Unlike most canoe manufacturers, the end of production of Royalex, the thermoformed plastic used for decades in whitewater and tripping canoes, caused no grief for New Hampshire's John Kazimierczyk. "Kaz", as he's known in the canoe community, is the man behind Millbrook Boats, one of the longest standing—and lesser known—whitewater canoe manufacturers in North America. In 2014, while other brands stockpiled sheets of Royalex, raised prices, and brainstormed various replacements, Millbrook carried on, business as usual.
Millbrook has always paddled against the currents of mainstream canoe design. Founder John Berry started building radical whitewater canoes in 1958. Originally known as "Mad River Canoes and Kayaks", the late Berry pushed the envelope of open- and closed-deck designs, working exclusively in composite materials. A key player in the early days of competitive whitewater canoeing, the majority of Berry's canoes were conceived for his own personal use. In 1960, Berry won a race in Jamaica, Vt., in a homemade closed-deck C-1. "[The] other 22 in class were all in state of the art 15-foot shoe-keel Grummans!" Berry recalled in handwritten memoirs.
Among Berry's innovations was the C-2 "Berrigan", co-designed with his paddling partner Bob Harrigan, and built for a time by Old Town Canoe. Berry moved to Vermont and committed to full-time canoe construction in 1970, setting up shop and renaming his operations Millbrook Boats. Kazimierczyk, the most celebrated competitive OC whitewater paddler in the U.S., took over production in 1988.
Kazimierczyk insists he's carried on Berry's tradition of making boat-building a part of his lifestyle, producing custom, economically priced canoes in small runs. "Life is short," he says. "I like to come and go as I please. I've been trying to do that for approximately 30 years now."
Kazimierczyk says investing in thermoform technology was incompatible with his outlook. "Producing Royalex canoes meant a much larger operation," he notes. "John B. never wanted that, and I never wanted that."
Today, Millbrook lists 28 designs, including Berry originals like the Modified Czech C1 and others, like the Rival, Flashback and ME, which went on to commercial success with larger manufacturers Dagger and Mad River. His range includes cutting edge slalom, freestyle and creekboats, as well as a 16-foot tandem meant for whitewater tripping. All of his boats are constructed of vacuum-bagged laminates of S-glass, Kevlar and carbon, and are priced under $1,700. True to his backyard building roots, Kazimierczyk promises innovative design—not cosmetic perfection. "None of my boats are perfect, cosmetically or even symmetrically," he says.
As for the perceived fragility of composite construction, Kazimierczyk and countless other competitive whitewater boaters have reaped the benefits of lighter, stiffer, and easier to repair canoes. "If someone desires a heavier layup because they have concerns about a 'glass' boat," he says, "I will add more material in the waterline at extra charge."
Kazimierczyk says he has no aspirations to discover the next great material for whitewater canoe construction. Approaching three decades in business, he admits, "Eventually I will be looking for someone to carry on the Millbrook Boats tradition of lightweight, affordable canoes."
The Search for Royalex 2.0 Continues:
— Two years later, Quebec's Esquif Canoes has yet to deliver on T-Formex, it's promise of a lighter, tougher material for whitewater canoes.
— Nova Craft touted the durability of Tuff Stuff, its new composite layup, by launching it off a 100-foot building.