After a slew of changes in the sea kayaking business world a few years ago, the sector is back to stroking along smoothly, especially as more people opt to social distance outside on the water in the face of COVID-19 restrictions and concerns.
As little as three years ago, the parent of one major sea kayak manufacturer decided to scuttle the brand; another’s founders sold the company to its management team; and upstarts and veterans began employing social fundraising to bring products to market. But while all this spelled shifting currents in the sea kayaking sector, it doesn’t mean an ebbing tide in the industry.
Sea Kayak Sales Trending Upward
While companies like Delta and Eddyline focus on the light-touring side of the sea kayak market, Big Adventures VP of Sales and Marketing Kelley Woolsey (who recently moved to the company from Pelican) says Hurricane, with its thermoformed ABS capabilities, is focused more on the rec side of the touring market — whether it’s sit-in or sit-on. “We can get closer to the feel of a composite boat than you can by rotomolding,” he says.
Big Adventures’ brands include Bonafide, Native, LiquidLogic and Hurricane, the later of which is devoted to the touring niche. As for sales, he says they’re skyrocketing. “Sales are off the charts,” he says. “We’re way oversold as far as demand. Whenever you go through a recession or anything, such as we are with COVID-19, lifestyle-oriented sports, especially water-related ones, tend to thrive. Our business has spiked dramatically as people are looking for ways to spend more time outside. And touring is perfect because it has built-in social distancing. People are spending less on travel and vacations and putting that money into things they can do outside with their families.”
To that end, they’re introducing the new Prima 12.5 this year, a 12’6″ rec touring boat , with its sister 10.5 model coming shortly. “They’re focused on rec paddling, but are versatile and perform,” he says, equating them to the Wilderness Pungo his team helped develop two decades ago.
On other issue he brings up, which is likely being felt elsewhere, is the difficulty in hiring to meet the increased demand.
Sea kayak sales have grown steadily for the past decade year over year, says Eddyline president Scott Holley. And this year they’ve been gong gangbusters. “As soon as Memorial Day hit, our phones blew up and we sold out of our whole production schedule,” he says, adding that the company is already sold out through next summer. “We’ve built our 2020 boats much later into the season than we normally do. We had to close off pre-season and cut dealers back because of the request allotment. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen it this way.”
The sale uptick comes after the company shut down for a month while relocating into a bigger facility in January of 2020, “dramatically increasing production capacity,” says Holley. Then came the shut down from COVID-19. “It was a challenging production move, and then the pandemic hit,” he says. “Between those two events we lost two months of production.” Still, overhauling their line from 2018-19, they sold everything they made this year and then some — including additions to their sit-on-top and day-touring lines. The former is lead by the new Caribbean NFS 12 (New Frame Seat) sit-on-top, with the day-touring line featuring the new three-size Sitka series.
A longtime manufacturer of premier kayaks and paddles, including the industry’s first thermoformed ABS kayak, Eddyline was founded by Tom Derrer in 1971 in a small shop in Boulder, Colo., and is now based in Burlington, Wash. In late 2017, 47 years after forming the company, Derrer and his wife Lisa sold the company to its management team. As part of the acquisition, Scott Holley joined the company as president, joining the existing management team of Todd Keane, Tom Remsing, and Janet Sutton. Remsing is now in is 23rd year with the company, heading sales and marketing; and vice-president of production Keane has been with Eddyline over 25 years.
For Holley, he says they’re just glad to be able to help people get outside. “I’m thankful we’re able to meet a need and help get people into a sport that will provide some relief during these crazy times.”
A Quick Recap
Necky Kayaks Discontinued as Old Town Canoe Sets Course for Expansion
Once a giant and industry leader in high-value performance sea kayaks, Necky Kayaks—acquired by Johnson Outdoors in 1998 from company founder Mike Neckar—officially became no more in 2017, a victim of parent company Johnson Outdoors putting all its sea kayaking eggs into its venerable Old Town Canoe boating basket.
“Yes, Necky is going away, which is very sad for us who have been around for a while,” then Old Town VP of Sales David Hadden said at the time. “All that said, it will give us a lot of opportunity to go after the day-tour market with our new Old Town boats, especially our new Castine kayak line.”
Johnson announced the change while planning to expand product offerings under its flagship Old Town brand. “Old Town is an iconic brand that has given people a great experience on the water for over a century,” said Group VP Bill Kelly at the time. “Moving forward, consumers and dealers will see a broader array of kayaks, paddles and personal flotation devices that carry the Old Town name and all that it stands for.”
Already offering a complete line of rec and fishing kayaks, Old Town quickly expanded into the day touring kayak category with the new three-size Castine series. The company also bid adieu to its longtime PFD-maker Extrasport brand, absorbing new PFD, as well as paddle, designs into Old Town as well.
Johnson Outdoors has since upped its investment in R&D and marketing behind its Ocean Kayak brand to increase innovation and speed-to-market of its new products.
If paddles are a barometer of sea kayak sales, it’s inching upward.
“Our sea kayak paddles experienced an uptick in sales this year as people pursued the outdoors to escape the madness of 2020,” says Andrew Stern of Bending Branches and AquaBound. “Many paddlers brushed the dust off their 20 year old Aqua Bound paddles, others came ready to make the upgrade as they planned to paddle more. Paddle manufacturers, ourselves included, slowed the opportunities for people to buy new gear as we struggling through supply chain issues, hiring shortages, and unpredictable demand. We should continue to see more uplift in sales for 2021 as the weather warms and dealers fill their shelves with the latest and greatest.”
Brands Embrace Kickstarter
While some companies are rearranging management teams and others are downsizing or eliminating brands, others are continuing to turn toward the social side of financing to bring new products to market.
In 2016, Oru Kayaks launched its third Kickstarter campaign, after raising nearly $800,000 in its first two Kickstarter crusades. In its first installment, 730 backers gave the company $444,000 for the launch of its Coast kayak. In the company’s second visit to Kickstarter, 238 backers pledged $356,000 to the company. Later, it reached its third goal.
Other kayak companies are taking note and following Oru’s lead. Another company using crowd-funding was TRAK, which has been manufacturing portable, skin-of-frame performance kayaks since 2006. It recently announced a Kickstarter campaign to help fund its next iteration: the TRAK 2.0, what it calls “the ultimate touring kayak” with innovations like carbon fiber technology and technical backpack and travel bag systems. Company founders Gord Espeseth and Dwight Abernethy, longtime outdoorsmen and cedar strip canoe builders, feel the funding will help carry their company into 2018 and beyond, by improving upon TRAK’s unique features of having an adjustable rocker on the fly, polyurethane hull and deck, and fabric welding as opposed to sewn seams.
Upstart PakaYak–“the ultimate packable kayak” that packs a 14-foot kayak into just 3.5 feet—saw 497 backers pledge $546,000 to help bring its project to life. And Swell (founded by former Canoe & Kayak magazine publisher Jim Marsh) also explored Kickstarter to produce a new 14-foot, high-performance sit-on-top kayak called the Scupper. Designed by Ocean Kayak founder Tim Niemier, unique features include lowering the footwells below waterline for a more comfortable paddling position (and positive posture); one-way valves that drain water out, but don’t let water in; and a unique chine feature boosting secondary stability. “We realized the only way to increase speed was to increase comfort,” says Niemier, “so we focused on ergonomics to position paddlers’ bodies perfectly.”