Monday, June 1, 2009

Quality Control in the Kayak Industry

This high pressure zone over Victoria has absolutely flattened out the ocean. Little wind means few standing waves, and generally flat water. With nothing to surf and little current action I've been riding the web and came across this.

"Generally, Valley kayaks are better made now than in past years. The same can't be said of the NDK made kayaks."

If the guy who wrote that statement (he's a friend of mine) had of done some home work he'd know better. Since NDK's re emergence as Sea Kayak United Kingdom (SKUK)- you've got to love the British sense of humour; quality control has been on the up swing. Check with Leon Somme of Body Boat Blade if you don't believe me.

Yes I have two Nigel Denis kayaks, an Explorer bought used out of Homer Alaska and a Romany S which I purchased last August to paddle around the Isle of Man on my quest to raise funds for cancer research.

The Explorer has been beaten and bashed including being May Tagged in a bolder field while I attended to a kayaker who had just broke his leg attempting to launch into a dumping surf. In spite of the damage inflicted, cracked gel coat, the Explorer has never failed me and has brought me home every time.

I believe two things are contributing to the improved quality of SKUK boats, better quality coming out of the factory and better shipping methods. Improvements in the way the kayaks are being packaged and shipped in the containers has dramatically reduced shipping damages. I've seen this first hand.

When I was in the factory in Holyhead last year the boats ready for shipment where of a very high quality. I had a choice between an Explorer and a Romany S both of which where well built. I could see improvements in build quality over my previous visit to the plant in 2007.

During my circumnavigation of the Isle of Man the Romany developed one fault the skeg cable tubbing came unglued and I was not easily able to deploy the skeg. It barely mattered as the Romany handled so well I hardly needed the skeg. When I got the boat home I fixed the tube down with a piece of fiberglass.

This skeg is on a spring, when you go over a rock or land on a beach if the skeg is down it retracts, but does not kink the cable; slide off the rock and the skeg drops back down to where you had it set. Smart.

Every kayak manufacture struggles with quality issues. There's a well known west coast company that cannot master water proof hatches or bulkheads. There's a story about another that fired almost all it's manufacturing staff when they failed drug tests only to see quality control go into the can.

You can build kayaks while high on crack but it's hard to do without experience. I've heard other accounts of retailers sending entire shipments of North American boats back to the plant because of deficiencies.

Or what about the designer who built a series of hard chined kayaks but did not carry the chine all the way forward to the bow resulting in a weak and flexible bow. After consumers had bought countless kayaks the plug was dropped and a new one built to address the weak bow. Nice of the kayak public to do th R&D for the designer.

I wonder how those owners feel about having boats that didn't quite measure up. Yet these well known manufactures escape the poor quality control tag. Is there a double standard at work?

It could be that the persistent poor quality control tag hung on British boats is due to their market penetration into North America. SKUK or NDK, Valley, and P&H kayaks are easy to spot in North America. I've yet to see a North American made kayak on the Irish Sea let alone for sale in England.

This is of course due to different design parameters. I contend that North American manufactures design kayaks for a large recreational market which wants light strong kayaks. British builders build for a more demanding sea condition. An Explorer is laid up by hand with lots of Gel Coat not for strength but as a sacrificial layer that will chip off when landed in anger on a rocky shore. Thus their boats are heavier. Han laid chop strand glass is use for strength and to minimize the size of cracks when the worst does happen.

Slam a kayak constructed with an H lock between the hull and the deck into a rock during a storm on the Irish Sea and you can crack the glass beneath the 2ml layer of gel coat or you run the real risk of popping the H lock or splitting the fiberglass hull. Any of which will bring your day to an end.

But don't take my word for it. Just take a look at what kayaks are used for extreme adventures - Iceland, Ireland, Great Britain, New Zealand, South Georgia - the vast majority are British built or designed.

Quality issues are normal to any industry based on low wages, rotten working conditions and dangerous chemicals. One retailer recently told me, "a lot of these long time fiberglass layup guys can really drink beer and smoke cigarettes well. Just don't asked them to do math." It comes from breathing all that styrene.

There are inherit strengths and weaknesses in all kayaks and not all kayaks are designed to do the same thing. Some are big recreational kayaks meant for weak long camping trips on benevolent seas, some are pond boats, while others are meant for hard conditions.

"While the NDK designs are amongst the best, it still comes down to the paddler and his or her skills." that's the concluding statement from my friend who I quoted at the beginning.

His statement is only partly true. If you are the skilled paddler and in a boat that runs straight like a train but does not turn, you are going to be using a lot more energy then the equally skilled guy next to you in a boat that runs both straight and can still turn.

Your kayak does not have to be the best at anything but it should be really good at everything. And that's why readers of Sea Kayaker magazine chose the Romany as the best day boat and the Explorer as the best expedition kayak.