By Conor Mihell
When he moved to San Francisco four years ago, Anton Willis was dismayed by the realization that he'd have nowhere to store a hardshell sea kayak in his apartment. Then he read a magazine story about advances in origami and got an idea. Instead of buying a typical skin-on-frame folding kayak, he would design his own. Willis started by building a paper model. Once he figured out the folds, he switched to corrugated plastic signboard. "The first prototype was a disaster," he laughs. "It sank within 30 seconds."
By making "incremental improvements" in over 20 full-size prototypes, Willis gradually overcame the challenges of achieving the curves of a three-dimensional kayak from a sheet of plastic. Using a series of curved creases, Willis developed a design for a 12-foot-long, light-touring kayak that worked. Sensing he was onto something with universal appeal, he made a pitch for funding on Kickstarter last November.
Toronto-based paddler Bill Buxton isn't sure "how much of a rational answer I can give for my fascination" with Willis' Oru Kayak. He justified chipping in seed money sight unseen because Willis' idea reminded him of the Klepper folding kayaks he saw as an "army brat kid" in Germany, but with distinct advantages when it came to portability. The Oru folds into a flat package the size of a sofa cushion and weighs only 25 pounds. "Any other collapsible kayaks that I had seen were only marginally portable," says Buxton, a researcher with Microsoft. "You wouldn't cycle or hike with them. With the Oru, you can. You can have your kayak in the back of the car—even a sports car—all the time. You can fly with it without incurring extra baggage charges."
Buxton wasn't the only one who was intrigued by Willis' innovation. In the Oru Kickstarter campaign, 730 supporters donated over $443,000. Willis has begun production on pre-sold boats, with the first set to ship this month. He describes the design, which retails for $850, as "a high-performance rec boat" with crossover appeal. "It has hard chines, a V-profile in the bow and stern and a flatter cross-section under the cockpit area," says Willis. "It performs more like a hardshell on the water. You don't get the skin stretch that you see [in other folding kayaks].
"Our goal is to make boats that don't compromise on performance," he adds. "The vision is to attract people who are put off by the issues of portability and storage of hard-shell kayaks."
Willis says it takes about five minutes to assemble the Oru, and the durability of its corrugated plastic material is rated to 20,000 folds. He plans to apply his origami technique to larger 15- or 16-foot touring kayak in the future. Meanwhile, Buxton is eagerly awaiting shipment of his new boat—despite having no idea how it will perform. "I just find it a brilliant example of creative thinking and design," he says. "I love how he has taken new materials and processes and applied them to an ancient craft."