Following the heels of publicly held PolyOne ceasing production of Royalex at the end of 2014, as well as a general downward trend in canoe sales, canoe maker Esquif Canoes Inc. closed its doors March 16 …
As first reported by Sports One Source, the company announced the closure in a statement on its web site reading, “It is with great sadness that we announce today that Esquif Canoes Inc. has stopped operating Monday March 16, 2015. Various elements forced Esquif to dispose of its assets and end production. For over 15 years, we worked hard to design and build the best canoes in the world and we want to thank all our customers and friends. Mission accomplished!”
Long known for its high-performance whitewater canoes, Quebec-based Esquif Canoes was founded by Jacques Chasse. Like many other canoe manufacturers, it had been trying to develop a substitute for Royalex, the tough, three-layer plastic discontinued by PolyOne. The material’s light weight, durability and price point was perfect for manufacturers as an alternative to rotomolded polyethylene, fiberglass, Kevlar and other materials. Their hulls can also “pop” back into their shape after being dented.
“It’s light, quiet and slippery on rocks,” says longtime canoeist and three-time national C-1 champion Kent Ford. “There’s a reason it replaced aluminum.”
First invented by Uniroyal Tire Company (hence the “royal” name), Royalex consists of an acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic core sandwiched between two layers of UV-protecting vinyl. It comes in sheets, which get heated and molded to form a canoe. The first Royalex canoe was built by Maine’s Thompson Boat Company in 1964, with Old Town Canoe using it in its 16-foot Chipewyan in 1972 and other companies like Mad River, Wenonah, Mohawk and Dagger quickly following suit.
“It was less expensive and more durable than composite, and way lighter than polyethylene,” says Dagger Canoe Co. founder Joe Pulliam, whose first Royalex canoe, the Caper, came out in 1988. “We started using it in whitewater, but it didn’t take long for our general purpose Royalex canoes, like the Reflection series, to outsell our whitewater models.” The beauty of it, he adds, is that it could be brought back to shape and it didn’t hang up on rocks like aluminum. “Serious whitewater canoeists abandoned any other material quickly,” he says.
According to Sports One Source, in May 2014, Esquif announced plans to begin using its own proprietary material dubbed T-Formex in its boats, but industry sources say the company was never able to produce the material in commercially viable volumes.
“The chances of someone else picking up Royalex is slim to none,” says Mohawk Canoes co-owner Richard Guin. The reason, he adds, is that making Royalex requires three different manufacturing plants — an extrusion plant for the vinyl, another for the ABS substrate, and yet another for the foam core. “It’s a costly process, with very few people buying the material — only canoe companies and one suitcase company.”
While Esquif is one casualty of the move, others hope something will surface on the horizon. “I’m betting someone will find a better material,” says Ford, who, for one, is championing Tegris, a lightweight polypropylene sheet stock with a high stiffness-to-weight ratio and great impact resistance.
Bill Kuper, vice-president of Wenonah, which currently offers 19 models in Royalex, agrees and feels there shouldn’t be too many ripples. “The loss of Royalex, while significant, is only one material in our repertoire,” he says. “Now we’re even more encouraged to identify alternatives capable of addressing the market.”
Mohawk feels it has one for whitewater in a new line of canoes made out of polyethylene. “The whitewater side is easy to get around,” maintains Guin. “We’re going to blowmold all of our whitewater boats in PE. But the canoes will be short — long poly boats get too heavy.” The harder part, he feels, is addressing the flatwater market. “One material we keep coming back to is Poly Carbonite,” he says of a commodity plastic used in making bulletproof glass. “But we’re too far away to make predictions yet.”
Pulliam has no magic answers, either, but also feels something will surface – just like his beloved Royalex models punching through a hole on the Chattooga. “The death of Royalex will be a significant blow,” he says, adding that more rec and touring boats will likely be made from composites now and whitewater boats, at least solo, will likely gravitate toward polyethylene. “Will whitewater canoeing sadly die away? History would say no, that some new material will be found. Perhaps long-fiber thermoplastics like Twin-Tex will work, though it hasn’t proven commercially viable yet, and perhaps necessity will lead to something stronger, lighter and less expensive. Let’s hope so.”