You’re Never Too Old to Start

Al decided to build his very first kayak at age 80.

Al began kayaking at 80 years of age.

Al Villa was 80 when he first began paddling. Since then he’s built 6 kayaks and has helped a handful of other folks to build their own kayaks.  We always enjoy hearing from Al and find his story both impressive and inspirational.

The first time Al Villa decided to build his own kayak was at the age of 80.  He’s now 87 and 6 boats later his wife, Gwen, has put her foot down.  He admits that she’s right and that he really doesn’t have room for another boat, but even speaking to him on the phone I can tell he’s not completely convinced.   He sounds spry and speaks eloquently.  I’m not really convinced he’s 87.  But then he mentions the first time he set foot on a boat during WWII, only then it was a submarine, and I realize he’s telling the truth.  “He’s lived 87 years and really lived them,” I think, contemplating the fact that he took up kayaking at the rather nontraditional age of 80.  That’s not the kind of person who lets any moss grow under his feet.

I ask him how he got into kayaking in his 80s.  He explains that his wife “started it.”  She was getting into kayaking and took him with her to look at a four hundred dollar plastic kayak.  He said he knew a good boat when he saw one and objected to the cheap plastic boat before him.  “I said, no way if you’re going to go for it, let’s go for a good one.”  Soon thereafter he saw a Pygmy somewhere and said to himself, “I think I can build one of those.” So he gave Pygmy a call and we gave him the name of a guy in Petaluma who had built a Coho  and an Osprey. “He had done a nice job on his boats and I said, hell, I could build one of those with my eyes closed!” Al chuckles as he recalls the day.

“I started with an Arctic Tern 14 and my daughter loves that one (she only weighs 100 lbs soakin’ wet).  And I liked it too.  I’m not a big guy.  So we got that one and got it built.”

Then Al started looking at the other models and said the Osprey with its slightly larger beam and stability caught his eye.  He waited until his wife was about to go on vacation for a few weeks and ignored her warnings not to order anything while she was gone. “I talked to Kelly (at Pygmy) and told her to hold it till such and such date.  Well, it arrived right after I dropped my wife off at the airport!  We must have passed the delivery guy on the way.”

When Al’s wife, Gwen returned from vacation she found the Osprey underway with a big sign on it that read: “I’m building this from my heart to your heart.” Of course she couldn’t object to that.  “It brought tears and it got me back in good graces again. But she still wasn’t sure if she was going to like it, so I got it built and we took it up into the Sierra Mountains and put it in the water. I pushed her away from the dock and after one circle she said, ‘I love this boat!”  After taking it for a spin himself, Al decided to build another Osprey.

Overtime Al became buddies with the man in Petaluma who first showed him his boats.  Then Al became the guy showing future builders his hand built kayaks and he ended up befriending those people as well.  He tells me about two young ladies that contacted him to see his boats, “They called me and came down and checked out my kayaks and I told them who to talk to and let them sit in my boats. We even kept in touch and I saw the finished boats and they did a really nice job!  So I hand-shaped some handles for them…” He continues on, “I’ve had people call me from Wisconsin, California, Michigan, and I have met a lot of people over the years.  People send me pictures when their boats are completed, and I’ve kept in touch with most of them.”  It seems Al makes friends everywhere he goes and after only 10 minutes of talking to him on the phone I’m smiling broadly and completely understand why.

“My wife goes bananas… the minute we go to launch the boats, people see all 6 of our kayaks on the trailer and have to come around and ask, ‘Where’d you get them? You built them?’ And my wife would get so damn mad that I wasted 30 minutes.  So finally I had you guys send me catalogs so I can just hand them out.”


In some ways Al has become a Pygmy spokesman.  But mostly it’s clear that he just enjoys having some projects and meeting new people.  And paddling with his wife and dog, Tipper. “Tipper loves the kayaks.  If I put one down on the beach he’ll jump in and sit in it.”

Al chuckles as he recalls the story of how the sixth boat came to be. “After I built the fifth kayak, my wife Gwen put her foot down.”  But then while visiting his daughter, Patti,  she asked him what the next boat was going to be.  This was about a month before Christmas and Al mentioned that he’d been eying the Pinguino Sport but didn’t think he should, given Gwen’s admonitions.

Christmas rolled around and Patti arrived at Al’s house in a van saying,  “We have a new van we want to show you!” Al didn’t think too much of it, except for a passing thought that he wasn’t very fond of the van, but when it came time to open presents his daughter reiterated, “Hey, come on out we want to show you our new van!” When she opened the door to reveal the Pinguino kayak kit box, Gwen “let out a scream you could hear up the canyon!” Al and Patti both still chuckle about that day, and he is still laughing as he concludes, “So, anyway, that’s how the sixth one got here.”

When I ask Al which one is his favorite he quickly responds, “They’re all really nice boats. But I’d probably say my favorites are the Pinguino and the Osprey.  They both handle nice and those two are both really stable.  The Osprey was my favorite for quite awhile but since I built the Pinguino I’ve really enjoyed that one.  Especially since the dog can fit more comfortably in the larger cockpit.  I have two other boats that we got before building these and they are really nice but they weigh around 45lbs and, besides, I enjoy the quiet of the wooden boats.  Those other two have been sitting on the shelf ever since.  The wood kayaks are also faster.”


“Tipper (Al’s dog) really likes the larger cockpit on the Pinguino 145!”

Despite his wife’s objections to a seventh boat, Al is sure to mention how much she helps and quick to throw in some building tips to any new builders that might benefit. “My wife really helps me… she is super.  She helps with the varnishing.  Jim told us how to roll the varnish on and then take a dry brush and follow-up behind.  I’ve found the best temperatures (for Flagship Varnish) are 62-70 degrees Fahrenheit.  Under 62 it runs and over 70 it sets up.  We’d wait for the temperature to be about 65 and I’d roll it on and Gwen would dry brush it.”

Gwen helping with the varnishing.

Gwen helping out.

While Al may be finished building kayaks he has no intention of taking a break from paddling anytime soon. “My aunt lived to 100.7.  And my grandmother was 95. I’m going to try to make it to 100.  I don’t see too many my age out there kayaking.”




“It’s been fun and people go crazy when they see the kayaks.” – Al Villa



Comments are closed.