The people behind Palm
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 opportunities 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.
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;
“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.
A brief history
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.
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.
An interview with Andy and Bob
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 …”
A word with Andy
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 paddlesport 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 paddlesport 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!
A word with Bob
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!
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!