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Genesis and Evolution

When I was a boy, in the 1950's, I spent many pleasant hours messing about in my father's 16-foot Old Town canoe. I became well acquainted with the pleasures of paddling (and even sailing, we had a lateen rig for it). I thought a canoe was as fine a craft as one could want.

Then when I was in college (about 1962) a visiting professor from Germany showed a film about the Klepper foldboats. Back then folks in Gemany would strap the bags of parts on the back of a Volkswagen bug and drive off to some mountain stream where they would set up the foldboat and shoot the rapids.

I was instantly hooked on the idea of owning a folding kayak, a boat similar in utility to a canoe that I could have with me at all times.

As luck would have it, it turned out that a fellow in town had a Folboat that he wanted to sell. I went to get a look at it. It was in the loft of his garage, all set up. As I looked it over, I asked him why it was't folded. Too much trouble, he said. That was my first hint that existing foldboat designs might not match my ideal.

He wanted $300 for it, which was too much for my college student budget, and looking at it I said to myself I could make one just as good. So I thanked him for his time and left that Folboat in the loft where I saw it.

A few months later I got my hands on a Klepper brochure that had a picture of the assembled frame. Using that as a guide, I designed my own folding boat. I decided that 16 feet (the length of my dad's canoe) was the right length, so I designed my boat to break down in four 4-foot sections, with an 8 foot cockpit. For simplicity's sake (and again like a canoe) I made it symmetrical end for end.

That summer I paddled my new boat on Lake George (in upstate New York) and learned a few things: Cross-braces tend to act like brakes when the skin bellies up between them. Cure: I put the floorboards flat against the skin on the outside instead of the inside of the braces. Sleeve joints don't come apart easily when they get sand in them or the wooden stringers get wet and swell. Cure: don't make the fit so tight. Assembly time is extended by the need to sort out which piece goes where each time. Cure: color code the parts.

With modifications, I messed about in that boat off and on for about ten years. (I even made a sailing rig for it, although I never did manage to beat up wind.) But the half-hour plus assembly time finally got too tedious. And the size and weight were more than I needed. So in the mid-1970's I started designing my first totally original folding boat.

I borrowed the basic dimensions from something called a "surf-yak" that was on the market then (sort of a cross between a surf board and a kayak, about a foot deep with blunt, flattened ends). I might call the design I came up with my PakYak Version 0, although I hadn't thought of that name yet. It met the criterion of being back-packable, it had no loose parts, and the frame stayed in the skin when it folded.

The boat was 12 feet long, four 3-foot sections with a 6-foot cockpit, again symmetrical end-for-end. The bottom was flat and smooth, made of 12-inch wide lauan plywood sections joined with piano hinges. I found that the boat shipped water in chop, so I made a spray skirt. It worked out that I could also use the skirt as a pack cover when the boat was folded. A few straps for a carry harness and I was all set, although it was a bit too heavy and awkward to want to pack very far. This was my messing-about-in boat for the next ten years. I used it on San Francisco Bay, and I put it in Lake Tahoe once, just so I could say I had done that.

Now begins the real PakYak story. In 1980 I was with a troop of Boy Scouts on a hike up to Jefferson Park, which is a broad saddle below the peak of Mt. Jefferson in the Oregon Cascades. There was a series of small ponds in the saddle, but having no boat along I was stranded on the shore. The night was cold, the ground was hard, and I laid awake thinking about having a truly back-packable folding boat.

I had already begun designing a new frame based on using the idea of an umbrella-like expansion to stretch the skin. I knew from experience that the skin is most subject to wear where it is stretched over hard frame members. I got the idea of putting a layer of foam in the bottom, between the skin and the frame. This would reduce the wear, and incidentally provide flotation.

I realized that with the frame removed I could use such a skin as a padded ground cloth and sleeping bag cover. So I would not just be carrying a boat. I could also carry my other camping gear in the boat pack, and with a little ingenuity I could use the frame parts to make a sort of small tent. I was envisioning a back pack with an "internal frame" made of boat frame parts, that would unfold into a cozy little tent, also constructed of boat frame parts, with a built-in ground cloth and pad. And in the morning I could assemble the kayak and launch it on one of the ponds in Jefferson Park.

A year later I did exactly that. The PakYak (version 1.0) was born. This boat was 10 feet long, in four 30" sections. This boat was not end-for-end symmetrical; the bow tapered more than the stern and the cockpit was set aft of the middle. It worked out pretty well, but the frame design had some draw-backs. For one, I had gone back to using sleeve joints and loose parts.

So I started working on alternative frame designs. In 1983 I made an entirely new umbrella-style frame, this time with hinges instead of sleeve joints, and a new skin. This was PakYak version 2.0. But I decided the basic "umbrella frame" idea was not working out, mainly because of difficulty applying the leverage needed to expand the frame inside the skin.

My next thought was to revert to the successful ideas of the Version 0 frame, and make a new frame that would hinge in such a way that it could fold inside the skin. Combined with the closed-cell-foam bottom liner and the pack and tent configurations, this was PakYak Version 3.0. Aluminum in place of wooden stringers, minor variations in the brace designs and a 12-foot "stretch" model account for versions 3.1, 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4.

It was this version of the PakYak that won me the Inventor's Weekend award at the Boston Museum of Science in 1987 and that Bob Hicks wrote about in Messing About in Boats that April. It was a quite successful design. But paddling down the Yamhill River in Oregon with a friend in the summer of 1994, watching him ship water when he wasn't using the skirt, then struggle to get out of it when he capsized with the skirt zipped up, convinced me that some improvements were in order. So I started thinking about Version 4.

I wanted to move the cockpit foreward, add a splash rail and make the skirt easier to remove. I wanted to keep the feature of a completely hinged frame. And I thought I could make it fold more compactly than my Version 3 models.

In 1993 I had played with a design using PVC tubing. I had even made a complete frame this way. But the PVC parts were too brittle, so I gave it up. But some of the ideas for folding and getting the leverage needed to stretch the skin were sound. So I started reworking that design using plywood parts.

In versions 2 and 3 I had tried using flat plywood stringers, but found them too weak and switched to aluminum tubing. But I knew that if I turned the flat plywood stringers on edge they would be stronger. As I worked with that idea, the new frame design began to look something like a carpenters folding wooden ruler.

In 1995 I made a half-scale model and it looked good. So I went ahead on the first full-scale model of PakYak Version 4. There were still a lot of design details to work out for the full-scale frame, skin and skirt, but by the spring of 1998 I had it ready for the water. This PakYak is 12 feet long and the frame folds in six 2-foot sections. The frame comes out of the skin to fold, but this allows it to be completely hinged and fold very compactly. It is again end-for-end symmetrical so the frame can go in the skin either way. The complete pack is just a little over 2 feet high by 1 foot wide by 1/2 foot deep.

Still on the drawing board are plans to make a catamaran-style sailing rig for this model, after I build a second hull. And farther in the future are plans to adapt the best features of Version 4 to a Version 3 style fold-in-the-skin frame, to reduce the set-up time to under 5 minutes. That will be Version 5.

Jim Heter

January 1999

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