Articles - Gear For Paddlers - The Palm Equipment Story

Palm Equipment Gear for Cannoeing & Kayaking Kit
Palm Equipment Gear for Cannoeing & Kayaking Kit
Article by Nick Horwood, images Palm Archive - Posted on 01 May 2013

Palm Logo

“I am a firm believer that there is always a way to improve something” - Andy Knight, founder of Palm Equipment International Ltd.


Palm Equipment is a name that is intertwined with the rise and development of our sport. Born from a desire to create better gear by paddlers for paddlers, they’ve grown from humble beginnings in to a UK success story and a renowned international brand, and their equipment and paddling apparel can be seen on rivers, lakes and oceans all over the world. To celebrate Palm’s three decades in the industry, canoekayak.co.uk made a visit their factory in Somerset to find out a bit about the company’s history…
 
The year was 1979, and if you were to head to the Somerset coast, you might have stumbled across a small shed with a leaky tin roof, in which you would have found the figure of Andy Knight, working hard and most likely covered in a fine layer of glass fibre dust. Andy wanted some better gear to take paddling, and had decided to make it himself. The sign on the door at the time read ‘Palm Glass Fibre Mouldings Ltd’; it was from this humble beginning that one of canoeing and kayaking’s most successful and influential companies would emerge.
      
That was three decades ago, but just down the road from his original business address Andy can still be found working away on something new. Although the shed is now a little bigger and the dust on the floor super linear polyethylene, Andy and his team still work with the same determination at the same goal; making gear for paddlers.
 
 The People Behind Palm Andy Knight Palm Equipment sewing canoeing kit
Andy Knight started kayaking at school in a self-built glass fibre craft of questionable seaworthiness, and soon began to compete in slalom competitions, paddling in kayak Division 2, and two-man Canadian Division 1. At the same time he became a kayak surfing addict, and living in the South West allowed him plenty of opportunity to go on surf missions. At 16 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 of kayaking that drew Andy in, and he was also an instructor for a time. Andy’s true passion in paddle-sport however was to reveal itself before too long, and 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, who was recruited in 1987 to help with the management of the business. An old friend of Andy’s, Bob’s years in the merchant navy had given him a solid background in engineering, as well as a natural ability to keep everything running smoothly, shipshape and Bristol fashion. Bob built Palm’s rotary moulding oven himself in 2000, and now occupies a position in the company somewhere between venerated hero and feared tyrant, his quality control standards striking fear into the hearts of those entrusted to use the oven.
      
Bob’s start in kayaking was less competition oriented than Andy’s, and he preferred heading off to paddle rivers or surf than competing. 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 19, and his other passion in kayaking was terrorising his opponents on the canoe polo pitch.
      
As their friendship grew Andy’s competitive streak obviously began to wear off on Bob, and they were to race together for many years in their two-man racing kayak (now hanging on the factory wall). Considered formidable adversaries by many, their ‘no holds barred’ attitude would have given any competitors a somewhat twisted image of these two otherwise genial characters as they tore ruthlessly down the river in their bright pink paddling gear mowing down anything or anybody in their path. In Bob’s words: “Back then we were pretty competitive; if somebody got stuck sideways across the river in front of us we would paddle harder. With enough speed you could punch right through a composite racing kayak!”
 
A Brief History
Initially creating high performance GRP kayaks, Andy soon moved on to the newly emerging wave ski market, which offered an easily accessible form of kayaking and embraced the beach lifestyle. It was not however until 1984, when the Palm Paddling Kit - The Early Yearscompany changed its name to Palm Canoe Products Ltd that the first clothing range was launched at a February canoe show at Crystal Palace. The clothing, designed by paddlers, for paddlers was enthusiastically received, and was soon to become extremely popular.
      
In 1986 Palm embraced the rapidly growing market in rotomoulded kayaks, becoming an outfitter and distributor for A.C. kayaks, a relationship that would prove very fruitful, with Palm and A.C. later cooperating to bring out the AP2000 whitewater helmet, which still adorn many a club paddler’s head to this day! Shortly after this Bob Slee arrived to help with the company’s management, and the company started to focus more upon the distribution and sales of rotomoulded kayaks.
      
By now the company’s single second hand sewing machine had somehow multiplied into a room full of machines and staff, providing Andy and Bob with the new task of learning how to manage and run a large team. The staff using the machines knew a lot more about sewing than Andy or Bob, with the latter on the other hand knowing more about nylon fabrics and paddling gear. The learning curve was steep for everybody involved, however, the expertise of both parties showed through in the new kit, which continued to prove very popular with paddlers.
 
Dagger, Development and New Horizons
In 1992 Palm’s relationship with U.S canoe and kayak manufacturers Dagger began, with Dagger launching their new range at the International Canoe Exhibition, and in 1995 the company adopted its current name of Palm Equipment International Ltd. Throughout the late 90’s Dagger boats, imported by Palm, carried on to increase in popularity, helped by classic designs such as the RPM and Redline. In 1999 Construction started on the current Clevedon factory, along with a new oven, to allow Dagger boats to be made in the UK. The build was finished in September 2000 and the first boat emerged from the oven on the 8th November at around 10.20 pm.Dagger RPM Whitewater Kayak
      
Production and sales of Dagger kayaks have since gone from strength to strength, with Palm developing the Islander range of sit-on-tops, and recently taking on the distribution of Wilderness Systems Kayaks and Mad River Canoes. The Palm clothing range has also expanded and developed into the comprehensive range available in the shops today.
      
Starting in the late 90’s, production of Palm’s clothing range began to be moved out to Asia, in order to compete economically with other brands. Andy is keen to point out however, that Palm are working in close cooperation with established manufacturers who specialise in production of water-sports equipment: “We’re not simply using the cheapest suppliers who make tablecloths one day and dry-tops the next; the people making our products fully understand their intended purpose. I also visit our facilities abroad many times every year, and we provide support and benefits for the staff who work in them”.
      
Despite the majority of soft gear now being made abroad, a full range of manufacturing equipment still remains here in the UK for repairs and the prototyping and testing of new products. The designers also spend time working with the repair and returns team to pass on expertise, improve the products, and ensure that replacement parts such as latex seals can be effectively and easily renewed. 
 
Gear and People
In some fields Palm have led the way developing many industry, and sport, leading products, and in others have built upon already existing ideas, however as Andy says, the driving question has always been; ‘How can we make this better?
      
Pete Knowles AKA Mr Green Slime, guidebook author and whitewater expedition pioneer, remembers an early encounter with Andy: “One of my early memories is accosting Andy at the old Crystal Palace Canoe Exhibition sometime in the 80s. Palm had just rushed to bring out their first throw bag, which was a straight copy of Green Slime's. Mr. Green Slime wasn’t happy, however Andy couldn’t have been nicer, and went away immediately to design a different and better model.’
      
Palm has always relied heavily upon feedback from paddlers in the development of new ideas, and it was back in 1991 that the desire to produce a female specific buoyancy aid led to the now classic Canyon S, which incorporated a much Early whitewater expedition using Palm Equipment Paddling Gearmore contoured cut than previous designs. “The female specific Canyon was a complete washout at first.” Says Bob “But then men who tried it on really liked the shape, and started asking us if we’d make it in bigger sizes. So we adjusted the size, and the Canyon S became one of our biggest sellers!” 
      
One organisation that has been involved with Palm for many years now is the National Mountain centre at Plas Y Brenin in Snowdonia. Steve White first set up Palm’s relationship with the PYB in 1995 through Loel Collins, and they have since had a large influence in the development of Palm’s gear, especially on the safety and rescue front. Another example of Palm’s commitment to safe practise can be seen in their support of Franco Ferrero’s book ‘White Water Safety and Rescue’, now in
its second edition and still the standard literary resource for paddle-sport safety in the UK.
       
Gear for Paddlers
Palm has always been a paddler driven company, and has been involved in many of the landmark events in kayaking history. From groundbreaking expeditions such as the ’94 Waghi Kayak Expedition looking for first descents in Papua New Guinea and the 2001 European Stikine Expedition, through to the introduction of the RPM to the UK, and the pioneering River Tec line of freestyle gear, Palm’s involvement has been central to the development of the sport.
      
Andy was first invited out to kayak the rivers of Nepal by Peter ‘Green Slime’ Knowles in 1996, then a largely undiscovered but increasingly popular country for kayaking. As Peter recounts: “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 equipment 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.”
      
“And, it wasn’t just indirect support - Andy came out to the Himalayas himself.  He came out with us to Bhutan on one of the first exploratory expeditions in 1998 and I still have a nightmare memory of him being sucked down this siphon.  Thankfully he got spat out like a maggot from a hole - but it was a near thing!”
      
Jason CanoeKayak.co.uk's illustrious Editor has paddled the odd Himalayan Classic with Andy too. “I remember a brilliant trip down the Marsyandi River with a group containing Andy and Himalayan legend Gerry Moffat. Andy was styling it in his Dagger RPM kayak, and decked out in prototype gear (don’t think he ever stops thinking about design) and was a dark horse when it came to catching and surfing it up on big waves, when all his smoothness, learned from his surf kayaking days, came out to play. Even Gerry couldn’t compete. I also recall a long night sharing a room with Andy after a dodgy dhal baht, or something. The poor bloke was up and down all night long, but come sunrise the next day he was up and ready to load the bus to head off to the next multi-day river trip.
 
On the Ocean, Racing and the Freestyle RevolutionPalm Equipment Catalouge
It was not just on the whitewater front that Palm were developing new gear, In the early 90s Karen and Dan Trotter embarked on an epic 12-month coastal touring expedition to Tasmania and New Zealand, using purpose designed and built gear. Around the same time Nigel Foster and Ray Rowe, two of Wales’ most prominent sea kayakers helped to design the now iconic Foster-Rowe Sea paddling gear, which in the words of Loel Collins (until recently head of paddle-sport at Plas-Y-Brenin) ‘has only now been superseded by the Palm Aleutian top’. 
      
Similarly in the field of competitive kayaking, Palm has also been an important influence. 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.
      
Palm’s contribution to the sport can also be seen in freestyle as it developed from its early ‘rodeo’ roots, where amongst other events they organised the first ever Rodeo World Championships in 1991, in conjunction with Twr Y Felin Outdoor Centre, held at the Bitches tidal race in Pembrokeshire.
      
As this exciting branch of the sport started to grow Palm stepped up by supporting a group of the most dynamic and talented young paddlers and kitting them out in their new RiverTec range of technical paddling gear. This group became known as the RiverTec Collective and with names like Cheesey Robertson, Andy Phillips, Simon Westgarth, Ed Cornfield, Pete Orton and Deb Pinniger amongst others contained paddlers who would dominate the freestyle scene and inspire a generation of play boaters, winning multiple world, European and British titles along the way and pushing the envelope out on the rivers too, racking up first descents.
      
Today Palm continues to support a wide range of athletes, working and paddling all over the world and here in the UK. Simon Westgarth, long time team paddler, original RiverTec member and founder of Gene17 Kayaking is one of Palm’s 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.”
      
Developing Design Talent
The list of those who have worked at Palm is a long one, but some names that stand out are Barney Caulfield, originator of the River Tec Range, and still designing for Palm. Tim Maud, now designer for Adidas, and Charles Willis, who now works for Merrell footwear. Another character worthy of a mention is Horst Fursattel, father of HF gear, who has worked with Andy on several pieces of safety gear, from the early HF river buoyancy aids, many of which were made by Palm, to new throw-bag designs, of which HF and Palm are now considered by many to be the industry leaders.
 
Going Green
As important to Andy as making good gear is looking after the environment, and he strongly believes that there would be no point in making gear to enjoy the outdoors if the environment itself was being destroyed in the process. To this end several steps have been taken at Palm to try and limit environmental impact. Any electricity used in the factory is bought from wind generators, and the carbon footprint of the gas, which fuels the boat oven is offset by the supplier. This means that the Dagger and Islander kayaks made in the UK factory are carbon neutral – an industry first. To help further, during the winter the excess heat created by the oven is in turn used to heat the whole factory.
      
Another project under development is the use of recycled plastic to mould new kayaks from. Any residual super-linear plastic from the kayak manufacturing process is now ground down and re used to mould the Fiesta touring kayak. Bob doesn’t want the plastic to go into whitewater boats, but in his words “For use in touring kayaks the plastic is completely fit for purpose”. As Bob points out however, not enough waste plastic is actually produced to make a large number of the boats, the recycled Fiestas being a way of using up what little excess there is.
 
Legacy
It has always been an important part of the company’s ethos to give something back to the canoeing and kayaking community, but this is not limited solely to developing gear. In 2010 Palm will be introducing the Palm Legacy, a concept whereby a percentage of the companies profits will be put aside to fund new projects to promote and develop paddle-sport. “We realise that there are lots of people out there with new and exciting ideas and projects.” Says Andy, “And are now in a position where we can help to foster and develop these for the good of the sport.”
 
30 and Beyond
In the Last 30 years Palm have produced and sold more than a million pieces of gear into over 30 countries worldwide, and their boat manufacturing capability has grown from two kayaks per day to three kayaks per hour. Today Palm Equipment International Ltd, still based in a factory in Clevedon, continues to grow, to innovate, and to push the kayaking industry forward. As Paul ‘Cheesy’ Robertson (Original RiverTec member, world, European and British Freestyle Champ and now Palm’s Brand Manager) 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.’ Palm’s offices and UK factory are housed under one roof, and Andy and Bob are still involved on a daily basis with both firmly hands on hands-on, both in the development of products and the management of the business. Many of the staff paddle, and they can be found on the water on many a summer’s evening at Bristol Docks, at the beach, or on the Wye or Dart.
      
“40 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”.

When asked about the future Andy is very clear:  “Everybody working here knows that I shall refuse to stop working until at least 95, 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 it happening. I certainly still have plenty of exciting new ideas and projects going on, so watch this space...” 

 
Go here for more information on Palm’s commitment to the environment

 
To find out more about the Palm Legacy visit www.palmlegacy.com
 

 
A word with Andy:Andy Knight CEO Palm Equipment
 
What was your first piece of paddling gear?
A fibreglass Trylon Ox 1 slalom kayak in bright orange. I was 14 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 ’94 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, culminating in the new on which we’ve recently finished. 
 
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 90’s 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 mid winter 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 water-sports gear?
At the end of the day 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!
 
 
A Word With BobBob Slee Director Palm Equipment Canoe & Kayak Gear
 
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 question, 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 in to 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 hrs 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.
  
What new projects are you working on at the moment?
Taking on Wilderness Systems and Mad River Canoes has given me a new challenge what with new moulds and production to sort. But my most interesting project is the ‘Rapid Blocs’ (a system for creating features within artificial whitewater courses, see www.rapidblocs.com). I’ve personally put a huge amount of effort into getting these up and running. It’s been a completely new idea and the possibility that these will be used in the course at the 2012 Olympics is very exciting. As I write this, we still don’t know if our efforts have all been in vain. Watch this space…
  
Who’s the faster paddler, you or Andy?
Do you really need to ask? Me of course, I’ve got longer arms!
 
 To check out the current range of Palm paddling kit head to their website here




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