By Conor Mihell
When the British National Maritime Museum asked for a Nordkapp sea kayak to display, Frank Goodman, the founder of England's Valley Canoe Products, was shocked.
"They called it the 'the archetypical sea kayak,'" says 79-year-old Goodman. "I thought they were joking. When I designed it I was just obsessed with sea canoeing, and the Nordkapp was simply a way to do bigger and better trips."
Decades later, the Nordkapp still defines the shape of "British-style" sea kayaks, and is arguably the world's most famous paddlecraft. The boat is renowned for its bombproof rough-water handling, and its central role in many of history's greatest sea-paddling exploits—the expedition Goodman led around Cape Horn in 1977, Paul Caffyn's circumnavigations of New Zealand, Great Britain, Australia and Japan in the 1980s, and most recently, Sean Morley's speedy 17-day trip around Vancouver Island last year.
Goodman designed the Nordkapp in 1975 for one of the first publicized sea kayak expeditions, a 500-mile self- supported trip along Norway's coast led by Briton Colin Mortlock. When Mortlock suggested modifications to Valley's original sea kayak, the hard-chined, heavily rockered (and consequently slow) Anas Acuta, Goodman countered that he'd rather design a "proper" expedition boat from scratch. "We were determined to make a boat that was good for expeditions as opposed to just puddling around," says Goodman. While the first generation Nordkapps had some difficulty tracking, Goodman's modifications for the Cape Horn expedition included a built-in skeg.
"In up to Force 7 crosswinds (38 miles per hour) the boat was dead-on," he says. "You just gritted your teeth and paddled and it would go straight."
Venerable British kayak designer and expedition paddler Nigel Dennis counts himself as one of Goodman's protégés. "He actually took me seriously when I announced we intended to circumnavigate Great Britain in 1980," says Dennis, who used a Nordkapp to successfully complete the trip and worked with Goodman in the ensuing years. "Much of what we all now take for granted comes down to Frank's enthusiasm and commitment to the sport."
Goodman admits that some of the most pivotal Nordkapp design features were its standard accessories: watertight hatches, rigid bulkheads and a deck-mounted bilge pump that, for the first time, made open-water rescues of fully laden boats possible, as well as recessed deck fittings for more comfortable paddling. He says ensuing modifications to the classic Nordkapp—which included larger hatches and updated names—were more just "cunning marketing" strategies. "We tweaked this and that," says Goodman. "But to be honest, I could never tell the difference. It's just amazing that 35 years later it's still selling, and that's perhaps the greatest compliment."
This story first appeared in the Dec. 2009 edition of Canoe & Kayak, as part of our feature The Innovators.
Canoe & Kayak Innovators: 14 Visionaries Who Changed Our Sport Forever
Fun Brothers Jim and Jeff Snyder // Paddling Provocateur Corran Addison // The Prophet of Polyethylene // Warriors of the Self-bailing Revolution // Aluminum Canoe Guru Bill Hoffman // Sit-on-Top Visionary Tim Niemier // Open Boat Bomber Nolan Whitesell // Sea Kayak Savant Frank Goodman // The Bublik // Air Bag Revolutionary // The Royalex Miracle // Videographer Wayne Gentry