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"Hip Injury Leads to Pygmy Kayaks"
Sports Etc. Magazine,
April 1997

by Michael Kundu
Businesses have been started during times of crisis. Pygmy Kayaks of Port Townsend is one of those. A devastating hip injury in 1967 to John Lockwood, Pygmy's founder, led to a search for his passionate love affair of "deep wilderness" and eventually to the founding of the boat building [business].
Depending on crutches for the next eight years after he injured his hip in a fall, Lockwood pondered the adaptations he would need to make in order to continue his life the way he wanted to live it in the wilderness.
In 1970, Lockwood made a decision to take a sabbatical from his computer science and anthropology studies at Harvard. Trading in the ivy-shrouded walls of academia for the turquoise blue currents of the Yukon River, he carried only basic supplies for survival, along with a folding German Klepper ocean kayak.
For the next few weeks he drifted on the cold glacial waters of the mighty Yukon, shadowed by the formidable ramparts of the St. Elias range to the west and sleeping on the shores haunted by gold prospectors of the 1870's.
Here, in the last corner of Canadian wilderness, Lockwood mused on the abilities of the sea kayak to liberate him and carry him back into his beloved wilderness. His attraction to the craft grew, certainly nurtured by the character and ambiance of the quintessential frontier land of the Canadian north.
Lockwood continued the experiment in 1971 by traveling to the mist-shrouded shores of Queen Charlotte Island on the Pacific coast of northern British Columbia. On the rugged, rock-strewn beaches of Haida-Gwaii, as the island was called by its aboriginal inhabitants, Lockwood built his first stitch-and-glue sea kayak.
His design was entirely pragmatic. He coveted a light-weight, durable craft that he could drag effectively across the rocky and gradient shores while hopping on one leg. For 2-1/2 years, Lockwood lived on Haida Gwaii, feasting on the bounty of the Pacific waters while dreaming the dreams of the Haida people whose ancestors forever haunt the island.
Newly inspired, Lockwood returned to the urban environment to put his Harvard education to use. As a software programmer, he ran the circuit of regional silicon companies and in 1977 came to Seattle to pursue the technology market which ultimately included a stint at Boeing.
His talent in the software arena led him to develop the world's first commercial plate expansion software utilizing CAD (computer assisted design) technology. This naval architecture software revolutionized the boat-building industry and became widely used by the maritime industry to design the hulls of marine freighters. Still, Lockwood, ever the consummate outdoorsman, nurtured his desire to build kayaks.
Finally in 1985, Lockwood, ever true to his anthropologic background, christened "Pygmy Boats" by building his first CAD-designed ocean kayak in his home workshop. Since then, his company, Pygmy Boats Inc. of Port Townsend, Wash., has evolved to become the most established manufacturer of precision CAD-designed, laser pre-cut [patterns], plywood kayak kits in all of North America.
Pivoting an Osprey-Standard on the flat surface of a bay outside his Port Townsend showroom on a sunny afternoon in early March, Lockwood is contemplative about paddling...
"Sure, it needs to appeal to one's aesthetic tastes, but you also need to be confident about its dependability, its seaworthiness and stability. When you're out there, three weeks away from help, going it solo and at the mercy of the sea, you need to know your kayak will work from a technical perspective."
His comment is reminiscent of his own personal history on that first trip to Haida Gwaii, "Pragmatism was my first objective on the Queen Charlottes," he recalls. "The design needed to facilitate me being there, I needed to ensure all the technical details before I could relax and follow my spiritual desires out there."
And that's all in the current designs and materials. In developing his line of 11 [now 13 kayaks and 1 row boat], Lockwood determined that a 4mm marine mahogany plywood laminate, sealed with two layers of fiberglass provided a better weight-to-strength ratio than any other commercially available material.
"The secret is in the wooden core," he writes in him promotional literature. "Wood is an extremely complex composite material, possessing exceptional compression strength."
Pygmy's manufacturing decisions are certainly partly responsible for why people are so attracted to his kayaks. Compared to kevlar and polyethylene (roto-molded plastic) kayaks, Lockwood's boats weigh 38 pounds (the Osprey Standard) or 64 pounds (the Osprey-Triple), representing a range of 25 percent to 40 percent lower weights than fiberglass or plastic.
Aside from the most practical aspect of economy of weight, Lockwood's kayak kits are also significantly less expensive than manufactured kayaks...Pygmy Kayaks are notably 50- to 75-percent cheaper than factory boats.
"Frankly, I hate to admit this," he sheepishly admits of his design process,"but I tend to design each of my boats for myself. When I'm comfortable that the boat meets my expectations and demands, I modify the design to suit others with different perceived needs, like the higher volume GoldenEye-HI, made for larger paddlers or those with bigger feet."
Lockwood's boats are also specialized for children and/or smaller women. His GoldenEye 10 and 13 (which weigh a remarkable 14 and 26 pounds, respectively) are certainly not designed for himself.
"The GoldenEye 10 was made for my 5-year-old daughter Freya, so I guess you can say I still had a personal goal in mind when I put that design on the boards," he chuckles.
As we talk, I watch my own two sons, Erik, age 2-1/2 and Lars, age 1-1/2, take turns in the GoldenEye 10, under the watchful eye of their mother.
"You can tell that these kids just love a kayak built specially for their own diminutive frames and pint-sized proportions," jokes Lockwood, as we both watch the boys taking turns swinging the custom 4-foot paddle through the air with delight.
Lockwood ends our discussion by touching briefly on the relationship that a purchaser of his kits achieves through the development of one of their boats.
"There's nothing like taking part in the formation of your own craft," he says. "Shaping it from little more than a few plywood panels, seeing it take form and crafting it by your own hands. Then, when you take it to sea for the first time, that kayak is part of you--you've already established the personal relationship."
It's hard not to agree with him. There is an intrinsic beauty in the rich grain flowing down the curve of those boards, almost mating inherently with the cobalt water and textured, rock-strewn shoreline that surrounds us. I imagine that the personal connection formed between builder and boat evolves from the very minute of anticipation when the kit is delivered to your doorstep.
"You can't build that kind of relationship by walking into a store and walking out with a [manufactured] kayak," Lockwood concludes. "As I said before, these boats are personal craft."
--Michael Kundu is a freelance writer, environmental activist and kayaker living on Washington State's Puget Sound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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