the Innova Halibut, a rugged fishing kayak designed for angling and adventure in remote, hard-to-reach, pack-in, paddle-out locations. Our eye was focused on its “wilderness worthiness” for emergency response scenarios and how an inflatable craft compares to a conventional canoe or kayak.
After hiking in a ways after parking our Suburban 4×4, we found an unmarked opening in the mangrove shoreline that shimmered like an oasis. This put-in spot was rife with barnacle-encrusted mangrove tree roots, submerged oyster bars sharp as broken glass beneath the surface glare, and toothy creatures upstream and down.
Based in Burlington, Washington, the folks at Innova supply each boat with a patch kit — although we weren't looking to intentionally abuse the Halibut's extremely stout, handsome gray-on-green rubberized fabric (called Nitrilon, similar to that used on inflatable runabouts and yacht tenders). But at the same time, we wouldn't change our intended bug-out-by-water route for this review.
Each boat will last years with proper care, Innova says of its Czech-made boats. Touting the natural rubber-based elasticity of the boat material as preventing punctures, Innova advised that the material can absorb snags and snap back in place without tearing like lesser non-stretch poly materials. The Halibut was smooth to the touch and easily washed or wiped clean.
Setting aside our gear and rod, we dropped the roll-top Halibut pack. Opening the small set of instructions made us wonder why we didn't try it at home first. Unrolling the 12-foot-3-inch kayak immediately struck us as a somewhat more daunting task than simply shoving a canoe through the mangrove roots after a traditional Southeast portage.
We needed to lay out, organize, orient, partially inflate, and assemble the inflatable seat, not to mention set up the tracking fin and floorboards for standing. There was also the orientation of deck fittings; we secured two evenly spaced fore and aft deck boards for attaching a rod holder or optional navigational electronics.
Though we didn't keep count, setup took longer than we expected. However, with a little pre-rigging, a practiced paddler with a pump could probably knock this out in 20 minutes. Something to consider if you plan to use this as a bug-out ‘yak.
The open cockpit kayak hull consisted of three inflatable air chambers, reinforced by chemically bonded, vulcanized seams. Air chamber No. 1 was a ribbed series of parallel tubes forming the deck. Air chambers two and three were the port and starboard kayak sides. Each air chamber inflated via a pop-up, spring-loaded locking air valve located inboard and close within the stern. When locked down, the air valves were capped flush with the inner surface of the kayak, preventing accidental loss of pressure or snagging while underway.
The boat featured a stern drainage opening for when you take on a little water or following a downpour. One separate removable, inflatable folding kayak seat was supplied with back support straps and rod holder tubes nicely fitted behind the paddler.
The inflatable seat supported our butt and was surprisingly comfortable and high riding, thanks to a cross plank beneath the seat securely fastened to the port and starboard grommets by thumb-screwed fasteners. The cross plank suspended high enough above the kayak deck that we were able to stow our Pelican camera case beneath the seat bottom, with room fore or aft for the author's favorite Watershed dry storage bags.
The paddler's heels rested on the floorboards or decking planks, preventing abrasion of the kayak's rubberized deck surface when wearing sandy dive booties. We attached a cross plank well forward of the paddler, providing a decent foot brace for each stroke.
Maneuverability: Pivot maneuverability in tight quarters was a blast, from 180 to 360.
Even with the modest profile-tracking fin, she spun easily with forward and reverse sweep strokes, stopping and reversing just as quickly. Side-to-side draw strokes moved the boat easily.
Capacity: The 441-pound carrying capacity easily accommodated our 200-pound paddler, rivaling the capacity of similar size rigid hull kayaks. Naturally, extra weight will slow the boat.
Stability: Initial and secondary stability checks from the seated position felt safe and fairly predictable once firmly inflated. Even with winds gusting above 25 knots, the boat wasn't tender and felt steady. Standing on the decking to route-scout or sight cast required care in the winds.
Seaworthiness: The roar of pounding surf tempted us to half drag, half carry the kayak over a sand dune to the Gulf of Mexico. We obliged. The inflatable hung tough, though.
Showing no worse-for-wear signs, the ‘yak had no loss of air pressure before we retreated into the protective mangroves to fish during the last light of day. With the upswept bow, the inflatable appeared capable of modest river currents for a hike-in, paddle-out trip. Still, our tidal currents didn't remotely extend to Deliverance-level conditions.
Pros: Workmanship, quality materials, and a capable cockpit layout combine to inspire confidence in remote locations. Testing under rough conditions reveals a surprisingly resilient, capable, and buoyant vessel with excellent detail. When properly set up and fully inflated, the boat carries a solid load, with emphasis on trimming load and seat position for paddler weight and load distribution.
Cons: Our main complaint is the lack of a padded hip belt for bearing the load of this 50-pound package. A weight transfer to the hips could save some shoulder and spine stress and aid in paddling ability when under way, or allow for another 25 pounds of required secondary gear, including paddles, a pump, and some camp gear. If one can carry the kayak pack and another tote pack with supplies, a two-person team could make good use of this kayak for waterside camping or survival.
Overall: In an emergency situation, and allowing for inflation and setup time, the Halibut would serve any solo survivalist with kayaking experience when transportation and space storage requirements make it the best, or only, choice.
Make & Model
13 feet, 3 inches
28 by 28 by 12 inches
David H. Martin — a Southwest Florida-based fishing guide and NRA training counselor — first appeared in RECOIL OFFGRID's Fall 2014 issue with a feature on using kayaks as bug-out transportation. He has since written about a range of water-related topics, from flooding and hurricane cover stories to a high-water military surplus vehicle and a two-wheel-drive floating motorcycle. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.