Feathercraft: A Brief History
by Doug Simpson
When I was 9, and until I was 12, we spent our summers at a rented cottage on a small island near Vancouver. Our neighbor, old Mrs. Sweeney, owned two skin kayaks. Her son was a captain in the Canadian Navy and had purchased them from Eskimos and brought them down south on his mine sweeper. The kayaks were light, you could see the frames through their sewn translucent skins. Mrs. Sweeney allowed me to paddle the widest one in the bay as long as I stayed in sight. The boats were very responsive and seemed to glide effortlessly. They creaked a bit as they flexed in the light seas. I spent hours out in the bay, transfixed. These were magic moments in my youth.

I’ve told that story for a long time. Three years ago I paddled back to the island and talked to Mrs. Sweeney’s family. They showed me an old group photo of the kids on the island and I was delighted to find myself included. But I discovered that while Mrs. Sweeny’s son really was Captain of a Mine Sweeper, he had never sailed to the Arctic, and the kayaks were wood and canvas kits purchased from England. I don’t know if the Eskimo origin was a creation of my own imagination or of someone else. It doesn’t matter now anyway.

I didn’t paddle for many years after that. But I didn’t forget. At University, I studied commerce and geology. Every summer in the late 60’s and early 70’s I found work in the bush, usually as a prospector in the Canadian Arctic. We flew all over the Northwest Territories, usually dropping off at some lake and transporting out somewhere else, several weeks later; traveling in the interim via canoe or inflatable. I didn’t care that much about finding metals, but I loved the bush. And the solitude. My partner, old Frank Moyle, and I were a good prospecting team. He had the experience and the knowledge. I had the legs. At night, we often discussed the best ways of getting around this raw country, scraped clean during the last ice age. We decided we needed a boat you could carry on your back. 

"My first boat design had skin sewn from remnants of my girlfriend's dress."
He favored a short open boat. I wanted a kayak. His prototype frame was of hewn wood. Mine was of copper tubing, about two feet long. My first boat design had skin sewn from remnants of my girlfriend’s dress. It was pink. The copper frame now sits on top of my piano, looking crude, but arty. Its basic configuration suggests our K1.

I spent the next 8 years tinkering with my kayak design as I wandered through more prospecting, oil well rough-necking, working the gas lines, and piloting small bush planes. (The structure of the planes intrigued me and would soon influence my future design plans). 

For 2 1/2 years I worked at Mountain Equipment Co-Op (Canada’s version of REI) where I started kayaking again. My future partner, Larry Zecchel, introduced me to climbing and I learned about modern packs, climbing harnesses and the various lines of super-lightweight tents. One of my duties was selling boats, which included the famous Klepper Folding Kayak.

My patent for the K1 was finally approved in 1977. Larry joined up in 1980. Naively, we thought we’d soon be making a living, but there was still lots of design work to complete, and no established market for our product. When we ran out of money, Larry took prospecting work to raise funds. This went on for years. The first production boat was completed in 1981, although we didn’t manage to sell it until 1982. Our 540 square-foot shop was so narrow that in order to turn a kayak around you had to take it outside first. The distance between our shops defunct chimney and the farthest wall was 19’5", our double was fixed at 19’3". Today, with a production area of 5000 square feet, we’re still pinched for space.

"Our 540 square-foot shop was so narrow that in order to turn a kayak around 
you had to take it outside first."

Our earliest prototypes were disappointing. The initial length and beam dimensions worked out well, but those early hull shapes just weren’t right. In desperation, I made my welded cockpit and crossribs totally adjustable: in, out, up, down. I sewed up skins of 6 ml clear poly and started playing. I could see the flow of the water through the skin. Lateral stability could be adjusted by altering the chine and keel bars. Finally, I got it right. Years later I was paddling along the coast of Northern British Columbia when I met Will Maloff, inventor of the Alaska Chain Mill and friend of George Dyson. He showed me some of George’s Baidarka cross sections. I was astounded how similar they were to my own.

We designed the ST initially for the Japanese market. Our K1 was doing well there but they wanted something shorter and more maneuverable for their rivers and coastlines. They needed a boat that was flat amidship with a highly rockered keel.

Our first change was the tubing. The ST would be built with ‘square tubes,’ as opposed to the K1 which is composed totally of ‘round tubes.’ This allowed us to make hinged keels and gunwales. 

Like a Klepper, the keel is pushed down in the skin to force the ends apart. Unlike a Klepper, the gunwales are brought together, bringing the ends of the keel up, giving the boat rocker. Said another way, with the keel forced down in compression and the gunwales brought together in tension, the ends of the boat are forced up. The boat is very maneuverable. So much so, that anyone who is not experienced with white water kayaks may require a skeg or a rudder to track well.

Early on, I decided that our best frame material would be anodized, tubular 6061 T6 aluminum alloy. In the New York area there seems to be some question about the advisability of using this material in a sea environment. I’m not sure where this started, but I think it may have something to do with tradition.

New England and points south have a strong tradition of building beautiful wood boats. On the other hand, I was influenced both by my acquaintance with small aircraft and by the boats on my own coast.

In B.C., the very large boats (large volume to weight ratios) are made of steel. The smaller pleasure craft are fiberglass. Almost all of the commercial fishing fleet and some of the racing sailboats are now made of aluminum, which is more durable. Either 5051 alloy, or, where more structural strength is required, the more expensive 6061 T6 is used.

Maintenance is low. Most of these boats do not even require painting. On our anodized frames, the only trick is to put some light grease in the joints before assembly if you are going to leave the boat assembled for a long time. This prevents salt build up. Super Lube, a good teflon lubricant which doesn’t wash off, has recently become available at many bicycle shops.

When we first started production, we were forced to buy small quantities of tubing from a local supplier. This was unfortunate because sometimes a tube of say 3/4" OD from one mill didn’t fit so well over a 5/8" OD tube from another mill. Consequently, some of the tubes fit tight. Now we buy tubing straight from one mill, 1000 pounds at a time. Each tube is drawn to our specifications, this is an additional step in which a tube is stretched to exacting tolerances. As a result, our frame tubes fit well, but not too tight. A tube is a wonderful thing. Its light weight strength is derived by its round, hollow cross section as well as by the material used. Feathers are made of tubes, with many little ones joined to a larger, common one. Hence, the name Feathercraft.

"One thing that has continued to elude us is how to produce a quality boat at a lower price."

Over the years, we have studied and made scale drawings of countless kayaks, both the folding and rigid varieties. By comparing shapes with actual performance, we’ve come to understand more of what works and what doesn’t. For example, for our new double, we were able to determine that a large volume, upswept bow would provide a drier ride in big seas, especially for the bow paddler. By riding up over waves the boat would also be faster in these conditions. This is more important in doubles than in singles because the bow paddler is proportionately much closer to the bow than is a lone paddler in a single kayak. Of course, getting the shape right is only part of the design problem. The kayak frame has to fold easy, yet have great strength. Often Larry and I will attack the same problem from drastically different approaches, and yet, somehow, always reach a consensus on the best solution. 

Looking back, we’ve learned a lot, but there’s still so much we don’t know. For example, one thing that has continued to elude us is how to produce a quality boat at a lower price. Of course the old cliche still rings true: ‘you get what you pay for.’ But our price puts us out of reach of many people, and I would like to see that change. 

Doug Simpson is the co-owner of Feathercraft Products Ltd,
1244 Cartwright Street, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V6H 3R8, Phone 604-681-8437.

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