I am Captain Haddock; a seafaring, pipe-smoking, whisky-loving Scottish sea captain. I am Captain Jack Sparrow; attracted to trouble, shiny things and Keira Knightley, member of the Brethren Court, one of the nine Pirate Lords of the Seven Seas. I am Captain Ahab, the monomaniacal captain of the Pequod. Except I’m not as hubristic and my purpose and being in life doesn’t hinge on harpooning a whale which once bit off my leg at the knee.
Backtrack a few weeks.
My phone buzzes. I have a text from my mother, and surprisingly enough, it’s not another pocket-send. An unheralded, unmentioned part of working in the action sports and adventure industry is that your mother will often text you updates of anything happening in the local area that fits, however loosely, into one of those aforementioned brackets.
"These kayaks have a sort of mythical status in the UK. They appear in selected Lidl stores from time to time but sell out in days and even end up on eBay"
Recently these have included an article on Scottish government plans to fund more cycling routes, a short piece about an inflatable obstacle course, a video of four people playing a version of 'foosball' where you have to stick your head through the table and blow a ping pong ball at the opposition offence, and, crucially, on 15 June at 6.21am, somehow one hour and 39 minutes before the shop in question actually opened, a throwaway picture of a stack of kayaks, presented with three simple words that would shape my future: “Canoes in Lidl”.
Your parents always come through in the end.
It’s worth noting that my mother used the word ‘canoe’ in her message rather than ‘kayak’, which is clearly printed on the box in large, slanted 00’s typeface. Having dropped my cup of coffee in slow motion and rushed to Lidl to buy one of the scarcely-stocked watercrafts on the reception of the aforementioned message, I can see why she made the mistake.
When you think of a kayak, you probably think of a cockpit surrounded by an otherwise sealed deck. The £39.99 Lidl kayak on the other hand, or to give it its proper name, the Crivit 2-Person Inshore 335 VI (a name which I have replaced with the Philip Pullman-inspired ‘La Belle Sauvage’), has an open deck. Once blown up, you’ve got got two seats, two splash guards, and something very much resembling a traditional, inflatable blue and yellow canoe.
What makes Lidl’s offering a kayak is the seating position. A kayak is basically just a canoe where the paddlers/noble sea captains face forward, with their legs in front of them (rather than kneeling or seated) and uses a double-bladed paddle (included in Lidl package) to steer the boat. This all fits the bill.
Let’s take a look at the kayak itself. One of the first things to note is that there’s no pump included, and confusingly (for us, at least), the foot pump sold directly next to the kayak is not compatible with said vessel. We found this out the hard way, though in doing so did at least acquire a cheap new bike pump. Lidl do also sell an electric air pump for inflating the boat for a fiver though, which should be somewhere near the kayak in store - who knows, check the dairy aisle if not - and in hindsight we’re quite glad we had the battery power to help with the inflation process.
We turn to the manual during construction to give ourselves the best possible chance of staying afloat and are greeted with the wonderful opening line: “Congratulations! With this purchase you have opted for a high quality item”. How reassuring. The safety measures also note that the kayak is, specifically, only for use on shorelines, small bays, small lakes, narrow rivers or canals, to beware of offshore winds and currents, and to “always make sure that you have the paddle with you”, which seems like fairly sage advice.
The inflation is simple enough. Our team for the day was of two - myself and my helping hand and fellow canal voyageur Isabelle - but the assembly could easily have been done by one. You need to find a clear area where you can lay down the boat, screw on three valves then use the electric air pump to inflate the five chambres which are conveniently numbered in order of inflation. This all takes about five to ten minutes depending on your sleight of hand with an electric air pump. After that the seats and splash guards add a couple more minutes and then all that’s left is to remember your Scouts or Girl Guides training and tie them all in place with the ropes provided and some figure-eight knots. It's easily done.
"Drivers, for some reason, seemed particularly cautious of the two people on the pavement carrying a three-metre inflatable kayak"
It’s worth noting that these kayaks seem to possess somewhat of a mythical status in the UK. They pop up in Lidl stores from time to time, but seem to sell out in days and often actually end up going for more money on eBay. There’s reports of only certain regions of the UK stocking the kayaks, and of certain Lidls only getting one or two in stock each year.
Our first impressions were good. The valve-protected air pockets seemed particularly secure. There’s a particularly handy waterproof pocket/bag for valuables which straps onto the back of one seat. The material seems sturdy enough, for what it is. If there was any concern, it was the lower side chambers which use stopper valves only and seem to lose air super quick when you turn off the pump. We gave these a couple more gasps from our own lungs to really get them up to scratch, and in the end they weren’t a worry.
Of course, the disadvantage of using an electric air pump is that you need to be near a plug socket - unless you’ve got a fancy, battery-operated type - so the next challenge was to a) get the thing - 325 x 91 x 46cm - out of our humble second-floor flat and down the narrow communal stairs, and b) to safely complete the 800m walk up the road to the canal.
Having completed the former by mercilessly forcing the canoe through three doors half its size and launching it down the staircase in front of a far-from-sympathetic neighbour who was “actually in a bit of a rush”, we made it outside.
We immediately garnered some attention, with children and parents particularly keen to hear the story behind the boat while drivers, for some reason, seemed particularly cautious of the guy and girl on the pavement carrying a three-metre-long inflatable boat and paddle.
The good thing about inflatables of course is that they’re light - the whole boat only weighs about 7kg inflated or not - so while it might have been a bit of a handful to carry, it wasn’t a strain. 15 minutes later and we were on the docks of Edinburgh’s Union Canal setting sail.
Having deposited the £39.99 myself, it only seemed fair I clamber into the thing first. We would’ve smashed a bottle of champagne off the hull of course, but this is hard to do on an inflatable boat. A rather shaky start had me slightly scared of capsizing immediately, but we quickly learned it’s actually a lot easier to sail the kayak and keep your balance when there’s two people in the boat and their weight is spread out from the bow to the stern.
After that there was no looking back. Metaphorically that is. There was a lot of looking back physically, as we steadied ourselves, paddled in turn, making sure to stay centred, and progressed slowly through the water miles. It was plain sailing though, literally, as we floated gently down the canal under the baking Scottish sun - stop laughing, that wasn’t a joke - passing parks, grande old churches and endless forest greenery as we went.
Having grown up in Edinburgh, but not living particularly near the sea and not owning or a surfboard or stand-up paddle board, it was particularly satisfying having a tool with which to access the water. I must have walked and cycled along the canal path 1000 times or more, but I’ve long been looking for a way to actually get myself onto the canal water - ever since I found out just how meditative a SUP board can be about a year and a half ago.
The problem has always been money. Even from Decathlon, a brand who do entry-level sports gear more affordable than most, the cheapest inflatable kayak is £99.99 (and it’s £279.99 for a stand up paddleboard). This is not an unreasonable price, but it is one unlikely to make you get your wallet out on a whim. That’s £60 quid more expensive than our noble Lidl steed and actually, the Lidl kayak can hold more weight. To put the price into perspective, even Argos don’t sell an inflatable kayak for under £100. And Argos sell near enough everything legal to own for under £100.
"People seem kinder and chattier when you’re either in, or around, an inflatable kayak in a place where an inflatable kayak is not an expected sight"
Say what you want about Lidl, but without their £39.99 kayak there’s not a lot of chance we would have been out on the water at all. It felt as though we’d just got to the point in a Pokémon game where you catch something that can ‘Surf’ and you unlock a whole bunch of new terrain in familiar places you can explore in the process. Our kayak was holding its own as well. The Lidl purchase is responsive to directional changes, and we were in no rush but made steady, speedy progress to the bottom of the canal, with no alarming wobbles and not much man power needed before stopping to grab coffee from a narrowboat at the end.
“We might set up a rival coffee shop on our kayak,” we joked to the river-fairing barista.
“I think the espresso machine would sink your boat,” came the scathing (read: kind-hearted, joking) response. We chose not to mention that the Lidl boat can actually hold up to 160kg.
We find people are kinder and chattier when you’re either in, or around, an inflatable kayak in a place where an inflatable kayak is not a familiar or expected sighting.
Two locals comment that we’re living the dream, and it’s hard to argue. One man asks if this is the famous Lidl kayak he’s seen during his weekly shop, and admits he’ll be keeping a keen eye out to see how we get on. A purple barge passes us with a nod of the head, and resisting the urge to joke that we’re here to commandeer his vessel, we return the gesture.
Our initial couple of miles were paddled with the wind behind, but concerns that returning might be a struggle are quickly disproved. It’s a little trickier to paddle in open wind than in water lined by trees, but the boat floats all the same and we’re back in enclosed space in no time. It is clear that should some real wind kick in, or were there waves in the water, this would not be the most reliable watercraft. It’s very much designed to be used for fun in sheltered environments, but in that environment, it’s hard to flaw any one aspect of the boat.
As we sail downstream and crack out a beer - in doing so violating the manual’s strict instructions to “never use your kayak under the influence of alcohol, drugs or medication” - we let the boat float and watch on as the Pentland Hills emerge from behind a quaint Edinburgh bridge and the greenery of the canal. It truly is a blissful experience.
It may not be The Black Pearl. It may not be Pequod. It may not even be able to sit three people (it definitely does not feel like it could sit three people), and it’s certainly not something for serious adventure or for paddling far from the shore. But as an entry-level way to access a sheltered body of water and have yourself a minor nautical adventure, whether in the city, lochs/lakes or elsewhere, it does what matters - floats, and leaves you comfortable (weather permitting and appropriate precautions taken) while it does so.
We’re yet to see how long it’ll last and how durable it’ll turn out to be of course, but after day one it’s hard to flaw the watercraft for what it is - a £39.99 inflatable kayak from the same shop I pick up my milk and cheese. So for now at least, it’s yo ho, yo ho… a pirate’s life for me.
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