By Paul Lebowitz
Every once in a while between the memes and divisive political rants, Facebook serves up a gem. That's where I stumble over a remarkable photo, just a snippet of blueprint of the first mass-produced plastic sit-on-top, the Royak. A message and minutes later I'm set for a bayside meeting with the draftsman, Don Switzer.
"I never met Roy Grabenauer. His partner, Don Farnsworth, hired me," Switzer says. “They needed drawings (of the Royak) for the insurance company before they could go into production.”
Switzer, a retired architect, graciously allows me to pore over his three sheets of plans. They are brittle with age but the lines are clean, unlike the battered real-world examples of the Royaks I've seen. Depicted from the top down, the boat reminds me of a torpedo. That's fitting, because in 1968, Grabenauer fabricated the prototype from aluminum aircraft wing tanks. Legend has it that Grabenauer, a WWII veteran and inveterate inventor, designed the closed-hull sit-on-top as an unsinkable diving platform and all-around user-friendly watercraft.
At the time, resourceful divers were modifying fiberglass surfboards by adding storage compartments to the deck. There were commercial versions too, including the Malotte Scout II. Grabenauer took the idea a few steps further, carving out a cockpit low to the water.
Grabenauer's prototype was certainly seaworthy. During its maiden dive trip the Royak pulled anchor and floated away. Seven hundred and forty-two days later, a Mexican tuna skipper recovered it hundreds of miles out to sea.
Back to Don Switzer, who received one of the first production models of the Royak in exchange for his drafting work.
"That was my fee, a boat worth about $250," he says. The kayak was thermoformed out of ABS plastic. Switzer fished it in San Diego Bay, targeting saltwater bass and perch. "That was a trip. There were no kayaks on the water at the time," he adds.
There were no rod holders on the Royak. Switzer would lash his reel to a carrying handle in the cockpit, then troll with the line hanging over his leg to the side. He'd get a good jolt any time he hooked up.
His son Todd recalls riding on a cushion in the back hatch as a 7-year-old. He was soloing the Royak by the age of 10.
“One day I made it across to North Island and I was working the shallows when I hooked a decent halibut tossing a lead head with green Scampi tail. It might have been 26 or 27 inches long but to me it felt like the fish of a lifetime. Eventually it broke the line. I still remember the pain of not landing that fish," he says.
Todd Switzer recalls the old yellow Royak wasn't fast and the short bow was murder in the La Jolla Shores surf.
"I got dumped a lot. I had to cut hard left or right early on the wave and lean way back while bracing hard just to keep the bow from pearling," he says. But the Royak was remarkably stable at 28 inches wide, and had plenty of space to stash tackle and fish. There was even a wet well up forward, useful for bait.
The younger Switzer fished the Royak into the late 1980s before moving on to a succession of kayaks—the lifelong paddler keeps a wide variety at his home.
There were quality challenges. The glue joining the upper and lower halves tended to fail, causing leaks. Todd Switzer says the Royak was never going to evolve into a game-changing design, but it had a loyal fan base. “As in any design evolution, the engineering team builds on the success and failures of industry predecessors and competition. The Royak moved designs forward and benefitted every kayak angler out there.”
Next: Part 3, Gold From Plastic
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