The Nordkapp Turns 40

nordkapp-headerWhen they hit 40, people are just entering their professional prime. 40-year old whisky is damn good. On the other hand, a 40-year old car is an outdated design, and a 40-year old computer had vacuum tubes and took up a whole building. In 2015 the Valley Nordkapp, a sea kayaking classic once the gold standard for waterborne adventures expeditions around the globe, turns 40. It’s been through numerous permutations, but at heart it’s the same kayak that rounded Cape Horn and circumnavigated Australia. Designs, of course, never stop evolving. How is the Nordkapp handling its age?

Frank Goodman of Valley Kayaks designed the Nordkapp 1975 specifically for Colin Mortlock’s 500-mile expedition to the actual Nordkapp, or “north cape”, the northernmost point in Scandinavia. Sea kayaking was in its early days, and the Nordkapp became the sport’s Model T,  or the first pair of Air Jordans. It was the first kayak to round Cape Horn in 1977, and in 1981-82, Paul Caffyn paddled it on the first circumnavigation of Australia. It was designed to carry heavy loads on long journeys, cover territory fast, be seaworthy in the rough stuff, and built to endure.

Like cars and basketball shoes, kayak designs evolved as sea kayaking grew more mainstream. As more people entered the sport, the Nordkapp was criticized as too tippy.  Designed specifically for long expeditions by skilled paddlers with heavy loads, the Nordkapp’s hull wasn’t as well-suited to enthusiast paddlers taking their first trips, and more likely to camp for a weekend than mount a trip measured on the globe. New designs favored versatility, and mixed speed, comfort, and stability, aimed at adventurous but not uber-skilled handlers. Like Cal Ripken shifting to third base, the Nordkapp yielded its place as the de rigeur expedition kayak to its fellow Brit, the Nigel Dennis Explorer.

In the intervening years, the Nordkapp went through a dizzying series of redesigns. There was the Nordkapp Jubilee, the Nordkapp LV aimed at smaller paddlers without loads, the Nordkapp H20, the Nordkapp HS, HM, and RM, and even the Aussie-made Nordkapp Sisson, which sported a rudder. Valley Kayaks itself came up with new designs to fit the same niche: the Aquanaut and then the Etain become Valley’s flagship expedition kayak. The Nordkapp, however, can still be found, in 29 choices of colors, on Valley’s website, under the “classic kayaks” sub-page.

In recent years, sea kayaking has shifted to shorter boats for day trips, playful designs, and crossovers for recreational paddlers to fit the current era of tighter schedules, more distractions, and multiple hobbies. Expeditions rare. At 40, is the Nordkapp a dinosaur? Or is it having a mid-life crisis, fighting to hold on to its youth while Father Time chuckles in the shadows?

Valley doesn’t seem to think so. It’s will be reissuing the Nordkapp Forti in 2015 to celebrate the kayak that brought modern sea kayaking to the world. With the original blueprints long lost, Valley found an old kayak from the original mold and realized that the creeping changes throughout the years had shifted away from a hull shape that doesn’t look much different from boats in production today. We’ll find out in 2015.

But  the best analogy for the Nordkapp is Larry Bird or Michael Jordan today. When we see them sitting courtside, we can’t help but wonder if they could still suit up and drain a few 3s. But that’s not really the point. Like Jordan and Bird, the Nordkapp’s legacy is secure: the kayak from the 1975 expedition lives in the British Maritime Museum, next to artifacts from Captain Cook’s voyages and the Battle of Trafalgar. I’ll be curious to take the Nordkapp Forti for a spin and see how it stacks up to a modern P&H Cetus or Tiderace Xplore. But either way, the Nordkapp’s progeny–the growing sport of sea kayaking and the vast array of kayak designs–are doing just fine.

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