Betsie Bay Kayak. The name may be unfamiliar. If you've been to a gathering of kayakers like the Ladies of the Lake, the Great Lakes or Inland Sea Symposiums, Betsie Bay Kayaks are often paddled by the symposium instructors.
Needle-nosed narrow hulls topped with polished wood decks with off-white undersides, these kayaks are distinctive and each is handmade by Alan Anderson is his workshop located a few miles from Frankfort/Elberta, Michigan, near Lake Michigan.
When he became intrigued with kayaks in the early 1980s, rather than buy or build one from a kit, he called on his skills as a woodworker and decided to fashion his own. Digging back among his collection of National Geographic magazines, he focused on a 1974 feature on Greenland kayaks used by Inuit hunters. Instead of the rounded underside found in most modern kayaks, the Inuit boats had hard chines (straight lines with little angle) and a keel line running the length of the V-bottom. This design helps the craft track well in a straight line. Turns are made by slightly leaning the boat, allowing it to pivot on the flat side and along the edge.
These are quick boats, too, because they are light, weighing only 27 to 35 pounds. Acceleration is immediate, the cruising speed impressive, and their low profile doesn't catch the wind.
The challenge for Anderson was how to make a lightweight boat that was strong enough to withstand the rigors of serious kayaking. Layers of super thin plywood combined with epoxy and sheathed in fiberglass cloth proved to be the solution. In getting to this point, Anderson recalled spending days out on nearby Crystal Lake field testing his designs.
"We tipped boats, ran them in big waves, did rolls, tested flotation, boat handling and then checked for leaking hatches. We wanted to get it right," Anderson recalled. "Control in challenging open water conditions is the key aspect that I work for. I built seven prototypes before I was satisfied, and I am still looking to make improvements."
As someone who enjoys paddling both canoes and kayaks, my biggest complaint about kayaks has been their failure to provide a comfortable seat. After a couple hours in a kayak, I am more than ready to get out of the boat to give my butt and back a chance to feel good again. Paddling comfort is critical to Anderson.
Before beginning to build boats, Anderson attended Life Chiropractic College in Marietta, Georgia, where he became a chiropractic physician and had a practice for a dozen years. Drawing on this background, he focused on developing an orthopedically correct seating system suitable for long periods spent in a kayak. Betsie Bay Kayaks' sculptured foam lumbosacral support replaces uncomfortable backboards found in most kayaks.
The Betsie Bay Kayak website, www.bbkayak.com, shows six variations for the 16- to 19-foot craft. All Anderson's boats are similarly proportioned, but changes in length and minor alteration in shape accommodate different sized paddlers.
"One size does not fit all," Anderson adamantly states. "There is a difference. Often people end up paddling boats that are too big for them. They could do so much better by getting a boat that is right for their weight. It will be easier to paddle, turn and pick up speed."
For this reason, kayaks like the Valkyrie, built for paddlers weighing between 120 and 145 pounds, and the Idun, suitable for those 90-140 pounds, are ideal for women paddlers.
While the basic line of Betsie Bay Kayak combines the features found in touring and racing boats, the 16-foot DIRK (Dedicated Inuit Rolling Kayak) model has been crafted specifically for rolling. Its lower volume, recessed cockpit for laying back, and shorter size make it ideal for rotations. The DIRK is not recommended for general touring, however.
Most owners of Betsie Bay Kayaks prefer a Greenland-style paddle over the more popular spoon- or cup-shaped popular Euro paddles. At first glance they look like long sticks with narrow blades. Anderson makes these in his workshop. To maximize strength and yet keep them lightweight, Anderson uses laminated wood, epoxy, and carbon fiber. The result is one of the lightest paddles at 30 ounces on average.
Skeptics wonder how such a narrow blade can drive a boat as well as a common scoop blade. A closer study shows that when a stroke is executed, the area of a Greenland paddle submerged is comparable to a Euro paddle, meaning an equal amount of thrust can be produced with each paddle stroke. A key difference is that Greenland paddles create significantly less muscular stress, virtually eliminating the shoulder pain sometimes suffered by users of Euro paddles. With a Greenland-style paddle, one uses shorter strokes, less arm motion and more torso rotation, which is less fatiguing. Prices for the paddles range between $270 to $425.
Betsie Bay Kayak is a one-man operation. Every paddle and kayak is made by Anderson. Nothing is rushed. His attention to detail and high standards of workmanship are the traits of an artisan.
"I would like to make the perfect kayak," muses Anderson, "but perfection is a bit elusive. No kayak leaves my shop until I'm satisfied I've done my best. If something is not right, there's nobody to pass the buck to. It's my work and I have to stand behind it."
A Betsie Bay Kayak sells for $4,000. The 16-foot DIRK, a plain fiberglass kayak rather than the wood, epoxy and glass composites used to build his other kayaks, sells for $2,000.
Used Betsie Bay boats are hard to find, and the only source of new ones is Anderson's workshop. The best way to reach Anderson is to check out his website and then give him a call.
Looking to test paddle one? Anderson often shows up at Western Michigan Kayak Association events including its Memorial Day Symposium near Muskegon. Another way is to just ask to try one of the Betsie Bay Kayaks that appear at other Midwest kayak events.
Dave Foley loves his English-style sea kayak and Euro paddle. But he's now thinking seriously about adding another boat to his fleet.