My interest in kayaking goes back to a time when people were still saying “The Beatles, who are they?” Kayaking (or canoeing as it was known in the UK) as a sport was then truly in its infancy. Although fiberglass kayaks were available, most of the kayaks you saw were made of wood and canvas and probably built by their owners. They tended to be clunky affairs, with frames of wood strips fastened with tiny brass screws, with nicely varnished gunwales and cockpit combings and they had brass O-rings at the stern and bow to attach a ‘painter’ – a length of tow-rope – at each end of the boat. They were finished with several coats of marine paint over their canvas skins. A canvas spray cover was attached to the cockpit with stainless steel snaps and they tended to swamp and unsnap when a wave washed over the deck. And each kayak looked like a boat that had been lovingly, if not expertly, constructed. A canvas kayak was typically multi-patched since especially on river runs you would inevitably hit bottom and then there would be patching to do before the next day. Double kayaks were the norm and it was said that if you had problem with kids fighting you’d put them in a double kayak for a day and they’d soon learn to get along.
At my school canoe club we had built several skin-on-frame double kayaks and after two or three years had become expert in reading scale drawings, in cutting and stretching canvas, sanding frames and varnishing and painting. Our kayaks were dubbed PBK1, PBK2, etc., since the designs all came from Percy Blandford, one the few kayak designers of owner-built kayaks in business at that time. Skin-on-frame double kayaks are impossible to roll - if you tipped, which we did with regularity, you came out and towed your boat to shore. In fact, on our many kayaking trips down the Wye River in Wales from Glasbury to Monmouth, capsizing became a way of life for the duration of each trip. Recovery methods revolved around: a) how to keep your gear dry in a capsize - plastic bags, b) how not to lose your gear - tie everything in, and c) how to efficiently tow your boat to shore with life and limb intact - grab hold of a painter, swim and hope for the best. On one occasion I remember, boy made it to shore but partly submerged kayak was seen floating downstream, recovered by an onlooker who drove down river, retrieved the boat and delivered it to us the next day.
Stitch-and-glue kayak construction was the next stage in the evolution of the club and we later built a single 17-foot single kayak from marine plywood. It was a sleek boat, you could carry it with one hand and only the best paddlers in the club got to use it. The deck and hull were attached to six marine plywood ribs with half-inch copper nails, temporarily stitched to each other with copper wire then taped with two-inch fiber glass weave and the hull reinforced on the inside with a fiberglass sheet. The deck was strengthened with a layer of resin on the inside, and the outside painted with three coats of marine paint. The kayak was the first kayak we had that you could roll. It also tracked well in the ocean and it marked our move from river trips to ocean trips.
One Spring, three of us spent ten days, guests of Atlantic College at Llantwit Major in the Bristol Channel, learning the Eskimo roll in their heated outdoor pool and later practicing paddling, rolling and rescues in the surf, which is big in that part of Wales. Atlantic College was a mecca for mountaineering and orienteering as well as sea kayaking. Interestingly, Atlantic College was where rigid-hull inflatable boats, now used globally as sea rescue craft, were developed and patented by Rear Admiral Desmond Hoare, founder of the College. Their kayaks were fiberglass, made by Mendesta, a Belgian company now no longer in business. Mendestas were designed as slalom boats, short - around 15 feet – and were perfect for heavy surf paddling. Some time later I bought a used Mendesta from David Sutcliffe, German teacher at Atlantic College, protégé of Desmond Hoare, and joint editor of ‘Canoeing Complete’ (Kaye, London, 1966), one of the seminal kayaking books of that time. I paddled the Mendesta on rivers, lakes and on the Welsh coast until I left Wales and gave up kayaking for the next twenty five years.
In 1994 I made another stick-and-glue kayak. The rest, as they say, is history.