Monday 18 February 2019

Ten Years of Expedition Kayaks - by Mark Sundin

I’m often asked how Expedition Kayaks came to be, and I figured that a ten-year anniversary was probably as good a time as any to indulge in a little nostalgia! Back in 2008 I was an avid club sea kayaker, paddled a surf kayak any chance I got, and helped out with my club mates on the odd weekend with some group instruction. Although I loved my paddling and really enjoyed the great club spirit that existed at the time among the NSW Sea Kayak Club, I hadn’t contemplated being in the kayaking business at all. Then one day late in the year, an invitation came from AusTrade to exhibit my line of outdoor furniture at the massive Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City. 

Not knowing too much about what it took to succeed in a massive market like America, I (for once) took the sensible option of heading over to have a look at the show, talk & listen to exhibitors and buyers, before deciding whether it was something worth going at boots & all.

The show was an eye opener, every conceivable outdoor gear & kayak brand was there, and I very quickly figured that I didn’t have the time or inclination to have a crack at selling anything into such a scary marketplace.

Once I’d worked that out, I was free to attend the water sports demo day, a big open air event where all of the kayaks, canoes, and these ridiculous looking Stand Up Paddle Board thingys (as if anyone would do THAT!) were at the edge of a Utah Lake up in the hills for us to paddle & check out. 

A bit sheepish, mindful of being a tyre kicker after all, I wandered over to the almost mythical Valley Sea Kayaks exhibit, a brand I’d heard about for years, sighted very occasionally, usually with a golden light shining upon them from on high, and jumped into a Nordkapp. Paddling it around in front of their tent, cracking a few rolls & showing off some strokes (actually more like just doing my best to show off), I caught the attention of Sean Morley, their North America guy at the time. He was a paddler I’d always admired for his willingness to have a red hot go at everything, seemingly free of the blinkers that sea kayakers of the time were renowned for wearing. He stuck me in another couple of their demo boats, which were so lively and engaging compared to the fairly uninteresting kayaks I’d owned up ‘til then, and we arranged to meet the next day back at the show to talk about importing them into Australia.

My mate Rob was paddling the remote Cape York Peninsula at the time, and I figured if I was going to get into the kayak importing business, he might like to go halves. I mean hell, we might even make enough to get ourselves a free boat each out it! Miraculously, considering the time difference, where he was, and the cellular coverage at the time, I got him first go. I’m sure it’s still the one and only phone call between Salt Lake City & Restoration Island….

The conversation from my end went something like:

‘Yeah I’m in Utah’ 
‘What? Speak up!’
‘Nah I’m not becoming a Mormon’ 
‘Where are you?’
‘Wanna go halves in a container of Valley Sea Kayaks?’
‘No mate a CONTAINER
‘Yeah righto, I’ll place the order tomorrow’

And that was that. They arrived about eight weeks later, sold out shortly afterwards, another shipment was promptly ordered, and Expedition Kayaks was suddenly a proper kayaking business.

In the ten years that have passed since that fateful and unlikely phone call, we have moved along a steady path and stuck to our guns on boat choices and the integrity of the products we sell. We’ve tried to change shape & emphasis as the paddling we have always loved first and foremost, has grown to encompass so much more than the sometimes introspective world of sea kayaking.

I’m sure the major reason for our instant traction with the paddling community, apart from the obvious fact that we were alreadya fair dinkum part of the paddling community, was our emphasis on putting skills ahead of anything else. We had kayak designs that, with the application of good technique, would dance & manoeuvre and provide the paddler with a very satisfying level of control. By teaching skills and providing boats that responded in kind, we watched as the rudderless Brit skeg boat went from being something that a true believer might import as a one-off at great expense, to being freely available ‘off the shelf’. They subsequently became the ‘second boat’ in a substantial number of peoples quivers. Justine Curgenven had just begun her hugely successful ‘This is the Sea’ anthology of video, and she managed to singe-handedly broaden the reach and appeal of sea kayaking, and the possibilities contained therein, and it was no fluke that almost all of her brilliant adventures happened in nimble, manouvreable skeg kayaks.

Rob & I have always remained open to new designs, and I for one looked on with slight bemusement as Greenland paddling made a comeback from the outer rim of kayaking to become a mainstream activity. It kicked quite hard on the heels of the emergence of the attractive and functional Greenland boat designed by Johann Wirsen, which we were the first to import into Australia. 

Greenland paddling was the black art of the solemn dude with the Che Guevara stare who could pronounce all of the 36 rolls in a crisp Inuit dialect, much the same way as a karate sensei can roll off the names of the numerous kata (yes I’m being a little bit cheeky, Che…) 
In one summer, the solemn ritual sprouted forth larrikin-esque rolling competitions complete with sledging and much mirth. The caring and sharing gave way to ‘that bastard can do a forward finishing roll, and I bloody well can’t’ attitude that quickly reduced the piety to a good humoured contest. Geez it was fun, less Ennio Morricone, more Chumbawamba. I can’t help but think that the Inuit would have been pretty competitive amongst themselves on that front too, but no videos exist! Again in my neck of the woods, whilst that tight fitting black-clad period passed quite quickly, it left a legacy of much improved rollers, the kind of 360 degree confidence that reassured a lot of people that when you’re upside down, there is more than one way to find your way back up.

In another significant moment, we took a leap of faith and ordered one each of the wildly radical Valley Rapier 20. This was just prior to the huge boom in Ocean Skis in Australia, and both of us were fascinated by this really fast, quite unstable craft that forced us into using wing paddles – properly -  & made us sharpen up our technique or get very wet! Our Thursday morning fitness paddles (still going strong by the way and evolved now to become Dolls Point Paddlers) were suddenly rather a bit quicker and more edgy, and our own paddling angled off in a more athletic direction. As a logical next step, within months I was paddling and selling Ocean skis, learning the ropes on these downwind flying machines. I think the second paddle I ever had in my new Epic V10 Sport – the entry level ski of the time - was a mad dash a couple of miles out to sea with my mate Stacka into a well developed southerly. I can still remember the exhilaration of flying back downwind in conditions I had no right to be out in. Yeewwww….!

The idea of a faster touring sea kayak, something that went like the Rapier but had a little more carrying capacity and stability, was a very attractive idea that we didn’t have to wait long to see. Of course the Rockpool Taran arrived in 2010, and in our eyes the world of touring sea kayaks had changed forever. Here was a big load carrier, without the low foredeck’d, numb-legged ergonomics of the boats we’d always owned, that was fast enough to hold a candle to race boats on the flat, and went like a freight train downwind. It demanded positivity and a degree of aggression in the big stuff, but wow what a kayak.

Along with Chris James we suited up three Tarans for our North Reef Expedition in 2011, paired them with Mick MacRobb’s Flat Earth Sails, and cut loose across 350km of open water. Our route traversed islands between 80-120km off the coast of Queensland, unprotected by the Great Barrier Reef, so far out off the coast that in weather forecasting terms we were on the high seas. We had days where we were having such a blast, we were genuinely sad to see an 80km crossing coming to an end. A whole new world of big, rollicking, achievable distances were opened up, where previously they’d often meant grind, misery & endurance. People mistakenly think that the extra speed is an end unto itself, and hey, what’s the rush? In fact the speed facilitates recovery, you get there faster, you are more efficient, you’re on the water less time, your whole trip becomes easier. The big fast downhill days are just the cherry on top.

Since the conclusion of that North Reef trip nearly eight years ago, we’ve continued on the trajectory of promoting and encouraging paddlers to have a go, back their own ability to learn and advance their skills, safe in the knowledge that the ocean is much more a playground for the skilled, than it is a minefield for the inexperienced. 

The logical next stage of that journey was neatly encapsulated in the sheer joy of getting to paddle a kayak, the Audax, that I’d helped Rob to design, through the beautiful islands of Bass Strait last year, with four great mates. Feeling a design work the way you’d hoped it would work in a range of water ranging from dead flat, to dead scary was a very satisfying experience, especially considering the years of development and expense that preceded.

So what has changed in the ten years since we began our business?

I think the biggest single change is the dissolution of lines of demarcation between threads of paddling. Back when we started in 2009, of the twenty or thirty really strong sea kayakers I knew and paddled with around Sydney, maybe a couple owned skis. Since the democratisation of surfski, the launch of user friendly designs that have made the sport incredibly inclusive, if I was to poll that same twenty or thirty paddlers you’d be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t own a ski. And the numbers wouldn’t change that much if I was to broaden it to include another twenty or thirty. That single boundary break has helped to sharpen the fitness and technique of an awful lot of sea kayakers, certainly in my broad circle, and has also piqued the interest of a lot of paddlers with competitive backgrounds, especially now that there are fast sea kayaks that more closely resemble their skis in look and performance. They are realising that a sea kayak that can really cover ground and take you to wild places unsupported, is a much more three dimensional craft than a simple surfski.

The other change that is a little less welcoming is the ageing of our sport. There is no escaping the fact, that as a 30 year old in 2000, buying my Old Town Nantucket and turning up to attend a NSW Sea Kayak Club training weekend at Bundeena run by….Rob Mercer, I was one of the young fellas. But not by much. Rob, ten years my senior at 40, was definitely in the older brigade, maybe not quite venerable but definitely crusty! 

By comparison, I noted that at last year’s Rock & Roll weekend at Currarong, among 150 or so true to the blue sea kayakers, as a 48 year old (behaving mostly like a 17 year old), I was still pretty much one of the young guys. And that is something we need to address if we’re going to remain an activity that young people aspire to as an adventurous and challenging one. That is, an athletic endeavour that has the potential to take you out to North Reef, or across Bass Strait, or even outside the imposing Sydney Heads, alongside like minded souls who share a spirit of adventure. 

I have no doubt that the way to engage younger people is not endless group sessions drilling skills independent of one another, like a scouts lesson from the 1960’s. Instead mentoring, engaging with the ocean, letting the sea do the teaching with a safety net of skill underpinning the exercise, has much wider appeal as an intro to the sport for paddlers young & old. I always loved Tasmanian sea kayaking pioneer Laurie Ford’s philosophy, let the sea do the teaching. I can’t remember ever being a part of a day out with new paddlers on the sea, where they got to stare a big wave in the face safe in the knowledge that they were surrounded by competent mates, where they didn’t come back beaming and wanting more, whether they were 23 or 83. Because of the style of kayaking we promote we tend to still see the ambitious younger paddler looking to train up for a big trip, so our experience is a little skewed in terms of demographics, and few of them have any interest in the ‘Seargent Major’ training regimes that we endured as new paddlers.

The rise of our business has coincided with my young family growing up from babies to big kids, and Nicole has had to shoulder the burden of me being away at events around the country over the years, something I’m so grateful for, and a task she has always managed with a smile and a minimum of fuss. She actually tore me away from Coogee Oval with promises of wild places, and started my journey from sportsman to outdoorsman, a serendipitous and very unlikely change at just the right time in my life. My Mum Suzanne, with a lifetime of entrepreneurial experience to draw on, has always been a reliable sounding board for our ideas as well as a hardy and world-famous crew on some of my race adventures.

And of course the mighty Sharon has kept us both honest. You know what they say, behind every great man there’s a great woman, rolling her eyes….

Our adventures have taken me around the country and the world to meet paddlers near and far, forced me to develop my own paddling to the point where I will have a go at almost anything, and kept me fit, healthy & smiling. In many ways that chat with Sean Morley provided me with the excuse I needed to adopt his broad attitude to kayaking, under the brilliant disguise of helping start up a kayaking business! 

Along the way I’ve bid farewell to two of my closest mates in Chris James & Mick MacRobb, guys Rob & I shared great deeds with as well as the odd long night of blistering banter. I like to think that every great day I have out on the ocean is one for them too, and that they’d be stoked to see us carrying on the adventure.

It’s not the worst thing in the world to chat and hang out every day with people who love doing what I love doing, and as you can imagine, I’ve enjoyed the interaction with our large & loyal customer base. 

Geez we’ve had fun, Rob & I. 

To everyone that has been a part of Expedition Kayaks since 2008, thank you, I feel very privileged, and very grateful. In the immortal words of Royce Simmons, I’ll try to have a beer with youse all. 

Mark Sundin
February 2019. 

Friday 15 February 2019

Ten Years of Expedition Kayaks - by Rob Mercer

2009 on the job at the Queensland Sea Kayak Symposium.
It was one of those fortuitous moments you look back on with a smile, my phone started ringing as I unpacked my kayak on a remote island off the far North Queensland coast. This was a surprise because we hadn’t had phone reception for days and hadn’t expected to pick up calls again for quite a while. It was Mark in Salt Lake City looking at Valley Kayaks with US Valley Rep, who at that stage, was the legendary Sean Morley. Mark wanted to know if I was willing to go halves in a whole container of kayaks. I had already helped him demo and promote a few Impex kayaks but the opportunity to go halves in a full container of the famous Valley Sea Kayaks was too good to pass up so I said yes on the spot and without the slightest hesitation. 
I had been guiding, instructing and coaching sea kayakers for quite a while at that stage. I had travelled around the country for Australian Canoeing, offered private tuition in Sydney and continued to volunteer for training programs with the NSWSKC and any other clubs that wanted help and I had come to the conclusion that the shortage of playful, responsive sea kayaks that were easy to edge, turn and roll was holding both new and experienced paddlers back from reaching their full potential. It wasn’t that the ubiquitous long keeled, straight tracking cruisers weren’t good kayaks but they weren’t really much fun for discovering the subtleties of boat control in rough water and didn’t invite experimentation. I had built my own plywood kayaks because I couldn’t find what I wanted to paddle on the local market and had enjoyed paddling these for years although I still kept my trusty Nadgee for long trips because of the extra volume and watertight hatches. Our first Valley kayak order was exclusively plastic Aquanauts, Nordkapps and Avocets with one Rapier thrown in because I couldn’t resist the idea of a really fast sea kayak for my own amusement. These first steps took energy and imagination; qualities that Mark has proven time and again to possess in almost unlimited supply.

We never really saw these kayaks as replacements for the local long haul boats and we weren’t surprised that most were sold to paddlers who already had a bigger touring kayak and wanted something more playful. We had tapped a vein of pent up demand that ran even deeper than we first suspected and this initial shipment was all gone within a month and a half! On the strength of this we placed our second order straight away and by the time it left the UK half of it consisted of presold composites in custom colours as well as some more of the trusty plastics for stock. 

After the initial rush things settled enough for us to “test” a wider range of offerings for our demo fleet which was sometimes really just code for Mark and I buying more toys to play with. Not all the Valley Kayaks went on to become market winners or personal favorites but all of them taught us more about how design affects performance and just how much space there was in our market for a broader range of kayaks. It became very clear early on that we didn’t have to compete head to head with local kayak businesses because there were so many gaps in what was available. Instead we went looking for kayaks and paddling gear that filled all the niches: blind spots that were simply being ignored by the local big players of the time.  
Via Valley we added North Shore with their excellent single and double Atlantics and then followed up with Rockpool Kayaks; first with the GT and then the Taran.
At around this time we felt the skeg boat market was consolidated and most kayakers were at least aware of rudderless kayaks. We had also successfully located and imported Greenland paddles from the US and on the strength of this brought the Tahe Greenland and Greenland T into Australia providing an alternative “second kayak” or even a third kayak for those who were after the elegant lines of the true original sea kayaks of the arctic. For a while a wave of enthusiasm for Greenland techniques washed through the Aussie sea paddling scene and a visit from Ginni Callahan and then a year later from Cherry Perry and Turner Wilson saw interest and enthusiasm peak for this type of kayaking and use of paddle. 

For me personally watching and assisting these highly talented international coaches and presenters was more important than learning the techniques themselves and I continue to use and adapt teaching methods that I learnt from them when I teach rolling, sculling or bracing. 

Greenland techniques and equipment were still current when the Rockpool Taran and intermediate racing skis arrived and for a brief but very special moment we saw sea kayaking cover the most diverse range of paddling styles in our local paddling scene to date.

 It was a great challenge to find ourselves regularly going through a week of coaching or guiding and having to switch between Brit skeg boats, Greenland replicas, stable racing skis and fast tourers, and having to mix and match with Euro blades, skinny sticks and wing paddles. Some of the combinations worked better than others but we were enjoying a break from the orthodoxy that had dominated the local paddling scene. Trying to support and promote so many different styles of paddling lead us to some irreverent behavior including videos of learning to butterfly roll and hand roll put to a soundtrack of ‘Rage Against the Machine’ or videos of rolling an epic v8 surf ski with a Greenland stick. We pitted skis against fast sea kayaks and sometimes surprised a few ski snobs. We enjoyed having a gentle laugh at ourselves for taking it all a little too seriously in the beginning and I have no regrets if the odd somber individual found all of this a little too flippant for their liking.

Now some ten years since we imported our first shipment of skeg boats, the Greenland replica kayaks and skinny stick are seldom seen on the east coast of Australia and classic British boats are only just holding their own against the easy speed and flatter learning curve offered by skis and fast touring sea kayaks.
As in so many areas of modern life the majority celebrate the idea of diverse skills and experience and then ultimately spend their money on convenience; in this case choosing the easiest way to get exercise and a quick escape from the pressures of daily life.

For the combination of speed and expedition capacity, The Rockpool Taran was a game changer giving us a new and exciting kayak with speed and wave handling characteristics in a class of its own. I think it is fair to say our enthusiasm to do the North Reef trip was inspired by the capacity of the Taran to cover miles in rough water even when fully laden. 

While Rockpool was redefining the touring sea kayak, the big ocean ski manufacturers turned their attention to the silent majority of ski paddlers or ‘wanna be’ ski paddlers who just found the elite skis too hard to paddle. As a result “entry level” and “intermediate” skis flourished and surf ski became accessible and fun for so many more paddlers. 

The reticence of our manufacturers overseas to address our requests for better foot plates and our growing awareness of the need for foot support to encourage leg drive lead us to the research and development of the “BigFoot” footplate system designed to be easily retrofitable into almost any kayak and we found a great ally in local paddler and highly skilled metalworker Greg Davis. As with the previous untapped market niches the Big Foot was immediately snapped up by a local market that could see and feel the benefits. 
Ten years of EK has meant a decade of learning and collaborating. We have discovered the many ways in which kayaks, skis and paddles are not created equal; we have learnt from our customers and suppliers in equal part how to define and understand exactly what makes a successful product; we have learnt how to match products to market niches, and when we have discovered niches that no one else wanted to cover we have developed solutions in collaboration with others such as Mitchell Blades, Lendal NA and Flat Earth Sails. We have also designed and built our own products locally, including pump kits, footplate systems, tarps and kayaks, each time harnessing the artisan skills of local small enterprises and through testing and use in the real world we have learnt how to refine and improve what we do. Our biggest project to date has been the development of the Audax touring Sea kayak: a stable fast and responsive kayak that compliments our other fast tourers and continues to impress paddlers of all abilities. 

At a community level we have supported a wide range of symposiums, competitions, fundraisers and club activities across the country and we have been honored by invitations to deliver training and to share some of our images and stories as guests. In return we have enjoyed great friendships and been able to look on with satisfaction as kayakers have engaged with our products and benefitted from our training services. 

With a little prompting from Mark I have even been in the occasional flat-water race including Hawkesbury Classics and ski races.

However our business is called Expedition Kayaks and I think it is important to head out at least once or twice a year for multi day paddles just to test gear and remember what we are trying to promote, besides, its always a wonderful way to spend a few weeks and still be able to call it “work”.  
Among my favourites since the establishment of EK have been: South Coast NSW, Palm Group to Hinchinbrook and beyond, crossing to the Percy Group off Broad Sound, The Capricorn Quays and North Reef, Kangaroo Island, East Coast Tassie, The Hunter Group in NW Tassie and most recently Eastern Bass Strait for a second time.

In all of this the quiet achiever in our midst has been my wife, Sharon Betteridge who has accompanied us on EK road trips and paddled with me on many of the multiday kayak paddles listed above, she has worked with us on instructional programs and behind the scenes often brings a fresh perspective or reality check when we need it most.

I am proud of our success and delighted we have been able to have so much fun along the way. I am also more than a little humbled by the support we have enjoyed from the local paddling community. Along the way we have made many wonderful friends and I know Mark and I both agree this has been one of the great rewards for our efforts, unfortunately we have also lost two of the very best in Chris James and Mick Macrobb, both very different characters but both inspiring in their own way. There are many times when I wonder what they would have thought of how EK has continued to evolve over the years?

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