Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Alta Kayak: another cottage paddling industry

We're fascinated by businesses born of necessity. We've written in the past about Snapdragon and Werner, two of the many Pacific Northwest paddlesport companies begun by enthusiastic paddlers who needed gear that wasn't readily available. But the truth is, most of today's best-known kayak-related companies began as cottage industries--a phenomenon well portrayed in Kent Ford's film, The Call of the River.

Taking David up on the claim, "If you break it, Alta Kayak can fix it!"
Yesterday, we dropped in on David Thompson, founder of Alta Kayak, a custom outfitting company on Orcas Island. We brought a boat for him to repair ("If you break it, Alta Kayak can fix it!" his website promises) and hung around to look at his current projects.

David's one-room shop.
David bills himself as a designer and craftsman--talents that predate his work on human-powered crafts.  He began working with his hands at the age of 14, helping his grandfather do stonemasonry. He did bodywork on airplanes in the armed services, then worked in boiler repair and construction. Six years ago, while living in Montana, he decided to apply his skills at building and repairing things to kayaks; four years later, he moved to Orcas, which offered the perfect combination of paddling opportunities and performance sea kayakers -- the kind of people who really care about customizing their boats.

David Thompson in his shop.
Today he specializes in custom seats to replace the ones that come from the factory. He creates some of them to solve specific problems, such as lower back pain, tailbone pressure or leg cramps; some to suit specific preferences for seats of a particular height, width or shape; and some for performance paddlers who prefer a composite seat to a plastic or foam one. Each seat is made to order, built by hand for a specific person and boat. 

One of David's hand-built molds for a kayak seat.
People learn about his seats mostly through word of mouth or by seeing them in other people's boats. If they can come to Orcas, they can buy a custom fiberglass seat for $150, or a carbon fiber seat for $200, and David will install it for $50. If coming here isn't an option, he can ship the seat and all the parts required for installation.

Rolls of carbon fiber, fiberglass and other material.
One of David's recent innovations is a carbon-fiber paddle holder that's bolted to the deck ($200 plus $50 for installation). And he's working on a deck compass light that doesn't interfere with night vision. 

David's paddle holders are sleek and secure.
Between projects, David still performs a fair number of boat repairs and keel strip installations. The best part of his job, he says, is being able to create things, and the positive response of the people who buy them. That and not punching a clock. We have to think that no small part of his job satisfaction also has to be living in one of the best paddling locations in the nation. That and getting out on the water as often as he can.

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