The year was 1979, on the Somerset coast. Inside a small shed with a leaky tin roof you’d have found a figure, working hard and covered in a fine layer of glass fibre dust: Andy Knight wanted some better gear to take paddling, and had decided to make it himself. The sign on the door read ‘Palm Glass Fibre Mouldings Ltd’. Just down the road, Andy can still be found working away on something new. The shed is now a little bigger, and Andy's been joined team of staff, but they still work with the same determination at the same goal; making gear for paddlers.
Palm HQ circa 1980
Andy Knight first tried kayaking at school in a glass fibre craft of questionable seaworthiness that he built himself. He soon began to compete in slalom competitions, paddling in Division 2 kayak, and Division 1 two-man Canadian. At the same time he became a kayak surf addict, and living in the South West allowed him plenty of opportunity to go on surf missions. At sixteen Andy became the South West Junior Kayak Surfing Champion, then UK Junior Champion the following year, and later on in 1984, the UK Men’s Champion. It was not only the competitive element that drew Andy in, he was also an instructor for a time. Andy’s true passion revealed itself before too long; it was only a matter of time before his education in engineering, combined with ideas about how boats and gear could be improved drove him inevitably to start making them himself.
Palm MD Andy Knight tearing up the surf
The other figure alongside Andy at Palm is Bob Slee, an old friend, who was recruited in 1987 to help manage the business. Bob’s years in the merchant navy gave him a solid background in engineering, as well as an ability to keep everything running smoothly, shipshape and Bristol fashion. Bob built our boat moulding oven himself in 2000, and can still be found in overalls, tinkering, developing, and experimenting with new projects. Bob’s introduction to kayaking was a little different, he preferred the adventure of paddling a river or surfing than competitions. Andy remembers his early paddling adventures with Bob;
Andy (left) and Bob (right) - The late 80s...
“Being a couple of years older than me, Bob was the one with a car and a driving license. We would load four kayaks onto Bob’s Morris Minor 1000, which had larger than standard wheels to go faster, and head off on paddling adventures.”
Bob was also the youngest ever chairman of Bristol Canoe Club at the age of nineteen, and his other passion in kayaking was terrorising the opposition on the canoe polo pitch. As their friendship grew, Andy’s competitive streak began to wear off on Bob, and they raced together for many years in their two-man kayak (which now hangs on the factory wall). Back then their attitude to racing verged on ruthless. Although generous and friendly on land, there are many stories of racing kayaks left sinking, and competitors left floundering as they tore down the river in their bright pink paddling gear.
Bob and Andy in racing mode: The Exe Descent
Initially Andy designed and built high performance glass fibre kayaks, but soon moved into the emerging wave-ski market. It wasn’t until 1984 that we launched our first clothing range at the Crystal Palace canoe show, with a change of name to Palm Canoe Products Ltd. The clothing, designed by paddlers, for paddlers, was enthusiastically received and became extremely popular. Then in 1986 we embraced the rapidly growing market in plastic rotomoulded kayaks, and became an outfitter and distributor for AC Kayaks. It was shortly after this that Bob arrived to help out.
Palm's original line up …
By then our single second-hand sewing machine had multiplied into a room full of machines and staff, which provided Andy and Bob with the new challenge of managing a large team. The staff knew a lot more about sewing than Andy or Bob, but not as much about nylon fabrics and paddling gear. The learning curve was steep for everybody and the combination made for some great new gear. Thankfully it was the 80s, and neon pink was a hit!
Palm's original line up …Embracing the colours of the 80s
n 1992 our relationship with Dagger, a US canoe and kayak manufacturer, began with their launch of a new range of boats. In 1995 we adopted our current name of Palm Equipment International Ltd. Imported to Europe by Palm, Dagger’s boats became increasingly popular throughout the late 90s thanks to classic designs such as the RPM and Redline. In 1999 construction started on our current Clevedon factory, along with a new oven which would allow us to make Dagger kayaks right here at Palm. The build was finished in September 2000, and the first kayak emerged from our oven on the 8th November at around 10:20 pm. Since then we have expanded our range of kayaks and canoes. We now mould and import a huge variety of craft; from Dagger, Islander, Wilderness Systems and Mad River Canoe. Our clothing range has also expanded and reached the farthest corners of the world.
Palm HQ in 2013
Today, our clothing is predominantly manufactured in select locations in Asia in order to compete economically with other brands. We’re not, however, simply using the cheapest suppliers. We work in close cooperation with established manufacturers who specialise in production of watersports equipment. An example is our dedicated manufacturing facility in Vietnam, where we employ a dedicated team to sample, test and develop new gear and materials in close cooperation with our design team. We also visit our manufacturers throughout the year, and we provide support and benefits for the staff who work in our facilities.
Palm's manufacturing facility at Red River, Vietnam
Despite making most of our soft gear abroad, we still keep a full complement of manufacturing equipment here in the UK for repairs and the development of new products. Our designers also spend time working with Palm’s repair and returns team to share ideas, improve the products, and to ensure that replacement parts (like latex neck seals) can be efficiently changed.
Repairs, modifications, and prototyping at Palm HQ
Palm has always been a paddler driven company, and we are fortunate enough to have been involved in some truly landmark events in kayaking history. From remote expeditions such as the 1994 Waghi Kayak Expedition and the 2001 European Stikine Expedition, down to the introduction of the Dagger RPM to the UK, we’re proud to have contributed to the development of the sport. Peter ‘Green Slime’ Knowles was amongst the first to explore and document the rivers of Nepal by in the 90s, then a largely undiscovered but soon to be popular country for kayaking. In Peter’s words:
“Looking back over many years and many expeditions I think one of the things that stands out is that Palm has been a major player in Himalayan river exploration – Palm gear has, I think, been used on every major river descent in the Himalayas – from the Afghan border to the mighty Brahmaputra, and from the early eighties right up until today.”
The Himalayas, the 80s.
Similarly in the competitive fields of kayaking, we’ve also stayed in touch. Successful slalom paddlers who have been supported by Palm include Russ Smith – British Champion and a World Team Slalom Champion in 1987, and Shaun Pearce, Olympian and winner of four medals at the ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships.
We were also keen supporters of freestyle kayaking as far back as its early ‘rodeo’ roots. We helped organise the first ever Rodeo World Championships in 1991, held at the Bitches tidal race in Pembrokeshire. As this exciting branch of the sport grew, we supported some of the sport’s most talented young paddlers. Kitted out in our RiverTec range, this group became known as the RiverTec Collective and included such names as Cheesy Robertson, Andy Phillips, Simon Westgarth, Ed Cornfield, Pete Orton and Deb Pinniger. For many years these paddlers dominated the freestyle scene and inspire a generation of playboaters, winning multiple World, European and British titles along the way.
It’s not just on the whitewater that drew Palm’s attention. In the early 90s Karen and Dan Trotter embarked on an epic twelve-month coastal touring expedition to Tasmania and New Zealand, using purpose-built gear. Around the same time Nigel Foster and Ray Rowe, two of Wales’ most prominent sea kayakers helped us design the now iconic Foster-Rowe sea paddling gear, which in the words of Loel Collins (former head of paddlesport at Plas Y Brenin) ‘has only now been superseded by the Palm Aleutian top’.
James 'Pringle' Bebington on his way to world freestyle champion …
Right now we support paddlers exploring and working around the world and here in the UK. Palm’s place in freestyle was once again brought to the fore in 2011, when team paddler James ‘Pringle’ Bebbington became the Freestyle Kayaking World Champion wearing his Harlequin Fuse Jacket. We work with exceptional paddlers around the world, whose feedback is vital to product development and innovation. Simon Westgarth, long time team paddler and founder of Gene17 Kayaking, is one of our principal whitewater gear testers:
“I enjoy nothing more than taking a new prototype piece of gear from Andy and using it to destruction. This doesn’t always make Andy happy, but I tell him what he needs to hear to make the gear better.”
Simon tests a prototype Spark suit in Norway
Today we are still based in our factory in Clevedon, and we are still on a mission to push kayaking forward. As our brand manager Paul Robertson puts it:
“Palm has, in recent years been accused both of being a garage business, and a faceless corporate entity. In reality, neither of these statements are accurate, and we sit comfortably between the two. Our offices and UK factory are housed under one roof, and Andy and Bob are still involved on a daily basis, both with hands-on development of products, and the management of the business. Many of our staff paddle, and you’ll find us on the water on many weekends and evenings at Bristol Docks, at the beach, or on the Wye or Dart.”
Palm's designer Barney Caulfield talks design...
“Forty-odd-years ago when we started paddling, there was a small community of enthusiasts who all helped each other out. I’d give a guy at the take-out a lift back up the river, because I never knew when I might need the same favour. I try to keep this attitude, after all the sport can only progress if we all help each other out”. – Andy Knight
If you ask our MD Andy about the future, he’s very clear: “Everybody working here knows that I shall refuse to stop working until at least ninety-five; I enjoy what I do too much! Maybe there will come a day when I see a piece of gear and don’t immediately think ‘How can I improve that?’ But right now I can’t see that happening. We certainly still have plenty of exciting new ideas and projects going on, so watch this space …”
Andy and Bob at Palm HQ
Andy and Bob at Palm HQ in 2010
What was your first piece of paddling gear?
A fibreglass Trylon Ox 1 slalom kayak in bright orange. I was fourteen at the time and my teacher at school showed me the mould and said “mix this lot together, and put it in the mould”. I ended up with a kayak that needed emptying about once every mile, but which nonetheless had me hooked.
Do you have a favourite piece of gear that Palm has made?
I get excited about the development of every piece of kit we make, but for me the standout piece is the original Extrem Vest, which was designed for a group of UK paddlers to take on the 1994 Waghi Expedition looking for first descents in Papua New Guinea. It was a breakthrough in so many ways, and the original in the long line of Extrem Vests.
You initially started the company to build glass fibre kayaks, how did you get into making paddling clothing?
Our initial attempts at making paddling clothing were very basic. I bought a second hand sewing machine like the one your mother uses to make curtains, along with two rolls of PU backed fabric. We started off making basic nylon decks to fit our composite boats, and then made our first paddle jacket. It was based upon the pattern of a tailored suit, meaning that when you lifted your arms the whole body section was pulled up. I admit it wasn’t great, but everybody has to start somewhere!
What for you have been the most rewarding, and most difficult moments from your time with Palm?
In the 90s we won some manufacturer awards, which were voted for by the paddle-sport community. It was really good to see people’s recognition of the effort we put into our gear, and it was really good to see how positive people’s perception of the company was. My most difficult time was probably in the company’s early days, trying to make composite boats in midwinter in a leaky unheated hut. At least when the temperature reached freezing the roof no longer leaked!
Have you ever considered broadening Palm’s market to produce more general watersports gear?
We’re a specialist company and we will continue to focus upon making gear for paddlers. We have an in-depth understanding of the unique requirements of canoeing and kayaking gear and have a great deal of expertise in that field. I also enjoy the interaction of the paddle-sport community, which is unique in the outdoor industry; even the manufacturers in competition with each other are sociable and work together to develop the sport.
Who’s the faster paddler, you or Bob?
Me of course! When we used to race K2 together I always crossed the line first!
An ill advised foray into the world of SUP...
What was your first piece of paddling gear?
My first proper piece of canoeing kit was an orange Harishok ribbed buoyancy aid, although my Peter Storm anorak came a close second!
You designed and built the boat oven at Palm yourself, tell us what that involved?
Have you got all day? I don’t think ‘designed and built’ is quite the right phrase, it was more ‘a copy and modification’. When Dagger gave us the rights to manufacture their kayaks in the UK they supplied me with a set of CAD drawings for their latest oven in Tennessee. Twelve months previous to this, a guy in Eastern Australia (Robin Box) had been given a duplicate set of drawings and he built his version in a barn. I asked permission to come and have a look at it and spent nearly three weeks out in Australia during which time I took hundreds of photographs made a great many notes and sketched loads of drawings. By the time I left I’d decided that my oven would be more like the Australian one, with a number of modifications, which Robin and I had discussed to make it more efficient. After returning to the UK, I spent months sourcing all the parts; including the gas burner, steel, insulation, fans, gearboxes, electronic components and everything else that went into creating this huge bit of kit. Prior to visiting Australia I had little knowledge of any of this, it was an incredibly steep learning curve! The rest is history. A little over twelve months later, on the 8th November 2000, with a huge amount of help from one Franco Corsini (an electrical genius and Robin’s brother-in-law) the first slightly warped RPM came out of the oven around 22:30 that night. Franco and I always did stuff whilst nobody else was around!
The moulding facility at Palm – note Bob and Andy's K2 racer hanging up.
Did you ever feel like it was just too much effort?
Only once, when I stepped off the plane in Melbourne back in September 1999 with a blank A4 pad did I think ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ During the next twelve months there were numerous occasions when I thought why, why, why? But I can honestly say once I came back from Australia I was convinced I could do this.
Who’s the faster paddler, you or Andy?
Do you really need to ask? Me of course, I’ve got longer arms!