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Wooden Kayak Company Is A Profile of Perseverance

One of the biggest festivals in the nation celebrating wooden boats is happening in Port Townsend, Washington this weekend.

Amidst the sea of gleaming decks and varnished wood you can find of flotilla of sprightly, wooden kayaks. The local business that produces the wooden boat kits is paddling against a tide of fiberglass and plastic.

The company is called Pygmy Boats. The moniker was inspired by the founder's nickname from his college anthropology studies. Pygmy sells what it calls "stitch and glue" construction kits for do-it-yourselfers with no prior woodworking experience. The showroom faces a sheltered harbor in Port Townsend, ideal for a test paddle.

I checked out the best selling model, a sleek and snug touring kayak. One thing I discovered right away is that the elegant boat turns heads. Three times in the span of less than five minutes, strangers stopped to shout a compliment or ask a question.

The richly varnished, thin plywood craft is surprisingly quick and much lighter than plastic kayaks I've rented before. I can lift it with one arm, which has never happened to me before with a kayak.

Company owner and founder John Lockwood recalls the debut of his prototype at the Seattle wooden boat show in 1986. That didn't go so well.

"Two people capsized it," he says. "Nobody really liked it."

Lockwood redesigned the prototype after that. He sold one build-your-own kayak kit the first year, 45 in his second year in business, and then sales started taking off.

But we have to go further back in time to appreciate the chain of events that produced this small business. Lockwood's life changed course when he fell during a visit to his brother's house.

"I fell about 10 feet and landed on my side on a slab of cement and pushed my thigh bone 4 inches through my pelvis and broke my hip joint."

If this happened today, Lockwood would receive a hip replacement. But this was 1967.

"Everything I really loved to do I couldn't do anymore," Lockwood says.

The previously active young man needed crutches for the next seven and a half years until his hip healed properly.

"I took up kayaking, which I could do," he explains. "I could do it on crutches. I could sit. I still had lots of upper body strength."

Lockwood built his first wooden kayak so he'd have something more durable to drag across beaches during an extended sojourn in British Columbia. By the time he arrived in Seattle in the mid-1970s, the idea for a business was born.

"Here I am in Seattle and there are three or four of these kayak companies that started up," Lockwood says. "They've got these boats I see around on top of cars that don't look anything like sea kayaks to me. I was a real critic already."

It took a number of false starts and years of frugal living before his wooden kayak kit business found its sea legs. But then he was in the right place at the right time with a unique product when the sport of sea kayaking blossomed in the late 1980s.

Now, the kit boat maker employs seven people, but Lockwood says sales are down from a pre-recession peak.

"The sea kayak market has matured," he says. "In terms of its growth, it probably hit its peak somewhere around 2004-5 and has contracted a little bit. But niche markets have still really taken off."

Lockwood says the company's product line has expanded to 23 models to appeal to different niche markets. The two newest to debut at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival cater to "petite women."

The typical wooden kayak kit costs a little over $1,000. Shopper Jim Hix of Portland finds that reasonable.

"If you get a really nice fiberglass one of similar weight and performance characteristics, it's going to be a lot more (expensive). This is really beautiful. Plus you've made it yourself."

Hix figures it will take him about two months to assemble a solo kayak in his spare time.

On the Web:

Pygmy Boats Inc.- official site
Port Townsend Wooden Boats Festival - September 6-8, 2013

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.