11.07.2012

Recent History

This post is part of the History series, a follow up on the previous article about 20th century packrafting.

3. The reinvention and breakthrough (2001), diversification

Presetting

Inventor by request
In the 1990s packrafting manufacture was dormant. Nevertheless, Packrafting as an activity had evolved in the decade, mainly up north, where there is a lot of water, but no roads. It is fair to say modern packrafting is based in Alaska, where you can’t walk without crossing a river. So people were applying pool toys, inner tubes and out of production packrafts from Sherpa and Curtis.

The time was there and the one who took it on was Sheri Tingey, a former ski clothing designer – and kayaker. The founding story came from her son however, one of the desperados who regularly destroyed pool toys. He challenged her by asking: Can you make me a proper boat? [1] 

Reinvention

Boat Number 1!
Sheri was the first since Halkett who took on the concept of packrafting seriously and with dedication. She focused on a functional boat with no sacrifices to weight. The innovation was the vision to actually run along rivers, not just crossing them or  floating lakes. As Sheri states: “I understood what I wanted with the boat.“ [2]

Breakthrough

Needless to say the lightweight movement in the outdoors has spurred development. The ultralight backpacking community quickly adopted the concept expanding their range of activities. Without them, the Internet and new material technology it would have not been possible to spawn a whole new sport of packrafting out of a niche. The new millennium brought packrafts into real watersports. 

Fabrics had been specifically designed and it took a year and a half to get the company to work with. Urethan coated nylon is a generic term, no quality label. It can be everything from tent canvas to Alpacka’s incredible stuff. State-of-the-art fabrics make the boat so great. Or put directly by Sheri: "I'm just too old to make junk." [6]

Development

Evolution of sprayskirts
Evolution of shape, by Chris S.
Alpacka has written its own history in the latest 10 years. In many development stages the boates advanced from stubby backpacking crafts to classy “packyaks”. However, as the design evolved, seam construction and original material remained with the innovative “body as frame” idea (individual boat sizes). The same thinking explains for the one-chamber decision and non-inflatable floors. However spraydeck advances were major milestones. 

In retrospect these are logical progressions but why did it take so long? Well, if development would have gone the way of reduction and lightening of boats starting from existing shapes and types of watercrafts - a sub 3 kg boat would have never been made! There was a need to start from scratch and this development ten years to reach current forms.

Diversification

The niche, technological advancement and low-profile marketing policy gave Alpacka little competition. Alternatives go into extreme directions. The specialization goes as far as 'glorified lilos' (Klymits Lightwater Dingey) on one end of the spectrum and with Feathercrafts Baylees towards traditional rafts (or yacht tenders). What one consider a packraft is still subject to definition. Pure imitators as yet do not exist because of a very competitive product price compared to hand made production and material. There has lately been a discussion on price point [3], but there is a good reason Alpacka has been unrivalled for ten years. Even so from a consumer perspective, as such a craft is a long term investment that pays off during many, many years of service. Safety also is a key element. A low price is not a good reason for tube failure on cold water. [4]



Future

Nevertheless, there is room for future developments. The return to simpler shapes and lighter boats might be a way and there is huge potential for specific accessories.
Packrafting generally can withstand some more recognition in the boating and outdoor community. That would include a pure whitewater boat with decent rolling ability as well as using packrafts by two persons. [5]

Sources/Reference:

[1] Alpacka Raft, About, A Brief History of Alpacka
[2] Tough Rivers, Tougher Rafts;  King, Rachael; Interview with Sheri Tingey, Bloomberg Businessweek, 2005
[3] Shea, Marc (Flightweigt Designs) and others, Discussion about Cheaper Raft Options on BPL Forums, 2011
[4] The Classic Report, Packrafts, 2009
[5] Schellin, Sven; Tingey, Sheri, Interviews 2012
[6] Alaska Entrepreneur Extraordinaire, Armstrong, James O., Senior Citizen’s Guide, 2006

Image courtesy of 'The classic report'
Early Alpacka Raft, model from 2003

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