In 1975 Margaret Thatcher became the first woman to lead a British political party. The Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior. Peter Gabriel left Genesis. And the modern sea kayak—in the form of the Valley Nordkapp—was born. in 2015, the release of the Valley Nordkapp Førti marked the 40th anniversary of this very auspicious event.
Paddling to the Nordkapp
British adventurers Colin Mortlock, Sam Cook, Colin Litton, John Anderson, Nigel Matthews and Peter Davis were planning to paddle 500 miles up the Norwegian coast to the Nordkapp, or North Cape, and they felt none of the few available kayaks were up to the job. Frank Goodman, founder of fledgling English kayak builder Valley Canoe Products, designed them a kayak for the trip, also called the Nordkapp.
The Nordkapp was built to carry heavy loads in rough seas and sustain the wear and tear of a long expedition. After a shakedown circumnavigation of Scotland’s Isle of Skye, Mortlock insisted that the Nordkapp include a new concept: bulkheads and hatches for storing gear. After 228 miles of fickle Scandanavian winds, the group stopped in Tromsø to fit strap-on skegs, adding the final element of sea kayaks as we know them today. The expedition’s 62-page trip report, hammered out on a typewriter, reads like the journal of a 19th-century explorer: Food is “rations”, and they seek “a worthwhile objective, difficulties and dangers.”
More expeditions followed, all done in Nordkapps. Goodman and Matthews, along with Jim Hargreaves and Barry Smith, rounded Cape Horn two years later. Paul Caffyn took a Nordkapp around New Zealand in 1978-9, Great Britain in 1980 and circumnavigated Australia in 1981-82.
What’s old is new in the Valley Nordkapp Førti
As sea kayaking became mainstream, the Nordkapp was often too much boat for weeklong trips, lighter loads and less advanced paddlers. It went through a dizzying series of redesigns—adjusting fit, tracking, stability and trim—and eventually ceded its place as the standard for rough-water expeditions to the Nigel Dennis Kayaks Explorer.
For the 40th anniversary of the Nordkapp, and of sea kayaking’s modern rebirth, Valley re-redesigned the Nordkapp yet again. With the original blueprints and mould lost, the new Nordkapp Førti is modelled from an old first-run specimen that Valley bought back from a private collector. What’s old is new again: Valley discovered that the original was more like contemporary expedition kayaks than later versions, which had been tweaked so many times that the design seemed a mere caricature of that elegant first cast.
The Valley Nordkapp Førti may be the original 17’10” hull, but sea kayaking itself has changed. In an era of tighter schedules, aging populations and hyper-connectedness, long expeditions are rare. Valley’s newest design, the Gemini, is aimed at playful weekend boating, its shortened waterline matching shorter vacations. Other manufacturers, like P&H Kayaks, Jackson and Dagger, blend sea kayaks with whitewater boats for park-and-play surfing and rock-gardening. A kayak designed to go 500 miles with multi-week loads seems nostalgic and even eccentric, as if it should come with rations of pemmican and hardtack.
One paddle planted in history
The Nordkapp’s 40th is an indication of how simultaneously young and old sea kayaking is. The sport is young enough that Valley can track down and reverse-engineer an original boat. People who were part of the early days are still on the scene now: Caffyn and Nigel Dennis remain regular faces—albeit with more grey hairs—at symposiums and events.
This ruby anniversary also highlights kayaking’s storied and still-relevant history. Few outdoor companies re-issue the skis, external frame backpacks or climbing gear used decades ago. The Valley Nordkapp Førti has one paddle blade planted in history and the other in modern sea kayaking. This places it—like every 40-year-old—firmly in middle age. Both the past and the future beckon.
Longtime contributor Neil Schulman celebrates kayaking’s diverse heritage in Reflections. In 1975, he was still a pint-sized passenger in a Grumman canoe. For a thorough Nordkapp chronology, check out Mike Buckley’s detailed research at ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk.
This article first appeared in the Early Summer 2015 issue of Adventure Kayak magazine.
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