On November 28th 2012, kayak manufacturer Sterling Donalson of Bellingham, Washington’s Sterling Kayaks was hard at work on his newest design. With over 300 hours invested in this latest project, the fruits of his labors were tantalizingly close. Then the unthinkable happened: a fire gutted Sterling’s workshop, leading to huge losses for the brand. Now, with help from the paddling community, Sterling Kayaks is on the way back.
Sterling Kayaks rises from the ashes
Donalson, 63, is a firm believer in extensive prototype testing, and his new boat had benefited from over a year of scrutiny by many well-known paddlers, chief among them kayak pioneer and longtime Sterling Kayaks collaborator, Reg Lake. The pair wanted to produce a sea kayak as playful as their successful Reflection model, but with a touch more hull speed and scaled down to fit a smaller paddler.
Many tweaks and modifications later, the design was finalized and ready to go to mould. Within days, the very first Progression kayak would be completed.
Disaster strikes the shop
Donalson recalls: “I’ve got a very sensitive nose, and I noticed an unusual smell in the shop. I was looking around for the source when I saw smoke coming out of an electrical outlet. Then the outlet burst into flames.”
Shouting “Fire!” in case his two employees were inside the building, Donalson fought his way through the smoke. Exiting the shop he dialed 911, but by the time he hung up the entire building was in flames.
Thinking quickly, Donalson and one of his employees were able to wheel a trailer of demo boats sitting behind the shop to safety. The effects of the intense heat from the fire are still visible on several of these kayaks. Other boats and mould sets that were stored outside the building were rescued, with firefighters pitching in to help ferry items away from the blaze.
More tanker trucks arrived, but with the fire feeding off of volatile, highly flammable resins and solvents, firefighters decided the safest course of action was to confine the inferno and let it burn itself out.
“I saw smoke coming out of an electrical outlet.
Then the outlet burst into flames.”
Donalson watched helplessly as the blaze consumed his moulds, boats, materials, tools and the one and only master copy of his newest design. No one was injured, but the 100-by-60-foot, rented building that housed his shop was completely gutted. Virtually everything that he’d invested years making was gone.
A fresh start for Sterling Kayaks
Nearly two months later, it’s 4:30 a.m. and I’m up in the pitch dark of a January morning to catch the first ferry off of Vancouver Island. Today’s agenda is twofold: most importantly, Current Designs Kayaks founder Brian Henry is delivering a couple of vacuum pumps, a radiant heating setup and various other bits and pieces to Bellingham. I’m riding shotgun to interview Donalson.
The equipment in the back of the truck is a generous donation from Henry and his former business partner Campbell Black. Henry owns Ocean River Sports—a paddlesports store in Victoria and a Sterling Kayaks dealer—and Black owns Blackline Marine, a yacht repair company.
We meet up with Donalson and Reg Lake on the Canadian side of the border and transfer the equipment to their truck—it will go more smoothly if they import it into the U.S.
Upon first meeting, Donalson is instantly memorable: he is a big bear of a man, and he has only one leg. Diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of 15, his leg was removed at the hip. He deftly uses crutches to help get around and seems barely slowed by the lack of a limb. This is the first clue that this is a man not easily deterred from doing what he sets his mind to. And that he is no stranger to overcoming adversity.
As we transfer the equipment, Donalson takes an informal inventory. He spies an older vacuum pump and instantly knows what brand it is and what it will be good for. He’s pleased with the equipment—it’s some of what he needs to rebuild his business.
“When I was watching the shop burn, I called my wife Marsha and told her ‘everything is burning—it’s all gone!’” he remembers. “She asked me if everyone was okay and when I said that nobody was hurt, there was a pause, and then she said, ‘Fresh start.’ Just like that—‘Fresh start.’ So that’s what we’re doing.”
The community rallies around
Many others within the paddling community (and without) have also rallied to help. After the fire, several Sterling dealers submitted new orders for kayaks as a show of support, and in a bid to ensure that there would be cash flow.
We head to Donalson’s home and sit down in the kitchen for coffee and snacks with Sterling and Marsha.
Their small kayak business is very much a family affair—Marsha does the company’s books—and their welcome is informal and warm. Lake shows me a sculpture created by combining the fire-scorched remains of Sterling’s hand-tools. A pair of pliers, saw blades, drill bits, clamps, a hammer head, shears and a caulking gun—all charred by extreme heat—have been carefully welded together into the form of a kayak.
“Friends wanted to do something for Sterling, but they didn’t have money to contribute—so they made this beautiful sculpture,” Lake beams.
Marsha relates how a local businessman called her out of the blue soon after the fire. He offered to drop off a shipping container for them at no charge—he was in the container business and said that he himself had been through a fire. He reasoned that they’d need somewhere to store things while they rebuilt.
“I told him I didn’t think that we had anything left to put in a container,” Marsha tells me. Still, she thanked him and took his number. The container now sits behind their house and is filling up with some of the supplies needed for the new shop.
A lifetime of building kayaks
Donalson grew up making things—notably building experimental aircraft with his father, whose military career lead to frequent moves all over the world, including stints in Japan, Germany, France and across the United States. Donalson was a 13-year-old Boy Scout when he built his first kayak with his dad—a Folbot Sporty ordered from South Carolina. Over the years, kayak building became a hobby, and he made many more using plywood or space frame construction.
Boat building took a backseat to skiing in the ‘70s, with Donalson becoming the national amputee skiing champion in 1972. Now in the Belligham area, he was with the U.S. Ski Team, working with Allsop ski equipment and traveling to alpine resorts around the world.
But by the early ‘80s, Donalson was once again interested in kayaks. Frustrated with trying to find a kayak that fit him properly, he constructed his own. Researching materials and construction methods, this time he chose composites, building his first fiberglass kayak. He also built himself a one-foot-controlled rudder system.
Sterling debuts the Ice Kap
The first commercially available Sterling sea kayak debuted in 2006. Called the Ice Kap, it was a modified version of Nimbus Kayaks founder Steve Schleicher’s Kap Farvel.
The Ice Kap was a small, low-volume craft, so it made sense that the next model in the Sterling line would be a somewhat larger kayak. Donalson developed this boat in-house, working with Greenland-style expert Warren Williamson and well-known West Coast instructor and Kayak Academy founder George Gronseth. After much prototyping and extensive testing, the Illusion was launched in 2007. The Grand Illusion followed, providing similar performance but with a still larger fit.
While each of these models catered to paddlers of a different size, Sterling also offered custom cut-down versions that allowed even greater fine-tuning. In addition to these three trim choices, three different coaming options further tailored the kayak to a specific paddler.
Mixing and matching these options provided a level of customization that the big kayak manufacturers simply couldn’t match. Rather than attempting mass production, Donalson chose to remain small, focusing on performance-driven designs and producing just 80 or so boats a year.
The design focus for Sterling Kayaks was also becoming well established—above all, Donalson wanted his boats to provide the highest degree of control. They must be highly responsive to input, whether traveling in a straight line, carving tight turns or surfing waves. Furthermore, they should perform in all conditions from calm water to dynamic high wind mayhem.
Designing and testing the Sterling Reflection
The next model—the Reflection—would prove to be a watershed design for Sterling, but the story of its inception is as unlikely as the events that followed in its wake.
Since the debut of the Ice Kap, Lake had become a committed Sterling supporter, attracted by the company’s focus and Donalson’s extensive knowledge of composites.
“I’m prone to playing on the front edge of things, so I like
being around the building process,” says Lake, a self-described “gizmologist” and machinist by trade. “With Sterling, we can spend a lot more time staying with the question, rather than having to rush to one possible solution.”
Donalson, in turn, quickly recognized how important Lake’s four decades of kayaking experience were to the testing process and to developing innovative new sea kayaks.
With his whitewater background, Lake was naturally drawn to highly maneuverable boats that performed on waves and in currents. He started to get interested in how to “free the stern,” as he puts it—meaning how to dramatically loosen up the tracking of the back of the boat in order to make maneuvering, turning and surfing more responsive and dynamic. He was also starting to pay close attention to how sea kayaks paddled backwards.
“With Sterling, we can spend a lot more time staying with the question, rather than having to rush to one possible solution.”
This culminated in Lake asking if Donalson had a Grand Illusion in the shop that hadn’t yet been fitted with bulkheads. He did, and Lake promptly put a seat in the boat facing the stern and paddled the kayak backwards, testing its response to all the usual strokes and maneuvers. He returned to the shop excited that the kayak handled beautifully with its pilot facing “the wrong way.” His next move was to stick two Grand Illusion sterns together to create a new boat with a perfectly symmetrical hull.
Donalson, overworked as it was, had no time for additional designs but agreed to the project, specifying that Lake had to do the brunt of the work to get the boat started, while he would then fair the result and take the kayak to the prototype phase.
“Once the Reflection prototype earned Reg’s okay giggle—he has this special laugh when he really likes something—we took the boat to Skook,” Donalson recalls. “That’s where Rowan [Gloag, producer of The Hurricane Riders rough water film shorts] and the other Hurricane Riders got to try it for the first time.”
As they say, the rest is history. The design evolved into the most successful kayak yet from Sterling. The Reflection proved to be an excellent play boat for tackling surf or big current features like the famed Skookumchuck Rapids, and earned Outside magazine’s 2012 Outside Gear of the Year award.
Gloag is an enthusiastic supporter of the design.“As soon as I saw it I wanted to paddle it,” he remembers, “I could do things in that boat that I couldn’t do before. The Reflection helped me get to that next level with my paddling.”
A kayak builder who stays true to himself
Watching Donalson at work on a kayak illustrates his flair for simple and effective problem solving. Having only one leg means that he cannot stand for long periods comfortably, so he sits on a swivel office chair bolted atop a dolly fitted with industrial caster wheels. His workstations are built at the perfect height for his seated position, and he scoots his chair around the shop floor with such efficiency that I find myself wondering why I don’t have a similar setup at home.
Donalson is a designer who firmly believes in listening to what his customers have to say. He does not subscribe to the notion of building solely what he thinks is best, but instead has been successful in seeking input from talented paddlers and translating their feedback into boats that kayakers are excited to paddle.
Sterling Kayaks also represents the kind of grassroots, hands-on, owner-operated business that you just long to see prosper. In part because Donalson is so passionate about building kayaks, but also because there’s nothing quite like sitting down for a coffee with the president of the company, sharing an informal chat about what you want in a kayak, and knowing that he’s the guy who is then going to build it just for you.
Progression continues at Sterling Kayaks
Donalson was listening when his friends, supporters and customers told him Sterling Kayaks must go on. He’s settling into his new shop, in a modern building just two country blocks north of his old site. The new boat moulds—reverse-engineered from the salvaged boats—are nearly finished. True to form, Donalson told me he took the opportunity “to change any of the little things that bugged us” when they rebuilt the moulds.
Work on the lost Progression kayak continues.