Prominently displayed on the side of every kayak is the name of the company where it was made. But who designed the kayak? Who first carved it out of foam? Ran it through prototype after prototype? Shaped and reshaped? Added components, seat, and hatches? Who created your kayak? We tracked down 10 of the most influential kayak designers to ask about inspiration and perspiration. Next time you paddle miles across unpredictable water to score an epic day of fishing, remember to say a thank you to one these guys.
Hobie | Director of Product Management
As product manager at Hobie, Jason Kardas is responsible for guiding the design of some of the most influential boats in kayak fishing history. Kardas credits his grandfather for his interest in the outdoors and design. “My grandfather was an avid outdoorsman and garage tinkerer,” he says. The experience rubbed off. “My love of the outdoors and ability to come up with creative solutions go back to the amazing moments we had together.”
Today, Kardas takes a practical approach to design. “Whether you’re designing a kayak or a toothbrush, the objective is executing solutions in a balance of form and function.” The philosophy can be seen in his favorite design, the Adventure Island, a sailboat and pedal kayak hybrid. As for his most important design, Kardas points to the class-busting Pro Angler personal-human-powered fishing vessel. Kardas’ best work, in his opinion, is the utilitarian and sporty Compass.
“Collaboration has and always will be the key to our success,” Kardas insists. Contributions from anglers, designers, engineers and others come together to create a product that will make everyone happy. “We approach any design challenge with open eyes,” he says. From the first kayak pedal drive to the first mega kayak PA14, Hobie never seems to say no to a good idea. Kardas credits “amazing people with great insight and different levels of expertise.” As product manager, Kardas says his primary role is “keeping track of the moving parts.”
“Whether you’re designing a kayak or a toothbrush, the objective is executing solutions in a balance of form and function.”
When Kardas isn’t dreaming about pedal kayaks, his thoughts wander to another type of watercraft. “I love classic wooden powerboat designs,” he says, pointing to the clean, simple lines and combination of materials used decades ago by Chris-Craft and Stancraft. Kardas refers to the approach early in his own design process. “When I gesture out a concept that speaks to me, I try to use as few lines as possible.”
As expected, Jason Kardas credits Hobie’s introduction of the out-of-this-world pedal drive as the most significant design in kayak fishing history. “When we introduced pedal power, design constraints went out the window.” Pedal power allows designers to build a kayak focused on fishing function, not paddle performance. Kardas points to the Mirage Pro Angler. “I can’t imagine paddling a kayak that is 38 inches wide and loaded with fishing gear and bait tank,” he says. Not only did Hobie introduce the pedal system, they sold the idea to kayak anglers. “We were introducing the concept of pedaling a kayak,” he adds. The efficiency and ease of the fin-drive brought droves of anglers to kayak fishing and sparked a new genre of watercraft across the industry. “The MirageDrive, introduced 20 years ago, revolutionized the industry,” he says.
Kaku Kayaks and SUP | Owner and Designer
Kaku owner Kevin Hawkins came to kayak design from the water. “I’ve always been on the water,” he recalls. Growing up in Florida, Hawkins spent his early years in canoes, on surfboards and snorkeling. Twenty years ago, Hawkins opened a bike shop. Then, he added kayaks to the inventory. “In 2005, there were only a couple choices available,” and Hawkins didn’t like any of them. “I took one look and knew the boats wouldn’t paddle well, then I saw the price tag.” Hawkins was convinced he could design a better boat at a better price.
In 2014, Hawkins released the Kahuna. Not only did the kayak and SUP hybrid paddle well, but it was the first with integrated Power-Pole Micro mounts. Hawkins favorite child is the Voodoo. “I focused solely on performance,” he says. He designs by feel, intuition and personal need. “No market analysis or focus groups,” he laughs.
Each Kaku design is born on the water. “I paddle a lot by myself,” Hawkins starts. While he’s fishing, Hawkins will notice a need. Once he gets an idea, he starts sketching. “I may make three or more drawings,” he says. With each rendition, he purposely doesn’t reference previous concepts. “When I’m finished, I look back at the earlier drawings to see how my vision has changed.”
With the boat finalized, he turns his sketch over to a trusted CAD designer. “Waiting is the longest part of the process.” From the perfected 3D design, he builds a mold and pops out a prototype. “Then I test the heck out of it,” Hawkins grins, spending hours fishing in the kayak. “That’s the fun part.” After the Kaku team approves the design, Hawkins goes into production.
“I don’t really pay attention to what other companies are doing.”
Hawkins’ first love was an Ocean Kayak Scupper Classic. “It was a great design,” he says. At the dawn of modern kayak fishing, the first sit-on-top favored performance over stability. “The Classic was fast and a smart design, I still have mine,” Hawkins admits. He says he’s always been a self-propelled sports enthusiast; he’s crazy about bicycles and kayaks. “The Scupper Classic started my passion for kayaking,” he says.
From his long hair and permanent salty tan, to his hybrid kayak and SUP, even the name of the company, Kaku, is tied to the sea. “Kaku is Hawaiian for barracuda,” Hawkins explains. He credits his unique style to tunnel vision. “I don’t really pay attention to what other companies are doing,” he says. Hawkins follows the less-is-more standard. “I’m a clean and roomy deck guy,” he says. Kaku’s latest creation, the Zulu is a hybrid SUP with a seat and pedal drive. “I’m trying to stay focused on this project before I start thinking about what’s next,” he says.
Native Watercraft | Product Designer
“I started paddling rivers and lakes when I was 14,” Shane Benedict remembers. Early on, he was bitten by the watersports bug. Before becoming a designer, he cut his teeth as a guide, teacher and competitive whitewater paddler. “All the time I’ve been tinkering with boats, materials, techniques and shapes.” In 25 years, he estimates he’s worked on 75 boats.
Benedict credits Alan Stancil at Perception and Bryon Phillips from Native and Liquidlogic as his primary influences. He is particularly fond of the Slayer 10. “I love how light it is.” He calls the new XC really fun. “It has a whole lot of features.” His personal boat is an Ultimate FX 15. “I love the versatility. I can paddle with a partner, load it with camping gear or bring the dog.” Benedict’s design philosophy combines his experience as a pro paddler with his desire to constantly improve his toys.
“Nowadays, my biggest influence is our pro staff anglers,” Benedict says. Once the marketing team identifies a concept, Benedict goes to work with the pro staff to develop an answer. The first step is creating a Facebook group around the design. Benedict points to the Slayer XC as a recent product of the process. “The crossover river and flatwater boat is feature rich with a diverse group of anglers on the design team,” he says.
From the original idea to the water, designing a new kayak can take up to a year. Shaping and forming the boat takes two methods: computer aided design or hand carving. When Benedict is faced with turning out a completely new design, he starts on the computer. “The CNC program will show buoyancy, waterline, efficiency.” The CNC machine cuts a foam plug of the boat. Then, the plug is sanded, primed and polished before being sent to a foundry to create a sand-cast aluminum mold. The other option is hand carving the plug out of an existing model. “When we started on the Slayer XC, we took an existing plug and carved it down and added material to design a new boat.” To dial in the design, they can make a temporary mold to produce a protype boat for testing.
“Nowadays, my biggest influence is our pro staff anglers.”
Benedict’s mother is an artist and his father is an architect so design has always been a part of his world. “I didn’t realize I was a designer as a kid,” he laughs. He credits his parents for creating a sense of wonder about design and aesthetics.
“Look at kayaks today and the first thing I notice is how the size has grown,” Benedict says. One of his earliest designs, the Manta Ray, was 30 inches wide. “We were just starting to scratch the surface,” he says. Today, Native Watercraft’s widest boat, the aptly named Titan, is 40 inches wide. “You can dance around the deck,” he chuckles.
Pedal drive power has allowed kayaks to gain weight and girth. Native Watercraft developed the first prop-driven pedal drive to power its larger, angler-friendly craft. Another game changer was Native’s first frame seat. Sitting the angler off the deck, out of the water and higher above the world was more comfortable and better for fishing. Both innovations have been repeated across the industry and frame seats are now standard on most fishing kayaks.
Sea Eagle Boats | President
Years experience: 30
Notable designs: FastTrack Angler, RazorLite, FoldCat, SUPFish 126
In addition to leading Sea Eagle Boats, Cecil Hoge is also in charge of Panther Martin lures. “I began working in my father’s inflatable boat and fishing lure company,” Hoge recalls. As he used their products and worked with customers he says, “I started working with the engineers on designing improvements.” His designs started as pencil drawings until Hoges graduated to computer-aided design. “I wanted to provide our engineers with a clear idea of new products we wanted to make,” he says.
After 52 years at Sea Eagle, Hoge has developed groundbreaking and iconic inflatable kayaks, canoes and SUPs. He started making slight changes to existing products and now develops completely new boats with one thing in mind: “Making the best possible inflatable kayaks in the world.”
“There is no textbook for inflatable kayak design,” Hoge laughs. Instead, he says he relies on trial and error to develop a new boat. “I look for holes in the market, features and benefits I would want in the boat and how I can bring the idea to reality.” As a life-long outdoorsman, many of Hoge’s creations are inspired by his experiences on the water. Inflatable boats offer a freedom in design not shared with other materials.
“Some ideas come quickly and easily,” Hoges says. For example, adding a reinforced, wave-piercing bow to Sea Eagle’s NeedleNose SUPs was a simple addition that significantly improved handling. Other ideas, like designing the first fully drop stitched kayak, aren’t so easy to implement. “The RazorLite kayaks took 14 prototypes and five years to develop,” Hoge points out.
“I look for holes in the market, features and benefits I would want in the boat and how I can bring the idea to reality.”
Outside of inflatables and fishing lures, Hoge admires the simple, clean and functional design of the Apple iPod. “Re-imagining a memory card as a handheld music device is great,” he marvels. Looking at Sea Eagle’s line-up of SUPs, kayaks and canoes, Hoge has reimagined these genres with motors, metal frames, swivel seats and other out-of-the-box concepts.
After a half century designing inflatables, Hoge has compiled an impressive list of firsts: first fully drop stitched kayak, first inflatables with drain valves, roll-up tandem fishing kayak, inflatable kayak with a motor, first inflatable SUP with a motor. Yet, Hoge points to Hobie’s MirageDrive as the most important development in fishing-kayak history. “It’s a simple design that has been improved over the years,” he says. Hoge credits the MirageDrive with introducing many anglers to hands-free fishing. “Hobie justly deserves credit,” he says.
As for Hoge’s own contribution, we acknowledge his creativity in adding electric and even gas motors to inflatable craft. “I think inflatables will continue to improve with electric motors, lithium batteries, solar panels,” he envisions. Whatever the next step, we’re sure to see it coming out of Sea Eagle’s design studio.
Advanced Elements | President
Clay Haller came to paddlesports from a design background. After developing camping gear for early outdoor giant Stearns, Haller worked on the innovative IK 116. “It was the first inflatable kayak that didn’t look like a canoe,” he says. The boat featured inflatable chambers inside a vinyl skin to perform like a hard-shell boat. After leaving Stearns, Haller further developed his design with a rigid frame to create the Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame. “We still sell this boat today,” he says. In the interim, Haller and his team of engineers have continued the theme of inflatable chambers inside of a skin with hard frame providing support.
“We’ve got ideas you’re not going to believe.”
Haller describes the team at Advanced Elements as, “design rich.” Working with partner Charlie Hall and Ryan Pugh, the team feeds off each other’s experience and approach. “It’s a fluid process,” he says, explaining too many cooks in the kitchen will stir up great ideas and innovative products. Haller estimates 80 percent of their good ideas never make it to the market. “We work hard to stay ahead of the competition,” he insists.
Recently, the team was cut to the quick when they saw a competitor copying Advanced Element’s features and look. “They copied our colors, handles, combing and zip-off deck; it’s very discouraging.” Now, the AE team keeps their designs on the down low. “We don’t talk about what we’re doing,” he admits. According to Haller, the only solution to imitation is staying ahead of the competition with new products. All he would say was, “We’ve got ideas you’re not going to believe.”
Haller’s background designing camping and other outdoors gear informs the look and function of Advanced Element’s kayaks. Whether it’s the color scheme or the rugged functionality, we can see his love of mountain biking and hiking reflected in the boat’s design and features. “There is a lot of carryover from tents and backpacks,” he says. We can’t help but to connect AE’s skin on inflatable frame design to the early skin on frame kayaks used by indigenous kayak designers hundreds of years ago.
Haller points to recent developments in drop stitch construction as one of the biggest advancements in inflatable technology. “The standup paddleboard craze has pushed the development of drop stitch,” he says. Drop stitch air chambers use thousands of tiny threads connecting the top layer of the chamber with the bottom. Like a suspension bridge, the threads provide support and rigidity to the chamber.
Before inflatable SUPs hit the water, there were only a few manufactures who could produce drop stitch chambers. Now, dozens of factories are developing the technology to be cheaper and more effective. Improvements in drop stitch have translated into better performing and less expensive inflatable kayaks, paddleboards and canoes.
Ocean Kayak and Old Town Canoe | Director of Research and Development
Like many of today’s designers, McDonough entered the game with the whitewater craze of the late ’80s. “I started out competing in freestyle and running hard rivers,” he remembers. At the time, McDonough was designing timber-frame homes. When a position opened at Perception Kayaks, McDonough put in an application.
“Timber frame homes and kayaks are similar,” he says, then explains, “I have to think of design in three dimensions.” Working with wood joinery requires him to consider forces from all directions. “When I’m designing a whitewater boat, I have to consider how it performs upright and upside down.” Fishing kayaks, he adds, have to perform well under power and while standup fishing. “It’s a balance of function and performance,” he says.
Like most designers, McDonough’s team receives its challenges from the marketing department and pro staffers. “They hand me an assignment and I have to figure out how to make it different and better,” he starts. As example, he uses the new Topwater line. “We wanted to add a tunnel hull for stability and performance,” he explains. McDonough focused on the bow transition. “Most boats have a tri-hull with three points of entry,” he says. McDonough decided to design a mono hull that transitions into pontoons. “The single point of entry cuts through the water better without affecting performance,” he says. McDonough puts as much thought into the stern. “A good stern should produce a wave that reflects the waterline,” he says. Rooster tails, whirlpools and excessive turbulence signal a stern that isn’t releasing water effectively, “It’s like dragging an anchor,” he jokes.
Like most of the designers we interviewed, McDonough is enamored by automotive design. “Car design relates to kayak design,” he explains, adding, “The biggest advancements in kayak design will come from outside the industry.” In addition to the overall lines and function, McDonough looks at the little details. “Cars have come a long way in reducing drag and increasing efficiency,” he says. McDonough points to electric cars leading the way. “Toyota had it right with the Prius, but the car was ugly,” he laughs.
For a good example, he looks at Tesla’s battery-powered performance cars. He is intrigued by the way design comes together to make something mechanically functional. He recently spent several minutes in a parking lot examining the door handle on a car. He was fascinated with the aerodynamic function of the handle. Still, McDonough wasn’t satisfied with the design, “I couldn’t help thinking how I would have done it better.”
“The biggest advancements in kayak design
will come from outside the industry.”
McDonough remembers the early days of designing fishing kayaks, “take an existing kayak and add rod holders,” he guffaws. Today, he sees kayaks as personal fishing boats. “Look at the big, square rear ends, high seats, large capacity,” he says. The challenge is to balance fishing features with low windage and high efficiency for paddling. Even though electric motors are making waves, McDonough says pedal systems still have a long way to go. “There are a lot of systems out there, but no one has really fully tapped the potential of pedal power.”
Confluence Watersports | Senior Designer, Innovation Catalyst
Hans Nutz remembers his first kayak fishing trip. “I was paddling a narrow, touring sit-inside kayak,” he says. “It was totally sketchy.” Nutz didn’t catch anything on that trip, “probably a good thing,” he grins. But the experience taught him what is important in fishing kayak design. Nutz started whitewater kayaking when he was in design school. “Boat design felt like a natural fit for my skill set,” he says.
Once he finished school, Nutz was offered a job at Confluence Outdoor, one of the world’s biggest watersports manufacturers. “I jumped on it,” he laughs. Working at Confluence, Nutz has designed boats for Wilderness Systems and Perception. A short departure to Bonafide resulted in the company’s first three models. “I’m always focused on creating a great experience for the customer,” he says.
“I look at design as a two-part problem: creating a new product and solving problems,” he explains. First, he creates a vision of a new idea. Then, he figures out a way to reach his vision. “I’m a huge proponent of living in the environment where my design will be used,” Nutz says. To create the vision of a new product, he stays connected by fishing and paddling. “I need experience on the water, with the gear and research to feed my creative process,” he says.
Once he has an idea, the next step is building consensus across his team. “The design process is collaborative, and I’ve been lucky to work with project managers, engineers and support team.” The objective is building the right product at the right time and right price.
“I need experience on the water, with the gear
and research to feed my creative process.”
Hans Nutz laughs and says, “I’m a gear junkie; my garage proves it!” Shelves filled with paddling, camping, hiking, bicycling and other outdoor gear inspires Nutz’ watersports designs. “My favorite designs are intuitive and simple to use,” he says. High-end outdoor gear is a perfect example of the balance between design and functionality, with functionality always the focus. A fishing kayak must be unique and beautiful, but most important for serious anglers, it must paddle well and fish easy. “Simplicity is the hardest part of design to get right.”
Nutz points to the Wilderness Systems ATAK 120 as his crowning achievement. “The boat featured great innovations, like stable hull design, sonar pods, power and seating systems that improve fishing.” The same ideas can be seen on boats across the industry. Nutz’ designs are targeted at putting more people on the water. He says, “I’ll focus on making kayaking more enjoyable, and some other crazy ideas.”
Viking Kayaks | Owner
Years experience: 20
Notable designs: FastTrack Angler, RazorLite, FoldCat, SUPFish 126
Viking Kayaks owner Grant Montague grew up surfing, fishing and paddling. “When I saw the early sit-on-top kayaks, I knew I could combine my love of the ocean with a career,” he says. Montague is committed to user friendly kayaks, “that are easy to handle on and off the water.” His sharp eye for detail looks for useful and well-thought features, “that make the user smile.” For inspiration, he goes fishing. “Great ideas come over beers after a great day on the water.”
“Our ideas are influenced by anything with
attractive lines and clever functionality.”
Once Montague has an idea for a new design, he draws a sketch and sends it to a shaper and pattern maker. “We look for someone who has experience with rotomolding.” Montague explains any great idea for a kayak feature has to pass the rotomolding test. Like most sit-on-top kayaks, Viking boats are made by filling a mold with plastic pellets, then rotating and heating the mold to spread the plastic. For the best results, the design has to consider how the plastic will fill the spaces. Considering the limits of the manufacturing process, Montague says, is an essential part in any kayak design.
“Our ideas are influenced by anything with attractive lines and clever functionality,” Montague says. With an eye on the electric-powered future of kayak fishing, Montague has lately developed a crush on the Bixpy motor, a powerful, modular propeller and lithium-ion battery. “The small motor fits perfectly with the high-performance hulls we favor,” he says.
For Montague, one of the most significant events in fishing kayak history was development of specific designs for specialized fishing. In the early days, anglers had a handful of models to choose from. Today, there are standup kayaks, open water boats, river runners and other focused designs. “There are many different types of fishing and conditions, from flat, shallow water targeting smaller fish, to deep water targeting large and hard fighting species,” he points out. As kayak fishing grows, Montague says boats are becoming more focused on specific uses.
Feelfree Kayaks | Design Director
In three decades as a product designer, New Zealander Peter Murphy has designed everything from kitchen faucets to playground equipment. But Murphy’s love for the outdoors and ocean, has resulted in a line of legendary kayak models. “Kayak design has always been fun,” Murphy explains. His earliest paddlecraft, the Skiack, was a sit-on-top kayak for surfing big waves. Since then, he’s cooked up smart, functional and unique kayaks for a half dozen companies.
Many of Murphy’s designs have a single source. “Jim Hager (Feelfree US) and I go bass fishing and talk,” Murphy admits. On the water, Murphy and Hager chat about ideas, needs and wants. Once Murphy’s design team has a good idea and an initial 3D rendering, they turn out a prototype carved out of foam and covered in epoxy that is weighted to perform like the plastic final product. “The U.S. team come to test out the new boats,” Murphy says.
Every feature on the boat is prototyped and tested before approval of the final design. The engineering files are sent to the manufacturer and three months later they receive the first boats. The longest Murphy worked on a design was nine months, the fastest design came together in three.
“At some point fishing kayaks stopped
being kayaks and turned into small boats.”
“Any design with unique human interaction gets my attention,” Murphy says. Sailboats, motorcycles and muscle cars are on his list of inspiration. “Looking at mid-1960s muscle cars makes me think aliens came to earth and created an automotive art form,” he says. “Then they left in 1973,” he jokes. Murphy incorporates design features from classic American cars in his kayaks. He also geeks out on furniture. “My experience designing chairs played a big part in the Gravity seat,” he points out. Hull design is informed by his time on sailing and motor yachts. “Everything is connected to everything,” he says.
“At some point fishing kayaks stopped being kayaks and turned into small boats,” Murphy says. The trend is obvious in his latest creation, the Jonny Boat—a hybrid kayak and skiff. “Everyone was thinking of a motor-powered, single-person craft but no one did it,” he says. Looking at the progression of Feelfree designs, growing larger and wider with more power options, the Jonny Boat is a logical continuation. “We took a kayak and slammed it into a boat with a little DIY engineering and came up with a new watersports category.”
Jackson Kayak | Designer
Tony Lee sparked his design talents as a surfer in Puerto Rico. “I’ve always been pulled towards the water,” he says. After receiving a degree in product design, he convinced Joe Pulliam, senior manager at Jackson Kayak, to hire him as a kayak designer. “I convinced him it was easier to teach a designer to paddle than a paddler to design,” he laughs, then admits many great designers were paddlers first.
“The biggest advancement in kayak fishing is the ability to stand and fish.”
“It may sound strange, but I let the boat speak to me,” Lee says. After he has a design brief from the marketing department, Lee works with the design team to develop a plan. “Collaboration is keeping my ego in check to let ideas percolate to the top.”Lee says he encourages a continuous feedback loop with team members. To illustrate, he recalls a heated collaboration with fellow designer Mark Lyle on a particularly complicated design when Joe Pulliam walked into the room and told them to stop arguing. Lee laughs, “Mark yelled, ‘We’re not arguing, we’re designing.’”
Tony Lee reflects on his first love, “Obviously, I love surfboard design.” From his background riding waves, Lee takes inspiration for kayak design. He also geeks out on classic BMW airhead motorcycles. “I like anything where form follows function,” he says, crediting the mantra for his own design approach.
“The biggest advancement in kayak fishing is the ability to stand and fish,” Lee states. Jackson Kayak has been instrumental in developing stable hulls with performance features. “We lead in that area,” Lee says, highlighting other standup features like elevated seats and flat decks for safer, more comfortable fishing. As for the future? Lee expects prices to drop on pedal and motorized kayaks. “But I won’t tell you what I’m working on now,” he teases.
Every kayak starts here, sculpted by the hands of a master designer. | Feature photo: Courtesy Liquidlogic