Buying a quality sea kayak is a big investment. The Seaward Passsat G3 boat I’m keen on will run around $5000.00 depending on the options you choose. I’ve known Seaward’s factory was on Vancouver Island for a while, but with a busy summer of outdoors adventure happening I only got around to contacting them about a tour of their facility in the last week. I was surprised when Doug Godkin called me up within 30mins of sending them a brief email. He was very friendly and happy to show me around the facility. Since I was on a roll I asked if he would mind if I took some photos so I could blog about the tour and received a positive response which was cool – thanks Doug! We got around to discussing scheduling for the tour and Doug mentioned he had time the same day if I could make it up to Chemainus BC where they are located. It was a sunny warm day and I hadn’t been out on my KLR650 for a while so a 75km ride up the island seemed like a great idea.
Chemainus is a lovely town I visited for a BC Randonneurs 200k cycling event last year and the same place I volunteered for their 600K later the same week. It’s famous for its many beautiful murals and a theatre group that does booming business year round – not to forget the stunning costal scenery and friendly people…=-) The 75km ride was fun and I managed not to get any speeding tickets in the uber slow 70km zones along the highway north! Seaward’s factory is an unassuming blue building located just off the Island Highway. I like these first glimpses inside a factory when you know that the plain exterior hides a slick team of people and machines that are building something cool for folks all around the world.
Doug met me at the door - alerted by the thump…thump…thump of my bike. He was very personable and didn’t mind answering all my goofy questions nor spending a good chunk of his afternoon away from the important things that I’m sure were piled up on his desk. In fact he was so helpful that at one point in the middle of a detailled explanation of how the bulkheads were fully bonded to the upper and lower deck of their fiberglass/kevlar kayaks he stopped and asked me…”…are you going to remember all this?…”…I nodded weakly and realized I better pay back the time he was investing in showing me around by not messing up the technical details of their boats too badly! To that end I’m going to tackle this tour report in a few parts so I can devote a decent amount of time to each one.
Seaward offers two different product lines: thermoform ABS plastic kayaks and fiberglass/kevlar boats. I’ll cover a breakdown of the differences between these two options later on once we’ve seen how each material is used to make a kayak, but the basic idea is the thermoforming process is faster/easier which results in lower cost boats – while the fiberglass/kevlar process allows for a ton of customization, but it takes a lot of time/effort so it costs significantly more. Before you can build either type of boat you need an excellent design and a prototype from which to build moulds. I didn’t see this part of the process during my visit to Seaward, but a look at the owner reviews on Paddling.net makes it pretty clear that Seaward is putting its 25yrs+ of experience in making kayaks to good use. I did see some moulds getting tweaked to make improvements and Doug was talking about new designs they had in the works so Seaward is continuing to innovate as they get feedback from paddlers.
Thermoforming process starts with large sheets of thin ABS plastic in a variety of colours depending on what the final product needs to look like. An appropriate deck or hull mould is selected and mounted in a large oven. The ABS plastic is placed above the mould and both are heated until the plastic sheet is almost a liquid. Then the mould is pressed up into the soft plastic and with the help of some vacuum action it takes on the exact shape of the mould. After some time to cool down the mould and hull or deck is separated and the process repeated.
By using an oven and mould Seaward can efficiently make thermoform boats that are identical and they can also switch up moulds easily so that customer orders can be addressed as needed with minimal loss of production. That’s a smart way to make kayaks.
As you can see from the photo above there is a significant amount of excess plastic around the kayak hulls or decks once they come out of the oven. Seaward deals with this in two ways. The first is to use as much of each sheet as is possible by adding various smaller parts to a boat mould when possible as seen in the image below.
These bulkheads will be cut out and used when the deck and hull and joined together which means less work for Seaward and less unused plastic. The second way they deal with the excess ABS is to chip all of the trimmed plastic on-site and ship it back to the manufacturer to be recycled into new sheets of plastic. That’s a good way to lower costs and reduce the environmental impact of building each kayak.
In addition to the big oven where decks and hulls are made Seaward has a smaller oven that is used to thermoform various parts like hatches, seats and bulkheads that are needed to complete a kayak.
One cool detail Doug passed on was that Seaward used a limited number of standard hatches in their boats so that owners wouldn’t have any issues getting spare parts 10 – 20yrs down the road. In a culture that is moving towards disposable products it’s nice to see a company not only build products that have a service life measured in decades, but also think about what support their customers will need to keep a boat happy in the long run.
Each part of the kayak is trimmed of excess plastic and prepared to be joined together. This takes skill and some time, but it’s critical to producing a quality product.
All the folks I met a Seaward, from the managers in their offices to the guys in the shop assembling each boat by hand, shared two things – a passion for making a great kayak and a lot of skill. It showed in how they talked about their work and the results I could see at each step of the production process.
Once both halves of the boat have been thermoformed and prepared they are joined together using a special adhesive and a rubber strip inside and outside. You can see this in the photos above and below as well as a protective bumper on each end which is one of the many small, but important details incorporated into these kayaks.
I must admit I was geeking out so hard during my tour at Seaward that I didn’t take all the photos I needed to document my post. So I cheated by taking some extra pics of some Seaward kayaks at Mountain Equipment Co-op – one of Seaward’s dealer network. The boat in the images above and below was an Infiniti with a skeg. You can see the bonded in bulkhead above as well as adjustable foot braces.
Even though their thermoform kayak line is the lower cost option at Seaward they don’t get the budget treatment in any respect. The fit and finish is excellent and they incorporate many cool features like the comfortable carrying handle, abundant deck lines and waterproof rubber hatches shown above.
Seawards Greenland style boats, like this Infinity, get rubber hatches. I like them because they are easy to use one handed and waterproof.
As I am writing this post and processing the photos I took it’s cool to see how nice the finish is on these affordable plastic kayaks. That’s something I wasn’t expecting when I started the tour. I knew that Seaward’s fiberglass/kevlar boats would be beautiful to look at and touch, but I assumed incorrectly the lower cost plastic boats wouldn’t be that attractive. It’s nice to be wrong sometimes…=-)
The Infinity has a retractable skeg to keep the boat tracking straight in strong winds and waves – while letting it be very maneuverable when you want it to be.
On my plastic kayaks and all the other kayaks I’ve used in the past the way you deployed the rudder or skeg was an ugly set of lines on the deck that you pulled on. It worked, but it was a hassle to use and added one more thing on your deck to deal with. Seaward uses this slick slider next to the cockpit that you move back and forth to deploy or retract the skeg – one of my favourite features!
On my longest kayak expedition in Baja I had a Greenland style plastic roto-moulded boat with leaky hatches and no skeg – I would have paid just about anything to have a skeg and better hatches so these details are near and dear to my heart. I vowed not to go on another long paddling trip without a quality boat.
In the image above you see two nylon straps behind the cockpit that are used in conjunction with a paddle float to stabilize the kayak so you can get back in and pump the water out. That’s great, but on most kayaks you have to reach around and really expend some effort to release the paddle which often means you capsize again in rough seas which leads to a very tired paddler in a dangerous situation. Seaward designed their paddle float rescue system to be quick release so an easy tug on either side releases the paddle and lets you stabilize yourself quickly.
Kayakers, like cyclists, spend a lot of time on their butts so a seat that is comfortable and adjusts to different body shapes is important. I like the way the Seaward seat looks, but I’ll have to report back when I’ve been on one for several hours without a break.
The last couple details I noticed were the standard issue deck bungees and deck lines. Not sexy, but essential on the water. One fun boat I had seen at the Seaward factory and at MEC was a shorter recreational boat called the Intrigue with a see though bottom for enjoying sea life.
Well that’s the end of part one. Hopefully you’ve gained some insight as to how Seaward makes their thermoform kayaks and some of the features these boats have. If you have any questions about their thermoform kayaks leave me a comment and I’l track down the answer.
Next up I’ll post about their fiberglass/kevlar boats.