FEATHERCRAFT KAYAKS ended 40 years of production in 2016, marking the end of an era in the sea kayaking world.
Fortunately, many crafts continue to thrive on the expedition scene because the unique folding design allows them to be transported to places hardshell boats simply can’t go.
Doug Simpson, Feathercraft founder and designer, invented the skin-on-frame foldable kayak design while working as a prospector and pilot in the remote wilderness of Canada’s Northwest Territories.
He wanted a lightweight, packable boat to load into float planes, that was quick to assemble and disassemble, and durable enough to last in the remote Canadian wilderness.
His patented his first design in 1977. He chose the name Feathercraft as an ode to a feather’s sturdy, hollow vane, like the tubes used in the frame.
The most popular Feathercraft design was the K2 Expedition tandem kayak. The K2 weighed 87 pounds and had a capacity of 700 pounds, making it ideal for extended expeditions with extensive food and gear requirements.
During his early design years, Simpson rented a small shack on Granville Island in Vancouver, British Columbia. The space was 19 feet and three inches in length, which determined the maximum length of kayak he could build. To work on the opposite side of the boat, Simpson had to take the kayak outside, turn it around and squeeze it back into this shop.
Simpson chose T-6 anodized aluminum for the frame material, a common material for airplane parts. It has a high strength to weight ratio, and most importantly, is resistant to pitting and corrosion by salt water. The hypalon and urethane skin was all hand-cut and sewn. Thanks to high-quality components, Feathercraft kayaks regularly lasted for 30 years or more with proper maintenance.
I have been paddling Feathercrafts for many years in the Arctic.
There certainly are tricks and quirks about building them, maintaining them on an expedition, and storing them. The manual suggests a 45-minute time for assembly. In the field, with sometimes damaged or missing parts or in bad weather, this process can take quite a bit longer, and cost a few skinned knuckles along the way. Yet, as expedition boats, they are user friendly—easy for packing and ideal for large cargo volumes. I have landed them in surf, bashed through thick brash ice, and felt them flex in large ocean swell. I have also had a few mishaps. Luckily, field repairs are easy, and often permanent. The old saying holds true: take care of your boat, and your boat will take care of you.
With the high price of air cargo, most Feathercrafts still in service are cached high in the Arctic, or in holds of expedition cruise ships.
This past summer, I took a moment to salute one of the Feathercrafts in our long-standing East Greenland fleet. Pinky, as it was aptly named in recent years, was a first-generation K2 Expedition kayak with a woven nylon skin. It had seen many sea days over its years of service, and its once deep red hull is now a sun-faded and salt-stained pink.
Pinky’s last trip was in the Ammassalik Fjord on the East Coast of Greenland. It was transported from Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland, further north, where it previously served as an expedition fleet boat for more than two decades years.
During the long voyage, which included a snowmobile trek through two mountain passes, Pinky sustained two injuries to critical frame components. Even with careful hands and a delicate touch, these components failed while it was being dismantled. A short service was held for Pinky beside the sea, and a salute made to the many miles traveled, and many amazing things seen from its cockpit. Most of Pinky’s parts were donated to other Feathercrafts, so in a way, it will live on as a part of the fleet. At sea, where it was meant to be.