Recently we tracked down Nick Wiltz, inventor of the popular Windpaddle kayak and canoe sail, in-between trade shows. We spoke with him about the Windpaddle concept and how the company got underway.
AirKayaks: Nick, we really enjoy the WindPaddle pop-up sail, and it’s a big hit with our customers. It is so simple to use – except (of course) for the first attempt to fold it up! How did you come up with the idea?
Nick: Holly, first let me say that the fold-up idea wasn’t mine! But the sail was. I’m a sailor first and perhaps a lazy paddler second, and living here in Wind-City (Hood River, Ore.) we play in the wind almost daily. Kite boarding, sailing and windsurfing are huge here.
Well, one day I was playing with an automobile sun shade – it was made of two connected circles or hoops, but then coiled and folded into a small “pizza-sized” compact package which fit under the seat. I loved the seemingly geometrical magic trick of this and started thinking of things that needed to be lightweight stow small and compact, yet expand HUGE when needed for use. For some reason that day a small-craft sail popped into my mind. I glanced over to my son’s kayak, grinned and an idea was born. Of course it took two or three years of rolling the idea around in my mind before I got down and made any prototypes. The resulting product is the WindPaddle sail we know today.
AirKayaks: What made you decide to take the plunge and turn this into a business rather than a hobby?
Nick: I played with the sail idea awhile, made a prototype and then just emotionally fell for the sail design. I had never seen anything like it. I then did a patent search and found nothing in the books remotely resembling it. The business of making WindPaddle sails came from my own confidence in the product and the positive feedback from the sail. I tried to do WindPaddle and a regular job simultaneously, but I wasn’t doing a good job at either trying to do both. So I just took that leap of fate, walked off the end of the dock, jumped out the back of the airplane … and committed to it. I took the plunge because I thought enough people would buy the sail that I could make a living at it.
Nick: Well with my sailing background I went into the design from that perspective rather than from the perspective of a paddler, so we might have stumbled early on in our learning curve. The first WindPaddle we called the “Sport”, was held aloft using the paddle or oar as a hand-held mast. We sold about three of those sails, mostly to canoe folks who lashed the paddle to the boat. (Lesson and Rule #1; Paddlers want their paddle in their hands, ALWAYS! I learned about bracing).
The next generation was the same sail rigged on the deck of the boat with a window in the middle panel to see through. This became the “Adventure” sail that we have today.
The next step was turbo charging the sail by increasing the size from 1 sq. metre to 1.65 sq. metres. Because of the beauty of the laws of aerodynamics, the power output was doubled by just increasing the size by half! Cool, huh? The sail is called the “Cruiser” sail and is for tandems, canoes, heavier singles or just those who want to BLAST.
In two years of production we have equaled domestic sales of any of the other kayaks or canoe sails available on the market according to those who sell many types of sails. I think we are doing well because we have taken a totally fresh and new look at kayak and canoe sails and with modern materials, have come up with a design that works.
AirKayaks: There are a number of kayak and canoe sails on the market, as well as many home-made versions. What makes the WindPaddle stand out?
Nick: Our sail initially stands out because it looks nothing like anything currently out there on the market. We are also unique in how quick, easy and diverse our mounting system is; simply connect to existing deck hardware! WindPaddle sails can be moved and swapped from boat to boat in less than a minute or even while out on the water. I personally think we stand out because we are $100.00 or more less expensive AND less than half the weight of other sails on the market. This is gold because the wind doesn’t always blow, and when it doesn’t, you don’t want to be hauling a lot of weight around.Our “Adventure” sail weighs 13 oz. which is about that of a bottle of beer or soda pop.
The WindPaddle also is safe in that the center of effort is down low. This means that the force of the wind on the sail has less of a tendency to roll you or upset the boat. Finally, you can’t break our sails. But if you happen to find a way to do so, we fix or replace the sail, no questions asked.
AirKayaks: Why do you think people are so fascinated with the concept of kayak and canoe sailing?
Nick: People love freedom and free stuff. Free lunches, free gear, free range chicken, free air-miles… and sailing is kinda like scoring something free. Sailing is effortless and fun! Sailing IS free air-miles! Think of all the songs written about sailing. They are wonderful songs. Sailing elicits an emotion that is hard to come by. So does paddling. Kayak and canoe sailing combines the two. Grand Slam!
AirKayaks: Is it possible to sail upwind with a WindPaddle?
Nick: WindPaddle sails were developed to be “down-wind” sails. We did so because kayaks and canoes are inherently ill-designed to be sailboats or sail into the wind. Sure, you can outfit your kayak or canoe to sail upwind, but then you are strapping and screwing and fastening in lee-boards, sail control systems, etc. all which are relatively heavy, cumbersome and complicated. Sailing to “weather” or upwind is what sailboats are for and we think everyone should own one!
We also think sailing off the wind is what a canoe or kayak can do very well with no boat modifications required. We designed the WindPaddle to work with kayaks and canoes, not change them into something they are not. That said (and we are still surprised at this), you can sail across the wind with a WindPaddle sail. This is called “reaching” in sailing, so the WindPaddle can sail within a 180 degree down wind angle.
AirKayaks: Where do you want to go from here, what are your plans for 2010?
Nick: 2010 is a year we go to the next level. We have just signed on a couple of Distributors in Europe and in Australia, so our production is going to have to ramp up to support them. WindPaddle sails have become popular because customers are now asking for them, but we also want to give the product the marketing/media exposure it deserves. We will be at more kayak/canoe shows, symposiums and festivals in 2010 as well as introducing a sail into the growing SUP market early this winter.
AirKayaks: So, is this now a real job, or are you still having fun!
Nick: Until recently I borrowed boats for sail testing, as well as had other paddlers test and review our sails because I didn’t own a kayak! But recently I bought a kayak and am spending way too much time “product testing.” I never leave the dock without a WindPaddle sail, either lashed to the deck, stowed under a deck bag/pack or stuffed behind the seat. Being “caught” out on the water without a sail is hateful! So like the American Express ad, “Never leave home without it!”
AirKayaks: Nick, we don’t leave home without it, either – almost worse than being up a creek without a paddle!