I have been a fan of Mark Ekhart and his Long Haul Folding Kayaks since first buying a boat from him many years ago. When he told me, around a year ago, that he was working on a new lightweight boat- his third design- I of course couldn’t wait to my hands on one to test. But this had to wait until the design was finalized and a production sample was ready, in late summer of 2006. As you’ll see, the wait was well worth it.
On unpacking the pieces, I thought, this can’t be all there is! The entire package weighs about 45 pounds, and there don’t seem to be nearly as many pieces as in the Mark-I or Mark II. This is due in part to the smaller size of the Ute, but also to Mark’s clever integration of multiple parts into a combined assembly.
Assembly of the Ute is similar to that of other wooden-framed kayaks, in that two frame halves are inserted in the skin and levered apart. The Ute has one significant difference: Only the front half of the frame is hinged, so the entire boat is lifted to lever the two halves apart. Given the very light weight of the boat, this is simple enough, as you can see in the photo below- that’s my 110lb paddling partner easily doing that part of the assembly:
All assembly tasks are similarly easy. There’s no forcing or straining to get parts in place. I did this boat the very first time in around 25 minutes, and I expect I could shave off quite a bit of time with practice.
The assembled boat looks a lot like a smaller Mark-I at first, but a closer look reveals that this is a very different boat in design. The hull profile is very different, and the entry is, I think, a bit finer as well. The important question, of course, is how does it paddle?
The Ute was a very snug fit for my 6’2″ 230lb frame- snug enough that I quickly decided this wasn’t the boat for me. But then, it wasn’t designed for someone my size. Mark told me that part of the genesis of the design was comments from the 120lb paddlers at a boat show who were too light to put the Mark-I on its design waterline. For someone like me, the Mark-I is an ideal boat, but smaller paddlers don’t need that much volume. For them, the Mark-I tends to want to float on its side, rather than even on the keel. They need a smaller, lighter, boat, and that’s just what the Ute is. Not that it can’t handle loads- Long Haul lists the capacity of the boat as 260lbs; think of that as a 160lb paddler and 100lbs of food and gear.
Of course I had brought along my #1 paddling partner, and for her the Ute was about as perfect a boat as you might imagine. At first she thought it was “tippy”, but all her previous paddling experience had been in plastic recreational boats, my Klepper double, and my Folbot Aleut. In a very short time she got used to the more dynamic stability of the Ute (as opposed to the rock-like stability of the flat bottomed boats she’d been paddling) she was struck by the speed of the Ute. “It’s so fast!” she exclaimed. “I just give it a little push, and off it goes!” By the end of the day, she was sold- this was her favorite boat, period. Paddlers of narrow, high performance boats might not be as impressed, but anyone who has spent time in one of the comparatively beamy Folbot, Klepper, or Nautiraid compact singles can’t help but be delighted by the speed and ease of paddling the Ute.
We paddled together for most of an afternoon, exploring parts of the Huron River system, and at one point helping in the rescue of a pair of novice canoe renters who’d gotten in over their heads. My paddling partner, who usually wants to stop and get out of the boat after an hour or so, didn’t feel any discomfort at all. She thought the seats were the most comfortable of any boat she’d tried yet.
While there are a lot of compact folding kayaks on the market right now, I don’t think any of them can match the Long Haul for the combination of light weight, performance and ruggedness. This is a boat that’s as light as the lightest Folbots, yet as rugged as the Long Haul and Klepper boats used by various Special Forces units. That’s quite a combination. While I would particularly recommend the Ute for the smaller paddler looking for a rugged, reliable boat that could be taken anywhere in the world, it’s still light enough, simple enough to assemble, and reasonably priced that I think it would also make a good choice for someone looking for a boat they could paddle for the rest of their life- and maybe pass on to the next generation, the way people have done with the old wooden Folbots and Kleppers.