In 2012, the Mayan Calendar predicted the end of the world. It didn’t happen, and many a canoeist was among those who scoffed at the Mayans and their silly doomsday predictions. Then, just two years later, the company that made canoeing’s miracle material, Royalex, was sold to plastics conglomerate PolyOne, which soon shut down the world’s only Royalex production facilities.
Suddenly, canoeists were the ones saying the end is nigh.
While paddlers didn’t don hair shirts and rave about the end of canoeing as we know it, there was plenty of hand wringing among those who make and sell Royalex boats, not to mention paddlers who need a canoe that can take a beating.
Royalex’s combination of stiffness and relative light-weight is a result of its three-part ‘sandwich’ construction—a foam-like core between two layers of plastic. Making Royalex is energy- consumptive, requires a large investment in ovens and tooling, and requires a very skilled workforce. No company is going to step in and take over Royalex production. Royalex is history. While I’m not selling my Royalex boats anytime soon, I’m not joining the doomsday parade either. In fact, I’d like to turn this problem around. Royalex has weaknesses.
Actually, it has a lot of them. It is non-recyclable. That means from the day it is created, it is destined for a land ll. You can only patch and repair it so many times. It will get brittle over time. Royalex boats with wood gunwales tend to develop cracks from the screw holes, as wood and Royalex expand and contract at different rates. Rapid changes in temperature are particularly problematic.
Royalex also imposes design limitations. The material limits the ability to create a sharp radius on bow and stern stems, so Royalex canoes are blunt-ended and less efficient than their composite counterparts. Although Royalex sheet is selectively reinforced to add thickness to the belly of the canoe, Royalex boats still “oil can;” you can see the bottom of the hull move with your stroke. This is particularly true with wide, at-bottomed canoes. That flexibility means a less efficient hull.
The good news is composite materials are admirable replacements for Royalex. From the newest layups to old-school materials configured for strength, there is no shortage of options. Composite canoes are made from layers of cloth impregnated with resin. Fiberglass is the classic example, though these days high-tech fabrics such as carbon fiber and Kevlar get most of the attention. Composite canoes often use a mix of these materials to balance factors such as weight, cost and durability.
By putting materials where they’re needed and taking them out where they’re not, you can get a canoe that’s durable and light. For example, the bow and stern of a canoe generally take the most abuse, so a builder might put six or seven or more layers of material at the impact point. The builder might add specific weaves of cloth to give a little flexibility where needed. The skills of the material engineer combined with a good designer can make the perfect canoe for any use. As Yoda said, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” You will have to adjust your mindset in all of these composite canoes. They will scratch, scrape, and even chip occasionally. Nothing structural, mind you, but the cosmetics of the canoe will show wear.
My wife pointed out the worst part of hitting a rock with a composite canoe. “It sounds like fingernails scraping over a chalkboard.” Those scratches are reminders of every trip, and the majority of them will be underwater. As songwriter Jerry Vandiver says, “every scratch tells a story.” When scratches get too bad for you to handle, they can be repaired, sanded, buffed and polished out the majority of the time. In Summary: The world is not ending. There are viable substitutes for Royalex. So don’t panic. Remember that people have been canoeing for millennia. There was paddling before Royalex (BR) and there will be after Royalex (AR). Here’s a review of some of the boats and materials that were born of necessity, and in my opinion, have surpassed Royalex as a canoe material.
— Read Darren Bush’s reviews of five post-Royalex canoes below:
Material: Kevlar Flex-Core
Material: White Gold
Material: Betula Papyrifera
Material: Tuff Stuff
A rundown of five post-Royalex canoe materials
— This story first appeared in the August 2015 issue of Canoe & Kayak