By Bart King
When I first came across ZelGear’s catarafts, I was intrigued, but uncertain.
I was looking for something I could R2 with my wife, while carrying along my young daughter and perhaps some overnight gear. The ZelGear TouR-2 seemed a good fit, and it stacked up nicely against the pricier Aire Sabertooth, which I reviewed in this comprehensive article.
My uncertainty came from a lack of familiarity with the ZelGear brand, which has only been importing to the U.S. for a few years. Len at ZelGear was gracious enough to allow me to demo the cataraft of my choice for a couple months before purchasing. And he encouraged me to give the ConTouR-2 a shot, which he thought would be a good fit for my needs.
Boy was he right. Over the last few weeks I’ve had a chance to test it on the Chattooga River along the Georgia-South Carolina border, the Green River in Utah, and on some big waves at Folly Beach, South Carolina. The boat’s a keeper for sure.
I hope to write in more detail about those trips soon (plus the PVC oar frame I’m building for it) but first I want to follow-up on the decision-making priorities I evaluated in the last article. In no particular order:
- Manageable Weight and Pack Size
- Fun, Stable and Comfortable Ride
It’s Ridiculously Light (in a Good Way)
Granted I’ve only had the ConTour-2 for about 8 weeks, but I still grin every time I pick it up, because it’s so much lighter than any other raft I’ve paddled.
According to the ZelGear website, the standard version of the ConTour-2 weighs 32 lbs. That feels about right when it’s rolled up and in its pack. (Check out the pic of me about to check it at the airport on our way out to Utah.) But once it’s inflated, it actually feels much lighter.
Here’s a picture of the ConTour loaded on top of a Shredder at the Chattooga. I picked them both up within seconds of each other, and the ConTour is lighter. Not by much, but definitely lighter. In fact, it’s so light that after a buddy and I threw it up and almost completely over the stack of rafts, he went around to the other side and pushed it back on one-handed with almost no effort. (He couldn’t stop talking about that, and he purchased the TouR-6 a week later to replace the beastly heavy blue raft at the bottom of the stack.)
Please excuse me while I dwell on this point a bit longer, because the older I get, the more I appreciate lightweight gear. I actually carried this raft at the beach, through the sand with my seven-year-old daughter (She’s known for her ability to talk non-stop for hours, not for her strength.)
Best of all, after years of lugging rubber DIBs on the Chattooga, my wife LOVES carrying this raft. The handles are perfectly located for two people to walk with it. And at Folly, we actually used the ConTour to carry all of our stuff a quarter mile to and from the beach. Easy peasy. Thank you, ZelGear.
The Quality of the Ride
As I mentioned, I haven’t yet paddled the ConTour-2 on class IV or V whitewater (though I’m planning to video a trip down section IV of the Chattooga soon) so I can’t fully describe its performance. But I’ll tell you what I know.
This is a fun raft. Just check out this picture of my wife ferrying five kids under the age of 11 as they ambushed one raft after another on our Green trip. They took to calling the cataraft, “The Moana,” after the recent animated film, and they fought over who got to perch on the front of the tubes. Plus, it’s light enough that even just one kid could provide some adequate paddle strokes to help keep it in the current. They all hunkered down for a long class III and had a blast.
Comfortable and Cozy. Whether bracing in or kicking back, there are a lot of comfortable options in the Con-Tour. I haven’t settled on whether or not I like the foot and thigh straps in big water, but I never felt cramped or uncomfortable after three days floating on the Green, sometimes with as many as 5 kids onboard. In fact, I found a good way to sit on the tubes behind the back thwart that allowed me to easily J-stroke the craft along without assistance. And on a separate day, my wife and I had several hours to ourselves, propped against some soft gear bags, sipping beers, enjoying the view, and playing footsy on the thwart in front of us. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Stable, maybe. As I mentioned, I haven’t yet paddled this on any dangerous drops, but I have had some good action to relate. First, let me say that the ConTour-2 needs to be solidly inflated. When it’s soft, the floor drags in the water and the thwarts don’t provide enough rigidity. I think this led to a swim for me and another buddy on a big 2.3-day on the Chattooga. At lower levels, Rock Jumble is a slow, bumpy 5-foot drop, but at that level it has a pretty deep crease into a significant hydraulic. We hit it with too much angle and my tube dipped sharply under as the thwarts creased upwards. If I had been using the thigh strap, I might have stayed in, or the raft might have flipped. I did have my front foot under the strap, and there was a moment when I couldn’t decide whether to try to pull myself up, or focus on getting my foot loose. I chose the latter and came up unscathed and laughing.
I also got my ass handed to me a few times at the beach in surprisingly strong 4-6 foot surf that didn’t relent the entire week we were at Folly. I was overconfident the first day and immediately loaded the boat up with my daughter, my sister and my nephew. In attempting to get out past the break, we got turned sideways and me and the kids dumped off the lower tube. My sister tweaked a knee but the kids thought it was a blast.
I swapped my sister out for my 70-year-old father. This time when the same thing happened, we all went out, and my dad tweaked his knee. We kept at it for a bit and got a big accidental surf when one wave simply pushed us backwards for about 15 yards toward shore.
For better or worse, the ConTour-2 surfs easily, because it’s so light for the amount of surface area. But if you blow your angle, things get radical fast. This happened to my wife and me a few times the next day, when we left the kids on the shore while we tested things out. Only some quick high sides and wide braces save us a few times. And other times they didn’t. We’re much better at running rapids than riding waves…
Seems Durable So Far
The obvious question in regards to the light weight is durability.
But I don’t have any concerns. The PVC feels heavy duty and the welding is solid. Some people will undoubtedly insist that bladder construction is sturdier, and they may be right. But for my purposes and limited use, I’m thrilled to have the lighter construction, sans bladder.
The only durability trouble I’ve had is with the cap on a pressure relief valve. One of them is located right where I like to put a foot on the front thwart. It popped off 4 or 5 times before it inevitably was lost. The caps appear to have an open and a closed position, but it seems to still work fine without the cap—something I’ll keep an eye on. I’m not sure if all the caps pop off that easily, or if it was just this one. The placement of the valve is unfortunate, but I’m not sure what a better alternative would be.
The Price is Right
Our maiden voyage on The Moana was as part of a big reunion-style trip with old raft-guiding friends and their kids on the West Fork of the Chattooga.
On the trip their just happened to be four other catarafts, a Shredder (used=$2100), a Phat Cat (new=$1400), a Star Slice (new=$1800). After helping lug the Star and the PhatCat up a steep boat ramp we all stood around and marveled at the comparative advantages of The Moana. Light weight was, of course, top of the list, followed by smart handle placements and those great little synch bags, which we may as well call beer holders. Everyone was impressed, and I think, a little envious.
For me, the ConTouR-2 is a great bargain at $1350, and I can’t wait to get it back on the water again soon.
=End of review=