Iron Bottom Sound in a Canvas-Bottomed Kayak


Well, not really canvas, the kayak’s skin is hypalon, the rubberised material they make inflatable boats out of. But I did paddle in Iron Bottom Sound in the Solomon Islands, scene of some intense naval battles in WWII, and final resting place of the cruiser HMAS Canberra.

I had a long weekend in the capital Honiara last September, and was disappointed to find there were no kayak hire places around town. So, planning a couple of weeks’ holiday in December with a friend who’s posted there, I decided to B.Y.O.

Folbot in the US promised to build me a Cooper in time for my trip and, a couple of weeks after ordering, I picked up my new boat at the UPS warehouse at Mascot. Folders can be expensive, but Folbot works hard to keep costs down. Purchase price was US$1895 plus shipping and import charges. I needed a folding paddle too, so decided on a three-piece carbon fibre Greenland paddle, tough enough to travel inside the Cooper’s backpack and survive the experience.

I ordered the boat with the optional ‘Expedition’ package: this gave me a spray deck, rudder, extra padding on the keel longeron, and a comprehensive repair kit. The only things I needed to do were to run some perimeter deck-lines and improve the seat; the standard item is made from case-hardened steel, reverse-contoured to maximise pressure points. Kidding, but I needed an inflatable cushion for trips over an hour.

And I had to fix the rudder pedals. The rudder itself is one of those flip-up designs much envied by Mirage owners (as if…), but works well enough. The Folbot design lets you convert the static foot-braces into sliding pedals when you fit a rudder. But the big cockpit is hard to lock in to, and the absence of foot-braces becomes a big deal if you want to do anything requiring foot pressure. So I swapped the standard foot-braces for a pair with toe-pedals which would still fold flat to fit into the bag.

The Cooper weighs less than 18kg, but in its backpack with some extra padding, a groundsheet for clean assembly, repair kit, sea-sock, spray deck, paddle, PFD, bilge pump and paddle float, it became a hefty 29kg. The airline’s checked baggage allowance (flying Pacific Blue from Brisbane to Honiara) is 23kg. So to minimise excess baggage charges, everything else gets scrunched up in the carry-on bag, just look nonchalant as it is tossed up into the overhead lockers. What’s kayaking for if not developing upper body strength for such an occasion?

With that load on the back, it’s possible to totter around for several metres before falling over, so I used baggage trolleys whenever possible. And all the backpack straps unclip for air travel, so they don’t get torn off on the carousels. At least the backpack is voluminous enough to get all the gear inside, using spare clothes and bubble-wrap for padding.

And I guess I lucked out on this trip, because on each of my four flights the boat arrived in perfect condition among the first half-dozen bags off, and the airlines didn’t levy any excess baggage charges, although a second bag full of camping gear might have strained their goodwill.
So how did it go on the water? Beautifully. At just over five metres in length, with a 60cm beam, the Cooper has good carrying capacity and excellent stability. Speed suffers a little from the aspect ratio and the flexible hull, but measured by GPS I could cruise at over three knots and go slightly aerobic at over four, all with the skinny Greenland stick. Tracking was good, with very little weather-cocking – water pressure squeezes the hull in around the keel and two lower longerons, giving three full-length skegs – and the rudder worked well for trim in a crosswind. And I loved that Greenland paddle, seems the Splinter Group has a point! (Although I’ve since bought a four-piece European-style paddle that will also fit in the backpack. I’ll make that the spare).

My friend in Honiara lives beside the water in the Heritage Park Hotel, which has a little strip of coral beach out front for putting in. The hypalon skin dealt pretty well with the rocks and coral lumps, gaining just a few superficial scratches and a bit of wear on the bow from resting the boat on its nose while I climbed the fence. But assembling it in the tropical heat did become a bit of a trial. In the end, my friend took pity on me, and let me keep the kayak assembled in her lounge room. The only drawback was that her apartment is on the third floor. But carrying it upstairs was still easier than pulling the thing to bits every time it got wet.

Needing to be a good houseguest (and having promised not to be the subject of a SAR alert), I didn’t try any long offshore passages, just spent up to three hours a day paddling Iron Bottom Sound east and west of Honiara. Sea water temperature was 30 degrees, the water was crystal clear, and there were plenty of coral gardens and fish to enjoy as I glided along.

Guadalcanal is a tall volcanic-origin island, with intense green vegetation. Very easy on the eye, if a little short of pull-out places. Most of the beautiful beaches west of town are privately owned, and you’re expected to pay ‘kastom money’ – usually between 25-35 Solomon Islands dollars (around AUD3.50-5.00) to use them.

Weather in December was pretty good too. Around half the paddling days featured 15kt east to southeast trade winds, which were a bit of a slog into wind, but great fun downhill. It was the early part of the cyclone season, which normally means you can have light winds, or very strong ones! But most of the days were comfortable paddling: about a third of the time I had light and variable winds and blue skies, with thunderstorms in the afternoons.

Locals in their wooden canoes and banana boats took plenty of interest in the folder’s progress. I felt quite a novelty: was I the first folder-paddler since Paul Theroux was here doing his research for The Happy Isles of Oceania? If only I could write as well as he does.

During the visit, we did a weekend away to Nugu, a tiny rustic resort on Buena Vista Island in the Florida group. It’s a superb location, a 75-minute boat ride from Honiara, with plenty of surrounding islands within easy paddling distance, several of them uninhabited. Our hosts at Nugu reckoned they could map out several days paddling for us, and clear our trips with the nearby communities. Sadly we left the boat at home on this trip because two people into one kayak won’t go.
The resort itself was small and very basic, but idyllic. It was fully catered, with superb local meals (lots of fish, chicken, rice and sweet potato) taken at an open-air dining area right on the water’s edge. It had three palm-leaf huts, each able to sleep three (four, if two are consenting adults in the double bed), with two more huts under construction. Do folding kayaks look good enough to eat? The huts had verandas, spacious enough to store the boat to keep it out of reach of crabs and rodents that might fancy a taste.

The resort was cheap: SID$390 (AUD52) per person a night for all meals and accommodation (cheaper if sharing huts), and SID$450 (AUD60) each for the two-way boat trip. The very reasonable accommodation costs balance the $1000-or-so economy air fare from Sydney, making it an affordable kayaking holiday. Certainly when compared to the five-star experience at Uepi Resort in Marovo lagoon, another sea kayaking option in the Solomons.

The Uepi resort does have sea kayaks for hire, saving the cost of buying your folder. But as we all know, you can’t have too many kayaks! And I’m already starting to think about where to go for my next trip.