It comes in a backpack. But in a few minutes it converts to a seaworthy craft. The Folbot Cooper, a collapsible “skin-on-frame” kayak, has been around for a few years. This fall we gave it a test.
Fortunately for two lucky birds (see story below), the boat paddles smoothly, tracks well, and is maneuverable and sturdy.
I was trying the vessel out for my first time on Sloan’s Lake in Denver when I noticed two distressed birds. (I would later identify the waterfowl as western grebes.) I paddled near the striking birds to get a decent photograph and noticed that they were tangled together with fishing line.
Time to test out the boat. Time to rescue two birds!
But to back up. . . the Cooper is a unique packable boat. It uses a nifty system to tension its fabric shell with a large screw mechanism that expands the frame once the “skin” is in place.
This system was designed so the entire skeleton of the boat can be assembled before the skin is slid into place around the aluminum structure.
The boat is a quality product, but also very expensive — the Cooper costs about $1,700, which might sound outrageous but is on par with a very nice hard-side boat.
The market for this is someone who needs to travel with a kayak (it can be packed as luggage on a flight) or who wants a seaworthy boat that packs in the trunk of a car.
You can also carry it on your back. It is light weight for a full-size boat at 39 pounds. The company, which has been around for years, offers a lifetime warranty on its kayaks.
My test boat arrived in a nice backpack bag with good instructions. I put the boat together the first time, by myself, in less than a half-hour.
The Cooper’s hull is made of Elvaloy, a tough fabric like what’s used on whitewater rafts. Its upper deck area is a woven polyester.
At 16 foot, 6 inches, the Cooper carries a maximum payload of 275 pounds. Its zippered deck allows easy access to gear stowed forward and aft of the cockpit.
In its assembly I noticed that one of the foot pegs was placed backwards at the factory, and also one hole in the aluminum frame was about a quarter inch from where it should have been. Both problems were easy to fix but they reaffirmed my belief that any boat like this should be assembled at home or another accessible location before taken on a trip for the first time.
For my test, I put it together at home and then carried the boat on my head a few blocks to the lake near my house. I launched it from the shore.
My paddle across the lake was pleasant and easy. After an hour or so of paddling, I noticed the tangled birds.
While certainly slowed by their entanglement, the birds were still pretty quick, with the stronger of the two towing the other behind like a sea anchor.
Occasionally, it would have a full-blown freak out and try to dive, pulling the other down like a bobber. It was sad.
I paddled hard to round on the birds and found the Cooper to be maneuverable and stable. The soft-skin kayak had a bit less initial stability than traditional sea kayaks I have used but still felt plenty safe.
It took 15 minutes of hard paddling and a bit of strategizing to finally wrangle the pair of diving birds. They ignored my gentle pleas and cooing noises and struck at me with sharp beaks while squawking angrily.
The grebes were badly tangled. I broke the line off from the bottom and tied the loose end to the kayak and towed them slowly to shore.
There, three strangers who had been enjoying the fall day quickly offered to help with a pocketknife, blanket, gloves and nail clippers.
We soon had the two birds untangled. One had a deep gash in its leg where the line had dug in but still swam away strongly.
As I cruised back across the lake toward my takeout point, I paddled past the now free pair. They appeared none worse off for their misadventure.
Ducks and geese, migrating south for the winter, whistled overhead as the sun set over the Rocky Mountains. I felt the peace of floating on water and recognized the niche this boat fills — while most serious sea kayakers will opt to buy a traditional boat, the foldable kayak gives those with limited storage space or a need to travel with a packable vessel an easy way to enjoy the water.
The boat fits with no trouble in the trunk of a small car. With a little practice it takes about the same amount of time to assemble and disassemble as strapping a normal boat to a roof rack.
The Cooper is available from the manufacturer for $1,699. It’s a premium price but for a product that offers portability in a manageable size. Whether saving birds or paddling an ocean bay, the Cooper offers a one-of-a-kind paddling package.
—Sean McCoy is a contributing editor.