The introduction of plastics to kayak design and manufacturing was a catalyst that helped take our sport from a quiet niche to the buzzing main stream. The roots of plastic’s inception in the kayaking world can be traced back to the surge in the popularity of whitewater kayaking in the early 1970s. Designers (often paddlers themselves) recognized that the high impact resistance and durability of plastic would make it well suited for the whitewater environment. At the same time, manufactures appreciated the fact that plastic allowed for more cost-effective production when compared to the more traditional materials such as composites and wood. These factors combined to usher in a wave of new and affordable kayaks to the market. Here’s a brief history of some of the earliest plastic kayaks:
Plastic kayaks first appeared in whitewater kayaking circles in the mid-1970s when two established plastic-forming manufacturers, Uniroyal and Hollowform, entered the kayaking market. The Hollowform River Chaser represents one of the first plastic whitewater kayaks to hit the river (Taft 2001).
Further advances in plastic kayak manufacturing came in 1976 when Perception Kayaks introduced rotational molding techniques for the production of polyethylene kayaks. In rotational molding, a hollow mold is filled with plastic pellets and then heated while being slowly rotated. This process melts and disperses the plastic so that it evenly covers the walls of the mold. The mold is then cooled and the result is a one-piece, plastic kayak! One of their first roto-molded (RM) models was the Perception Quest; a 13ft-long whitewater kayak. The successes (and failures) of the Quest led Perception to expand their RM whitewater kayak line to include the Mirage and Dancer.
The advent of RM sea kayaks is less clear-cut. Valley Canoe Products introduced the 17 foot long Skerray RM in the mid-1980s (1984?) and boasts that they are responsible for the RM revolution in sea kayaking. It will take some detective work to verify things but my research shows that the Prijon Seayak seems to have appeared on the scene around the same time.
Not surprisingly, Perception was quick to claim a piece of the RM sea kayak pie with the (then Aquaterra) Chinook which was introduced in 1986 or earlier. Hydra also introduced their acclaimed Sea Runner at about the same time.
From there, the RM sea kayak market exploded! Improvements in RM manufacturing techniques allowed for companies to churn out plastic kayaks en mass and at a relatively low cost. There’s no doubt that this increase in availability and affordability to the consumer is what took the sport from a quiet niche to the buzzing main stream!
Check back for updates as I learn more about these vintage plastic kayaks!
1) Taft, “The River Chasers: A history of American whitewater paddling.” Alpine Books Press. (2001)
2) Billington Sea Kayak Archives maintained by Douglass Gray. Includes product catalogs and dealer information dating back to 1986.