Talking kayaks and design with ex-GB freestyler, surf fanatic and co-owner of Tootega… Steve Childs.
Whilst well known on the UK kayaking scene, can you give our international readers a little information on your background in watersports and how you came to start tootega?
I started paddling at the age of seven – I was immediately hooked!
Initially my background was in marathon and recreational whitewater, but this quickly developed into a passion for freestyle kayaking, every possible spare moment was spent on the Thames weirs, or any other play feature I could persuade someone to give me a lift to…
In 2000 I got on to the GB freestyle team and spent the summer traveling around Europe – from the European championships in Norway to the Euro cup finals in Switzerland. We were spoilt with an endless number of big wave features and I became horribly addicted to powerful, dynamic wave moves.
Once the summer was over I ended up moving to Norfolk (UK) which isn’t exactly blessed with many wave features and so started spending more and more time on the ocean.
About this time I met James, who I now run Tootega with. He was a like-minded spirit and we quickly started paddling as often as possible together, bunking off work and going AWOL anytime there was good surf within driving distance.
From the day I met him, James was interested in boat design, but it wasn’t until I came back from a trip to surf Teahupoo in Tahiti in 2003 that we seriously started to discuss designing a kayak together.
Taking my experience from riding heavy and hollow waves, James’ knowledge of boat building, and a lot of input from top waveski shaper Kevin Andriessen, we shaped our first kayak – the Envy, and took it to the World Surf Kayak Championships in Ireland in October 2003.
The next bit is a bit blurry, but the Envy was so radical that it created a lot of interest from people who wanted us to develop kayak designs for them. Initially we designed a few more surf kayaks, but somehow this turned into sit-on-top development.
In 2008 we were finally in a position to leave our day jobs and become full time designers, initially for someone else’s brand, but in 2010 we launched Tootega in a quest to design exactly what we wanted without compromise in terms of design or quality.
In the summer of 2011 we decided it wasn’t just enough to own our own brand, we needed to have control of production too, and so we begun building our own factory here in Norfolk, and since our first kayak left the production line in the winter of 2011 we haven’t looked back.
Where does the company name originate?
The name Tootega comes from ancient Inuit mythology. Tootega was a wizened goddess who could walk on water, and was a protectorate of the Eskimo fishing fleets.
Tootega have a very impressive manufacturing facility, custom outfitting and warehouse in Norfolk – why did you choose that area of the UK in which to set Tootega up?
Norfolk has one of the most progressive engineering sectors anywhere in the country. Within 15 minutes drive of the factory we have three different formula one teams, and a whole raft of other experimental facilities.
Put simply, it’s a great place to find the skills and equipment to try new and innovative things (we also get some amazing surf now and then).
Each and every kayak you manufacture is made at your factory in Norfolk, why is this important to you?
Consistency and control!
Making our product in our own facility not only gives us absolute control over the materials we specify, how we make our boats, and of course quality but it also allows us to be very reactive to market demands – we can change what models and colours we are producing at the drop of a hat. This means less stock and better service to our customers.
Another key advantage of having not only the production, but the product design and mould tool manufacture onsite is we can consider how a kayak is going to be made as we develop the design itself – ultimately meaning stiffer, lighter, and more durable kayaks!
Are you personally involved in the design process of the kayak – how does your wide experience of kayaking help in this area?
Yes, James and I head up every design project. Between us we have over 40 years paddling experience in a huge variety of craft, and we couldn’t do our job without it.
Knowledge and theory are vitally important for sure, but understanding how something will ‘feel’ in the water can only come from experience, a few good beatings, and plenty of trial and error!
What area of the design process do you personally feel is most important and how do your kayaks reflect that?
Seating position – simple!
A well thought out kayak or canoe design should all revolve around something we call the centre of effort, it’s essentially the balance point for you sitting in the kayak.
Everything should by effected by this little theoretical point. The low point in the rocker should align closely with it allowing you to affect the kayaks trim forwards and backwards, the wide point in the plan shape should also relate to it allowing you to control direction more easily with body and head rotation, and the volume distribution should be linked to it in a way which allows the kayak to sit trim in the water.
Get the centre of effort wrong and the best design in the world won’t paddle properly, which is why I say it’s such an important consideration.
Any design aspect of a Tootega kayak that you would consider to be the signature idea?
Every kayak model we design is truly unique and always started on a blank piece of paper so it’s hard to pick a specific ‘signature’ feature – perhaps this is our signature idea in itself?
What are the hidden little extra details you may find in a Tootega kayak?
We have a process called engineered strength. Once a design has gone through basic testing and we are happy with the general shape and size of the kayak we work to incorporate shape and feature that increases stiffness, increases strength, or increases plastic thickness in a key area.
A great example of this is the drainage gulley around the central hatch in our Pulse and Kinetic ranges. This gulley isn’t actually primarily there to drain water. It is there to add corrugation to the seating area, helping stiffness. It is there to ‘trap’ plastic during the moulding process, helping to make the seat area thicker. Finally it is there to isolate the hatch from the flexing you will inevitably get as you move around on the seat whilst paddling, helping to prevent the hatch from leakage.
Your newest model the Kinetic 100, what is it about this boat that excites you so much?
The Kinetic is the result of direct feedback from customers at demo days across the UK and Europe over the past few years.
Many really need a longer, more touring inspired kayak for the type of paddling they wish to do, but are understandably hesitant about the size and weight, especially if it’s their first kayak purchase.
So the aim with the Kinetic was to create a compact and versatile all-rounder. Something in which they could truly try a little bit of everything, whilst still maximizing speed and efficiency for those flat water paddles.
It has loads of exciting new features, including a fully adjustable skeg system, all of which are designed to make it the most versatile 10ft (3.1m) sit-on-top on the market today!
Designing kayaks or paddling kayaks – if you could only do one – which one?
Impossible to answer – designing things people love and seeing their enjoyment is a pretty massive rush, but you can’t do that properly without paddling…
Finally, if you wish to tell us, what’s in store for the future?
The future’s exciting! We’re working on some new construction techniques that blend elements of aerospace composites with the most durable of external surface materials – hopefully this will open up exciting new design possibilities, and not just in sit-on-tops…
The sit-on-top market itself is evolving. Sit-on-kayaks are fast becoming a third genre in our sport alongside traditional canoes and kayaks. It is no longer enough to offer poorly designed, cheaply made product, and just sell on price alone.
Customers expect more… More specific designs, more connectivity with their kayak, more durable build quality, more choice of construction techniques.
Over the next few years you will see more specialist models entering our range, and not just in polyethylene plastic.
Thanks Steve for your time and all the best of luck for the future…