Well ladies and gentlemen, every now and then it's time to branch out and try something new. In my case, I had the wife's help in picking my new interest... ever since she worked at our local bike/outdoors shop she has wanted to do some paddleboarding. Now I've done a very limited amount in the past, and it struck me as a good activity we could enjoy together, as well as a welcome "active" break from training. All that was left was to buy an entry level and enjoy it!
Then I started pricing boards.
Now I think it's fair to say I'm not exactly a cheapskate, but let's be real... like most beginner cyclists / triathletes I had a fairly serious case of sticker shock when I realized exactly how much an entry level board was going to be, to say nothing of the required accessories (have to get it there somehow) that have to be tacked on. A "real" board is going to set you back around a grand, give or take. On vacation a few years ago I saw someone with an inflatable who seemed to be paddling just fine and, due to my Xterra Westuit emails, knew that they made an inflatable board that was considerably cheaper, so I started looking for the reviews.
Unfortunately, the reviews I found were not of high praise. "Cheaply made" and "Terrible Customer Service" are not phrases I like to see in my reviews. I also saw more than one site mention that many of the 4-5 star ratings on sites were "bot" reviews to pad the numbers. I don't know if that's true or not, but it seemed odd to see it mentioned multiple times. All in all, at $600 I felt like I would rather just pony up and spend a little extra on a beachboy or a holo which get solid reviews. Still, I really wanted to try to get two boards for around that price, as the idea was to do this together with the wife.
Enter the Aqua Marine SPK-1. I found this thing wandering through Amazon reviews and...well... it had the best (albeit not a lot) of all of them. Also, since I started my hunt for Black Friday (it was going to be my Christmas gift to the missus.) it was cut down at a pretty hefty discount. I also saw the SPK-2 (which is a little bigger) and, unable to determine the advantages of one over the other, decided to buy one of each. My total from Amazon was $592.90, less than a single Xterra board. Now while that was a special deal, I have looked around and still see these boards selling regularly in the mid $300s, I'd think finding them cheaper again would take a little work but would certainly be possible.
|SPK-1 ready for action|
So, after it finally warming up and us having had some time to use them, it's time for a (fairly initial) review.
What you get
To start with, your package comes with the board itself, a bag to lug it around, a pump to inflate it, bungees, a paddle, and a "flat kit" of sorts. (and the fins of course) That's a pretty decent haul for the money. The bag is not overly rugged looking (or feeling) but should certainly do the job so long as you aren't taking into "the bush" regularly. The pump is serviceable, although I'll go into detail about it further down. The paddle is also acceptable for a beginner, although you will want to avoid trying a "real" paddle until you are ready to buy one, as going back will emphasize it's weakness. The fins, despite being seen as the problem area in the reviews, have so far held up surprisingly well in my opinion. (although I pay a little extra attention to them after seeing it was a possible issue) Fortunately I've not had to use the repair kit, (fingers crossed) but it looks like pretty standard fare, and more than I expected. The package also has instructions included, which I suggest at least glancing at (fins in before you inflate is important) although the pictures in the pamphlet are useless.
Lets start with the very good. The board itself. Once inflated, this thing is rock solid. Even in the ocean with fairly rough waters both boards were confidence inspiring in the construction. At no point in using the SPK boards has "cheap" entered my mind as a way to describe them. Even inflated, the board is pretty light as well, light enough for my wife to lug it around (although she had...well, we both had... some trouble carrying it when it was windy at the ocean and keeping it under control) but heavy enough that it certainly isn't going anywhere without you noticing. Another great thing about this setup is how little room it takes up. The bag with everything in it is roughly the size of a medium/large suitcase. We were able to get both in a new Ford Explorer with 4 peoples week long luggage. (and we didn't skimp on the packing in my opinion) That's pretty compact for a 10ft and 11 ft board. Another thing that should definitely be praised is the ease of getting the thing deflated and packed back up. I admit, when I saw it I thought to myself "no way that thing will fold back up after it's been aired up." Well, I was happily wrong about that. It takes me about 3-5 minutes to get all the air out of the board and it folded back up compactly enough to go in the bag. (the way it's supposed to) That was a very welcome surprise as I've had a few inflatable products that just never seem to fit back in their box/bag again after being used.
|SPK 1&2 bagged and ready to go (all extras inside as well)|
|The SPK-2 rolled up in the bag|
Unfortunately it's not all sunshine and roses, there are some negatives. First, the most glaring one... the pump. Now it certainly doesn't take a genius to know that in a budget anything there are going to be corners cut somewhere. The Aqua Marine's are no exception and it's quite easy to see where the cuts were made. It isn't that the pump is bad... it actually does a fair job of inflating up to it's limit. Unfortunately, it maxes out at around 14psi, which is a problem because the boards recommend 15psi. You WILL NOT be able to get it pumped up to 15psi with the supplied pump. I've tried multiple times, you will break the pump before you manage it. Getting from 0 to about 13psi takes a couple of minutes and was actually considerably easier than I imagined it would be, but around 13psi you hit a wall. Each pump thereafter requires some serious leverage (standing the pump on a step and pumping from below it helped a little) and after 14psi I was unable to inflate it any further, nor was my wife, both of us together, or my friend Wes who is a beast when it comes to that kind of stuff. Any further attempts and I could feel the pump bending. Now, we've used it multiple times at 14psi with absolutely no issues... but everyone who has been on it has been 150lbs or less. I'm not sure if it is more noticeable at higher loads or not. The simple solution is to buy a more capable pump (or an electric one, although you'd need to make sure to monitor it very carefully then) which sell on Amazon for around $50. Or, you can just live with it being below the recommended psi. Either way, it's a pretty glaring flaw in an otherwise fairly competent package.
|The pump in all of it's glory. It tries... it really does.|
|The gauge shows 20psi possible, but if you hit 15, send me a picture because you deserve a prize!|
The other negative is the paddle. The SPK's come with a collapsing 3 piece paddle, which to it's credit is quite portable and therefore handy when space is key. However, if you ever actually use a "real" paddle, you'll quickly see that this one pales in comparison. It's perfectly serviceable for a beginner though (which I assume you are) and albeit a weak part of the kit, it won't be holding you back for quite some time. Even after upgrading paddles (if you decide to) I'd still keep these around simply because it's handy to have a easy to break down paddle when space is limited.
|paddle broken down (and bagged) is about 3ft at the longest. One of it's strong upsides.|
It's also worth noting that a few reviews mark the fins as being weak. Mine have so far stood up to some abuse, but as I mentioned, I don't drag the board around out of the water on them.
The air release from the boards needs to be done in a fairly controlled manner, otherwise you run the risk of blowing the o-ring that keeps everything nice and sealed. It's not a disaster if that happens (the manual even has detailed instructions on replacing it) but it's a good way to spend your afternoon if you do blow one.
Replacement parts are also fairly hard to come by, although a quick google did bring up replacement fins at ~$25 The hope is that you never need anything, but it's nice to have the piece of mind that if you did you would at least have a shot of finding some.
For somebody who wants to test the water (zing!) you can't really go wrong at around $350. There is (in my opinion) some room to upgrade (the pump and paddle specifically) but (so long as you can live with slightly below recommended spec psi) it's not essential to live with the boards straight out of the box. If space is an issue, I don't think you'll find a smaller total package for a 10+ ft board. I came in with fairly low expectations and was pleasantly surprised, and I think so long as you don't buy them thinking you are getting a top of the line board you will be satisfied. If I were to compare them to a bicycle I'd place it in the Sora-equipped aluminum bikes you can buy. It's not a race machine, mountain goat climber or super stiff aero frame, but if you need a bike (or in this case board) to put miles into, it's a solid work horse that will give you a feel for paddleboarding. In the event that you decide to buy a "real" board, the SPKs don't lose all of their value, as I could see them still being ideal for traveling when you don't want to strap a board to the top of your car. So, in my opinion they get a thumbs up for a cheap, enjoyable way to spend an afternoon!
|Don't hate, it's a cool picture... I'll reuse it all I want...|
Thanks so much for reading and checking out the blog! I really appreciate it! Next week, maybe back to racing!
- Christopher Morelock