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A canoe fit to fly with

Made of reinforced, heavy (1,000 denier), waterproof material, the Travel Canoe 16 (TC16) has mounts for up to three seats, and is the largest nonmotorized vessel in a Sea Eagle line that has evolved over more than 50 years to include a variety of inflatable boats for customers ranging from recreational users to serious adventurers mounting expeditions to remote areas.

Sea Eagle boats are generally highly rated by many online reviewers, and options in the extensive inflatable product line include kayaks designed for flat water and slow-flowing streams priced starting at $299, up to a rugged rescue boat that can be fitted with an outboard motor (up to 40 horsepower) and was listed on sale for $2,999 through July 31 for a package normally offered for $5,723 including pump, floor, paddles, and other accessories.

The Travel Canoe 16 lands in the middle, price-wise, with packages starting at $1,849 (on sale through July 31) that include seats, pumps, and a repair kit, which seems worth having on hand for any inflatable vessel, though this one scraped quite a few rocks with no apparent ill effects. A pair of nice, adjustable paddles will set you back another $198.

If your wallet will bear that, and if your airplane can accommodate about 75 pounds of gear including a 65-pound canoe that folds to the size of a large suitcase (about 40 inches by 24 inches by 16 inches), the TC16 is a stable vessel that fits in just about any courtesy car you’re likely to find waiting at an airport—which you will want, unless the airport is right on the water. (In theory, a floatplane pilot could hold the bow of the deflated canoe, roll the rest into the water, and inflate, but we did not have the equipment available to attempt this.) Sea Eagle asserts in its online marketing pitch that the TC16 is a third lighter than comparable vessels. 

The high-quality construction (this model is manufactured in Vietnam to Sea Eagle’s specification) becomes evident as the canoe is inflated. Each of the three chambers (floor and two sidewalls) is extensively dimpled, visible evidence of the drop stitch construction that allows the three air chambers to hold a shape other than purely round. Thousands of threads run between the walls of each chamber, and the heavyweight waterproofed fabric appears ready for abuse. Molded plastic adds shape and sharpness to the bow and stern, and the bottom also has additional reinforcement. While it makes the folded package a little less compact, the tradeoff for that is a faster canoe on the water.

The TC16 is not the only boat in the Sea Eagle lineup that features drop-stitch construction, and pilots of smaller aircraft might favor one of the company’s kayaks with a similar high-pressure (10 psi) hull design. Rated for Class IV whitewater (if you are up to that), the TC16 was inflated, with two seats installed, in about 10 minutes on the bank of the Battenkill River in southern Vermont, home to renowned outfitter Orvis, as suitable a location as any to test one of the latest products from the family business launched by Cecil Hoge. The family, also a producer of fishing lures (via Harrison-Hoge Industries), has built inflatable boats since 1968. They previously sold kayaks through Sears and Roebuck, L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, Eastern Mountain Sports, and others. Now run by the founder’s sons, John Hoge and Cecil Hoge Jr., the company has been working for about five years to get the attention of GA pilots, said John Hoge, a 25-year AOPA member, in a phone interview.

Hoge asserted when pitching this product that it paddles “just like a regular canoe,” and this proved true: I have owned canoes and kayaks for many years, and currently have a 14-foot fiberglass canoe with two seats that handles nicely, but it is, if any different at all, a little slower than the TC16. I also would not want to try the fiberglass canoe in Class IV rapids without adding airbags, and even then, it would not be self-bailing, and much more difficult to upright and reenter in case of upset. I’m also not in the habit of standing up in that rigid hull for very long, but the TC16 barely wobbled when I stood.

While I can’t speak to its whitewater handling, I expect it would be capable. The removable stern skeg (a small fin that helps the canoe track a straight line) is really only necessary for flat water, and the boat tracks well without it, turning quickly and easily (paddled solo) even when the current speeds up. I was able to paddle upstream (again, low flow) without much additional effort, even to the point of climbing one of those gentle rapids against the current—not something I typically attempt, but it illustrates how the hull, though long, is as “slippery” in the water as it is stable. And if you ever forget your keys on the beach, you’ll appreciate this capability.

All of which is to say that the TC16 is a lot of boat, though easier to carry around than many canoes of similar size. The key logistical challenge of paddling hard-shell boats on moving water is that you will typically want to have two vehicles with racks on each that can carry the boat—one to leave at the takeout, and the other to drive the boat to the launch site. Being able to deflate the canoe and stuff into a small car, with no roof rack required, solves half of that puzzle.

Hoge said in a June 30 conversation that the company is working hard to clear an almost unheard-of backlog for the TC16 and many other Sea Eagle boats. He said that the global supply chain disruption inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic has created “supply chaos” that has delayed shipments from the factory by months in some cases, and shipping availability remains scarce. “Containers are hard to find,” Hoge said. “Everything’s backed up.”

According to the company website, Travel Canoes are expected to resume arriving at the warehouse by August 16, though I might personally take a greater interest in the 35-pound RazorLite 393rl single-person kayak, expected to reach the warehouse September 2. It’s a lighter boat, about half the price of the canoe, and comes with a backpack. Not every stream in Vermont is near a road.

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