Updated: Jan 19
On the evening of Thursday November 10 2022, Sanesh and I set out on a multi-day, multi-purpose, and multi-country adventure. The idea first struck me when I was thinking about how to repair my broken Werner Kaliste paddle without paying astronomical shipping fees. I had broken it this summer while guiding a 22-day sea kayak expedition in Gwaii Haanas and had been hauling around its pieces ever since. Werner offers a repair service for their paddles, but it requires the paddle to be sent to them for repair - a cost which I had just learned was going to be at least $180 each way - so I was hatching a plan to get the paddle to the repair shop myself.
I called Sanesh and we began working out the details…
We planned our trip to be in Washington on Friday November 11th (a Canadian holiday which Sanesh had off, but a day when Werner and Sterling would be open). In the evening of November 10th, Sanesh and I piled into my dad’s beautifully converted Sprinter van and headed for the US border. We crossed with little issue then continued towards the city of Everett - arriving around 9:00 pm. We decided we had to experience the local nightlife so we wandered into the Independent Beer Bar and sat at the bar for a drink. We quickly made friends with the man next to us - a member of the prestigious Pint club who works in tech and lives on a sailboat - and with the bartender. We sat and chatted and drank until it was clear we would be spending the night right where we were, so we wandered out of the bar and into the van.
The next morning we woke early and headed to Milk House Coffee Co. for our morning coffee, grabbed some donuts (bribes) and headed out to visit Werner Paddles. We arrived around 10:00am, dropped off my paddle for repair, and met Taylor for a tour of the facility. The first thing we noticed was the calm in the workshop - the equipment was quiet, there wasn’t any loud music playing, and the smell of resin fumes was nonexistent thanks to the state-of-the-art extraction system. As we traversed the floor, we saw sheets of pre-preg material rolled into paddle shafts, baked, and mated with blades made in the far end of the factory.
Sanesh is an engineer who has studied and worked extensively with composite materials, so he was in his element. He was non-stop questions and was eyes-wide whenever he saw a piece of equipment. When Taylor mentioned a specialized process, Sanesh nodded knowing and I stood there pretending I understood.
Here's what I managed to retain about composite paddle manufacturing:
Tooling is very specialized and expensive - there isn't really an off-the-shelf system for putting together a kayak paddle
Pre-preg means a carbon fiber (or fiberglass or Kevlar) fabric that has been pre-impregnated with a resin so it can be easily laid into a mold and baked to cure. The process ensurures an even distribution of resin throughout the fabric.
Some manufacturing processes are a tightly controlled industry secrets - while Taylor gave us extensive details about how straight shaft paddles were made, bent shafts, foam-filled blades, and ferrule fittings remain a mystery.
Very little of the manufacturing process is done by machine. Dies cut patterns and ovens cure resin, but the highly trained workers at Werner operate the machinery, move the components around and are each able to operate a number of stations within the factory.
As we left we decided we had enough time to stop in downtown Seattle to visit REI and Feathered Friends, so we blasted out of Everett towards the coast. It wasn't my first time in the Seattle REI, but the scale of it blew me away nonetheless. It's like an oversized shrine to the outdoors! If you've never been, I'd highly recomend - it's somewhere between the chill and knowledgeable vibe of a Valhalla Pure Outfitters and the absolute nonsense of a Cabellas.
Feathered Friends was more my speed. It’s a small local shop that makes really high quality down outerwear and tents from Hillberg. Sanesh and I were giddy at the prospect of setting up an Alak 3 (definitely our dream tent for the trip!) and spent half an hour poking our heads into it, laying down, walking around the outside, and ogling the specs. It's way beyond our trip budget, but so beautiful and well-designed that Sanesh and I had hours of debate in the van about whether we should take on a mortgage and get one. If you work for Hillberg and are reading this - we'd love to chat!
After a quick downtown lunch (and a visit to the wooden boat museum) we headed North towards Sterling Kayaks. We had heard about Seattle’s infamous traffic, but experiencing it firsthand was a real treat. The drive which had taken us an hour and a half the day before now took over 3 hours… We arrived at Sterling just in the nick of time and were treated to a fantastically in-depth tour from Jim, the shop manager.
While less hightech of a space than Werner, the production floor was no less impressive! On one end raw materials enter (fiberglass, carbon fiber, kevlar, resin) and on the other end, beautifully finished kayaks exit. What immediately stuck out to me is the sheer size of Sea Kayak molds. I supppose I always knew that had to be larger than a finished sea kayak, but seeing a dozen of them in one room really threw me! Jim walked us through the steps of the process from mold prep to seat install and we chatted about the history of the facility, their current successes and challenges, and their future projects. Again, Sanesh was in his element - chatting about the benefits of epoxy vs. polyester resin and name-dropping composite suppliers back and forth with Jim.
Here's what I learned at Sterling Kayaks:
The direction of the weave as well as it's ability to stretch are important considerations in sea kayak manufacturing. With the right layup a kayak can have stiff sections, flexible sections, and sections which flex in one direction but not another.
There is WAY more hands-on craftsmanship involved in the making of a Sterling Kayak than I had imagined. From custom masking for paint, to delicate trimming of components for fitment, to polishing and rigging - skilled craftspeople are crucial to making these boats.
There is a difference between epoxy and polyester resin - and many specifications within each category. Sanesh understands this much more thoroughly than I do so I'll get him to explain it to me (and you) in a future blog post.
Moisture, temperature, ventilation, and light all play a factor in ensuring that composite materials cure evenly and completely.
When it somes to customization, the sky is the limit! I was aware of custom bulkhead placement, seat position, and personalized decals, but had no idea just how far one could go. Jim was very forthcoming about his desire to innovate with LED lighting, custom compass mounts, personalized material layups, and one-of-a-kind paint schemes.
I'd love to say I was immediately sold and ordered my Grand Illusion right away, but given their cost it took a few more days of testing friends' boats to finally commit. I'm excited to say that Jim and his team are currently making me a Grand Illusion (with a few special customizations) and it will be ready for pickup in the coming weeks! You can spot the top half of my future kayak on the left side of the second photo - It's purple and green.
It was now dark and we headed North to the Canadian border, then carried-on to my parents’ house for dinner. We spent a moment there decompressing and absorbing the whirlwind of a day we’d just had before we once again set off for the 9:00pm ferry sailing from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo. I slept a little on the boat, then we drove onwards to Cathedral Grove forest to spend the night in the van.
What a day!
At the crack of dawn, we arose and stumbled from bed to drivers’ seat and set off for Ucluelet. We stopped in town to collect Sanesh’s kayak - a Telkwa Sport - from the Majestic Ocean Kayaking base, then at the SKILS base so I could borrow a kayak - a Sterling Grand Illusion - and finally at Zoe’s bakery for breakfast and a coffee. We met up with our friends Kelsey, Camillo, and their pup Cyprus outside the bakery and made a plan to walk on Wickaninnish beach before we took our boats out surfing.
The waves were OK… a great test of our boats, but not the greatest surf of my life. Sanesh struggled a bit with getting into the kayak in the surf without an assist, but made good progress. I focussed on trying to handle the Grand Illusion in the waves rather than having it control me. It felt really nice to be in the waves at Wickaninnish beach. The last time I was there was two months prior and the waves were significantly tamer. Along with the Sterling GI, I was also using a Werner Ikelos Paddle for the first time - the big brother to the Cypress paddle I will be using on our trip. This one was 210 cm long, had a bent shaft and the foam-filled blades for which Werner is famous. It felt great in the hand and had more than enough power to direct the Grand illusion to go in the surf.
By 3pm we had left the beach, returned the Grand Illusion to SKILS, and were stopped in front of a shop called 'Manke at the Wreckage'. We toured around the workshop / store / learning space / gallery and chatted with the owner - James Manke - about all things Greenland paddling. We also ran into Matt - a friend of Sanesh's who was on his AOG course in the spring. Small world! There is a good chance that Sanesh and I will be taking a Greenland paddling course with James before our trip. We'll be using Greenland paddles for a portion of the paddling, so we want to feel comfortable using them for strokes, braces and rolls. Stay tuned for a post about it!
Just as the sun was beginning to set we left Ucluelet and headed South towards Victoria. We arrived at my apartment for a late dinner and settled in for the night. I slept in my bed for the first time since Wednesday and Sanesh crashed on the couch. The following morning, I left for work shortly after 9am and Sanesh made the final leg of the adventure alone - he boarded the Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen ferry then drove home to Lynn Valley. His final stop was at a lumber yard to collect some supplies to build a storage rack for his new kayak. You'll have to ask him for more details about this lonely leg of the journey as I was not there to witness it.
Overall, I'd say this was a nearly perfectly executed plan! We saw what we wanted to see, met who we needed to meet, dropped off what we needed to drop off and even made some friends along the way. I came away from the weekend realizing just how little I understand about composite manufacturing (and by extension maintenance and repair), so I'm eager to build some knowledge and skill in anticipation of our trip. Eventually, Sanesh and I will be testing and writing reviews for our Werner Paddles and Sterling kayak and will be sure to include all we know about their composite layup.
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