If a simple garage in Palo Alto, California, can claim to be the birthplace of Silicon Valley. Then surely, this humble dwelling, In the West-Greenland Village of Igdlorssuit, could legitimately stake a similar claim to being the birthplace of modern sea kayaking and the gentleman pictured, Emmanuele Korneliusen, one of its architects.
The year is 1959 and Ken Taylor was in Greenland to study it’s people and in particular the kayak hunting that was then, still part of their traditional way of life. Whilst there, he drew and studied many of their traditional hunting kayaks, as a kayaker himself, he always intended returning home with one of these and it was Emmanuele who produced that kayak. If Ken had based himself in a different part of Greenland and used a different kayak builder, the style of the sea kayaks we paddle today might well have been subtly different. This, because different areas and different hunting requirements, resulted in different ‘local’ styles of kayak. However he was based in Igdlorssuit and Ken’s kayak, made to the local design by Emmanuele Korneliusen, eventually went on to shape a company that wasn’t yet formed, Valley, not only that but also the design of the sea kayaks, many of us use recreationally today.
On returning Home, Ken did many talks about his travels and gave demonstrations with his kayak and its associated hunting equipment. Here he is doing, one such demonstration on Lock Lomond.
At the time, there were no commercially made sea kayaks in the UK, so several industrious individuals made kayaks loosely based on photos and sketches of Ken’s kayak. In 1964, when Ken went to study anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, he left his kayak with paddling friends Joe Reid and Duncan Winning. Duncan took this opportunity to made proper, measured, scale drawings of the kayak and made these available to other enthusiasts. One of these enthusiasts was Geoffrey Blackford, who made a slightly lengthened plywood version and called it the Anus Acuta. Shortly after, a fiberglass mould was taken from this and in 1972 Valley was approached to make it commercially available. In doing so, Valley became one of the very first companies to produce a dedicated sea kayak. The picture below, shows a contemporary Anus Acuta, alongside an
Our records don’t show exactly how many thousands of Anas Acuta’s have been made, through the years but it’s probably safe to claim that at 43 years and counting, it must have the longest unbroken production run of any commercially produced composite kayak.
Exact replica of his original kayak
Whilst the design of the Anas Acuta benefited from those thousands of years of evolution, built into Ken’s original skin on frame kayak, It was its commercial production in fiberglass, that led to sea kayaking gaining its popularity as a pastime. However, a few years pushing the limits of these new craft soon led to the pioneers of our sport realizing further development was required. Their most pressing need was the accommodation of equipment for the sustained and unsupported trips, they dreamed of making. However, they wanted this without sacrificing performance, this led to the development of the Valley Nordkapp. Designed by Frank Goodman, for the British Norway expedition in 1975 the Nordkapp was also famously used for the first rounding of Cape Horn by kayak, and has since been used for many other ‘firsts’ around the globe.
The design principles adopted in this kayak, i.e moderately V’d keel, softer chines but maintaining the distinct Greenland side profile (with increased freeboard for load carrying) became so widespread that these characteristics became known worldwide as ‘the British Style’.
As demands changed and boundaries were pushed, so the materials used to produce kayaks were forced to progress from those first, relatively crude, glass-fibre kayaks. I say crude is a relative term, because many of those very first kayaks are still in service today! Fiberglass kayaks today, are more correctly referred to as ‘composite kayaks because their shells contain various improved reinforcement materials, reducing weight and increasing performance.
Fortieth Anniversary Upgrade
Much is the reputation of the Nordkapp that it is still the benchmark by which other expedition style sea kayaks are compared. In fact, 2015 brings a fortieth anniversary upgrade, that actually benefit from a hull, more closely based on the original, than the models made in more recent years, this really is a case of ‘going back to the future!’
The 1980s brought another big change to the industry, with the first kayaks appearing made using roto-moulded polyethylene. Whilst first used in white water kayaks for its impact resistance properties, some companies then saw an opportunity to produce touring kayaks, usually of uninspiring design. However, whilst most adopted designs to suit the accepted molding process, giving blunt bulbous ends, barrel shaped cross sections and crudely bolted on fittings, it was Valley that really showed what this new material was capable of. The development required ensured Valley wasn’t the first to market a RM (roto-moulded) Sea kayak but when they launched the Skerry RM it was certainly considered, the first ‘proper’ RM sea kayak and featured all the design feature of the contemporary Valley composite models. Achieving this required many industry firsts; the kayak featured a one piece molded-in skeg box, bulkheads and hatch rims were welded in place, deck fittings attached to inserts molded into the shell and the seat was designed to support the hull shape. These sound simple but some, were hard to achieve and certainly not accepted practice, at the time. Tellingly many of Valley’s competitors have yet to catch up!
Over the decades Valley has also been instrumental in developing many features that are now taken for granted on any sea kayak, composite or roto-moulded. They were the first to develop a watertight hatch system specifically designed for kayaks and introduced the recessed deck fitting to ensure safety lines remained in place. It is testimony to the value of these innovations that many competitors still purchase these products direct from Valley for use on their own designs.
It is hard to write Valley’s history, without seeming to boast, such is its influence on modern sea kayak development. This company was present at the very birth of sport, it’s product portfolio, whilst continually evolving, still benefits from a design DNA stretching back thousands of years. Meanwhile, the company itself has added almost half a century of, industry leading innovation and development to ensure it still makes the best kayaks available. This passion to build the best products for our sport still burns brightly at Valley and this year, like all those before, sees more new developments at Valley.
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