OR Summer Market: Paddlesports Wrap-up

In the paddlesports section during this year's Summer Market, the emphasis was very much on rec boating and touring, rather than hard-core whitewater paddling. After all, rec and touring hold the real growth potential in the market, and manufacturers are trying to offer products that provide an easy entry into paddling. At the same time, companies worked to offer products that were not only affordable, but more performance oriented.
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As is our tradition following Outdoor Retailer trade shows, SNEWS continues our look at who is doing what (in no particular order). Please realize that this is not a "we're writing about everyone just because you were there" kind of affair. On the contrary, we're offering only highlights that grabbed our attention as we perused the Summer Market show floor:

Courting the Common Folks
In the paddlesports section during this year's Summer Market, the emphasis was very much on rec boating and touring, rather than hard-core whitewater paddling. After all, rec and touring hold the real growth potential in the market, and manufacturers are trying to offer products that provide an easy entry into paddling. At the same time, companies worked to offer products that were not only affordable, but more performance oriented.

A good example is the new Mad River Adventure 16 boat made of molded polyethylene. Retailing for $499, it has a symmetrical, multi-chine hull, which allows the boat to speed along and turn quickly without being too tippy. The thing looks like a cross between a canoe and a kayak, and as the folks at Mad River told us, "It's for the person who doesn't yet have a canoe, but thinks that kayaking is still an extreme activity." We also like the fact that the boat has molded cup holders, and the option to convert from a tandem to a three-seater -- perfect for a family outing.

Wandering the usually massive Confluence booth, our attention quickly turned to the new Wilderness Systems Tarpon 140 ($699). With paddle fishing creating substantial buzz, the 140 should be a successful addition to the popular Tarpon line. According to Wilderness Systems, this 14-foot boat combines the speed of the Tarpon 160 and the stability of the Tarpon 120. We were especially impressed with the simplicity of the new Slidelock adjustable foot brace system. Even when sitting, you can easily lift and slide the adjusting rod. It's just one example of how manufacturers this year placed "comfort" center stage. Wilderness Systems kayaks also have an improved back brace with a ratchet system for easier adjustability. Plus, a new thigh-support system helps prevent a boater's legs from falling asleep. (Now if they can just make something for us to use on long airline flights!)

A Bold Move by the Boss
The past woes of Confluence Watersports are well documented -- delivery problems, product quality snafus, etc. etc. We caught up with Confluence President and CEO John Bergeron who said he is quickly implementing procedures to run a much tighter ship. "We're focusing all employees on on-time delivery," he told SNEWS. On the second day of the show, Bergeron announced that if Confluence fails to ship a preseason accessory order complete within 24 hours of the promised date, and inside of 24 hours for a fill-in, CWS will pay the dealer 40 percent of the suggested retail price for items not shipped. If the company doesn't ship a boat on time, it will ship the backordered model and pick up the tab for freight. Bergeron added that the original Confluence investors recently contributed another multi-million dollar round of capital, "and soon we'll close on a new bank deal, which will give us better cash availability," said Bergeron.

Watermark Finds Nice Chemistry
Watermark claims that its new boats are more durable and impact-resistant, thanks to the unveiling of a new plastic, Exolar Hyper-Density Resin, employed throughout the line. Watermark has a two-year exclusive on the material (made by McCann Plastics in Ohio), which more efficiently blends resin for better stiffness and durability. Watermark also continues to expand its use of Airalite technology, which uses thermoforming to produce the look and feel of a composite boat, without the heft and monstrous cost. Dagger this year introduced its first Airalite model, the Specter15.5, designed for day touring ($1,499; $1,699 with rudder). The emergence of the "upscale rec boat" continues, and now Dagger has just the thing for rec boaters who want something more akin to a traditional touring kayak. The new Catalyst 12.8 and 13.0 ($699; $849 with rudder) have generated so much interest that the company might make another mold to keep up with production.

At the Dagger booth, the other major buzz concerned comfort. Boats such as the new Juice -- for freestyle and river running -- include the improved Performance Fit System, allowing precise adjustments to support the back, thighs and feet.

Perception has incorporated its Comfort Fit system into all of its new touring and recreational boats. The company has seen great response to the Aircore seat, which a boater can inflate for custom fitting. Now, there's even greater attention to detail, with a high-backed seat of plastic and foam that can be adjusted for various angles. You'll find the Comfort Fit System in the very eye-catching Eclipse 17.0, the first Airalite expedition-touring kayak ($1,999).

While "comfort" was maybe the most-uttered word this year, "durability" ran a close second. Prijon put its attention toward creating another bulletproof boat, the Creeker 225. Made of polyethylene, it measures 7 feet, 4 inches and retails for $1,099. General Manager Christian Mason told SNEWS, "The main thing we're known for is our extremely durable boats, which are manufactured in Germany. And this boat has gotten the dealers excited -- because it's just so solid and durable."

More for the Rec Market
For Necky Kayaks, the latest entry into the high-end rec market is the new Manitou touring boat ($650). Measuring 12 feet, 10 inches long and 24.75 inches wide, the Manitou is designed to provide a stable platform that allows beginning paddlers to build their skills. It's built with lots of storage space, a roomy cockpit and comfortable seat that has a ratchet adjustment.

While Riot did roll out three new whitewater boats, what was most interesting was the company's increased emphasis on touring and rec boats. The company touted its monocoque manufacturing technique for these boats, while also playing up composite models and the rotomolded Adventure Series. When not talking technology, Riot emphasized -- you guessed it -- outfitting comfort. Its Pro-Fit System features a new back band that has more padding and adjusts easily. Plus, new comfy hip pads have been added.

When we caught up with Woody Callaway of Liquid Logic, he said he was pleasantly surprised to see that people at OR's Demo were really putting the new Trekreation boats through the paces on Little Dell Lake. A leader in the upscale rec revolution, Liquid Logic received favorable remarks regarding the new tandem Zirconia, a sleek boat that tracks and turns equally well. As for whitewater boats, Liquid Logic gets props for best boat names -- the Hoss and Lil' Joe. Apparently, retailers are ready to saddle up with these new river runners. When asked why they've done well, Callaway said, "We just nailed it, volume-wise and shape-wise." Liquid Logic designer Johnnie Kers added, "Hoss is the big guy who will always take you under his wing. Lil' Joe is just as dependable, just in a smaller package." With Liquid Logic, there's always a Bonanza of creativity.

Clothes that are The Bomb
While cruising for paddle apparel, we couldn't find a tougher piece than The Bomb dry top from Bomber Gear ($325). Completely tricked out, it's made with Toray three-ply waterproof/breathable fabric and has cool details like a latex neck gasket that leaves out the scratchy Velcro gasket covers. Another cool feature -- the Dry Pocket on the front of the jacket is now bigger to hold more stuff.

For warmer temperatures, when The Bomb's too balmy, Lotus Designs offers the Drop Top waterproof/breathable jacket ($135) and its short-sleeve cousin the Chop Top ($120). Both are made of three-layer H2N0 fabric with Deluge DWR treatment.

When we caught up with Stohlquist at the show, we learned the family-owned company is doing well on at least two fronts. First, it's drawn paddlers who need a jacket with latex-free neck gaskets. The new Freeryde drytops have a turtle-neck-style neoprene seal, and this tops a jacket made of tough, waterproof/breathable Eclipse fabric. The tops are well-thought-out, with nice detailing, and designs specifically for women. While they're attractive, these pieces are also a good value for consumers, retailing for $209.

Immersion Research has also placed much attention on giving retailers and consumers solid products at reasonable prices. IR's Zephyr Jacket ($90) has been the big hit, providing a two-layer, taped waterproof/breathable jacket for all-around paddling. New for this year are companion Zephyr Splash Pants ($80).

Because not every paddler wants to buy a $400 jacket, Kokatat has introduced four new pieces made with its more affordable Tropos waterproof/breathable fabric. It's comprised of a multi-ply nylon Taslan face fabric with a DWR treatment, plus a urethane coating. The Fjord Cagoule, Super Breeze, Blasr and Re-Action jackets range from $93 to $139.

Our super-funky apparel award goes to Northwest River Supplies for the new Anti-Gravity Shirt for playboating. NRS has added Polyolefin foam to the front and back of its short-sleeve Mystery top to give boaters more buoyancy -- and a top that will serve as a great Halloween X-men costume ($125).

Fresh Feet
Merell's Rapid Pulse sandal has proven to be such a popular design that this year Merrell introduced a Whitewater model ($60). A primary selling feature is the new sticky rubber sole, which promises superior traction in and out of the water. This beefy sandal, complete with a molded EVA sole, also sports a footbed with a "Microban" antimicrobial footbed to keep the stink factor down. (If your pungent feet ever overwhelm the Microban, try the new Paxton's Sandal Saver, an all natural spray-on cleaner. We picked up a bottle from Paxton at the show, and it transformed our old sandals from funky (as in stinky) to fresh in minutes; www.paxtoniscool.com.)

Word around the Teva booth was that the Gamma Pro water shoe has gotten great response from younger paddlers. Designed by Teva's Kayaking Team, the low-profile shoe has a molded exosleleton that adds protection and stability to the mono-sock upper. A drop-in, 5 mm EVA midsole adds comfort, and the sole features way-sticky rubber.

Whiskey -- it's not just for lunch anymore
It didn't help that one of the first booths we visited was AT Paddles, which had two jugs of Platte Valley corn whiskey on-hand to complement the Lewis and Clark-themed booth. We got into the whiskey and…well, our notes are unreadable, and the whole thing's just a blur. All we can remember is that the booth was pretty crowded, some guys were wearing buckskin clothes, business seemed good, and, heck we'll just have to get back to you with details.

We did sober up enough to remember that Bending Branches is coming off a year where it introduced nine new paddles and saw 90 percent growth, according to Jake Wise. The big hit of this show was an offering of smaller-shaft paddles at prices between $85 and $300. Wise pointed out that in the past, you'd have to spend a minimum of $200 to get a smaller-shaft paddle. Hey, power to the people.

Odds and Ends
With all the work it does in the fly-fishing market, it was only a matter of time before Chota brought a convertible fleece mitt to the paddlesports market. Indications are that the new Stow-A-Way Flip Mit will sell very well. It has a breathable PU membrane between micro-fleece layers, and a mitt that flips back to reveal the fingerless glove. ($27)

Even with paddle accessories we've noticed that manufacturers are trying to provide the market better values while maintaining quality. This year, Salamander centralized its sourcing and moved some manufacturing to Asia, resulting in prices that are 10 percent to 25 percent lower. For example, the Keel Hauler bag retailed for $72.90 last year, and comes in at $62.90 this year. The hot product this year is the Play Pen ($88.90), a 600-denier cloth bag that protects a boat up to 7 feet long. Also drawing attention is the Fatty 50 rescue bag, which has a little thicker rope that's easier for beginners to use. At $44.50, new boaters will also like the price.

** We have managed to sober up our reporters sufficiently that they have promised to deliver additional paddlesport coverage on the world of canoes as well as paddles in the next several weeks.

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