How to Keep a Folding Business Afloat
Logan Fleckles and His Amazing Collapsible Kayak
By Tom Hall
Logan Fleckles built his first kayak when he was 12. He was studying Eskimos and sent away for a $30 kit advertised in a Boy Scout magazine. He tacked together the bits of plywood and canvas in his home at Clark and Diversey, then, his parents out of town, started paddling across Lake Michigan. "I set a course northeast for Muskegon and got blown east to New Buffalo," he says. "Then I paddled back--40 miles against the winds that blew me across. I was four days on the lake, without a compass or anything."
He was five miles from Fullerton Beach when the Coast Guard picked him up. They didn't believe him when he insisted he'd crossed Lake Michigan in a toy boat.
Fleckles, now 50, still studies the Inuit. He also builds kayaks, using a design that's faithful to west Greenland boats--except that it folds up. Fleckles swears he makes the best folding kayak. "There are people who make good enough boats to argue otherwise," he says. "But there are only 13 folding-kayak makers in the world--and everybody knows what everybody else is good for."
Fleckles remains impressed with the original kayak makers. "The designers of kayaks were Inuit seal hunters," he says. "Their R & D was selective survival. Imluk would make a new boat and build in his design improvements and paddle out to sea, and if he didn't come back his course of design was not developed. The kayak evolved through 5,000 years of second-guessing hunters lost at sea. If I had 5,000 years I couldn't make a better boat. But I can make it so you fold it up and check it through with your suitcases--which was beyond Inuit technology."
Fleckles used to be a design engineer for a high-tech multinational. He says that after he'd worked there ten years the company counted its patents and felt so smug that it decided it didn't need to do any more R & D. Fleckles and 200 other researchers and designers were laid off.
For a year Fleckles looked for other employment. In his free time he built boats and worked out the mechanics by which the west Greenland kayak could be transformed into luggage. He founded a kayak company, named it Seavivor, and engaged himself as the sole employee.
Then the high-tech multinational felt less secure and hired him back. He was glad to have access to the laboratory's resources again, which he used on his own time for his own projects. For four years he constructed computer models of kayak systems, synthesizing high and low tech, taking care never to subvert the fundamentals of the west Greenland kayak. "The Eskimos weren't nearly so sentimental," he says. "They got themselves 100-horsepower outboards and dismissed the entire 5,000-year heritage of Imluks drowning at sea."
Fleckles quit the high-tech multinational a dozen years ago, having developed nine corporate patents. He moved Seavivor to a garage out beyond O'Hare and within five years was granted 28 patents in kayak technology.
Each year Fleckles and his part-time help turn out fewer than 50 boats in a shop crowded with an eclectic mix of esoteric machines that cut, shape, bend, and stitch. He says that if he made more than 50 boats a year he couldn't rightly call them handcrafted. All the machines may seem at odds with the idea of handcrafting, but he says a hole drilled is a hole drilled, whether he bores it with a hand auger or a machine press. He adds that there's so much artistry involved even in punch pressing that each bit of metal his machines stamp out is as good as if he'd fashioned it by hand--much better, in fact.
Fleckles makes the frames of ash and birch because this is one place where wood is still better than high tech. Wood is resilient, while aluminum kinks. And if wood breaks in the wilderness it can be mended with duct tape.
But the boats' skins are very high-tech: complex urethane compounds identified only by their military specification numbers. The manufacturer used to have only three customers--the Pentagon, NASA, and Fleckles.
The kayak deviates furthest from Inuit engineering in the small, mottled, oddly shaped metal fittings that allow it to fold up. The fittings are made of five specialized alloys, the tolerances figured at less than a thousandth of an inch. Fleckles's 28 patents are for the elegantly simple ways his boats lock and unlock at all critical structural points and for the way they don't corrode in salt water. He demonstrates how they work by sliding one metal sleeve into another. The fit seems exact, but he says it's deliberately slightly off, because sand on some beaches is so fine that it could get into a perfect fit and make the fitting impossible to pull apart.
The boats come without assembly instructions. The structural components are labeled A through G, and Fleckles says anybody who knows that much of the alphabet can easily figure out how to assemble them. He sells two models, the Classic Double and the Greenland Solo. The double is broad and short and versatile, good for everything expected of a small boat, including sailing and duck hunting. The Solo is the true hunter's kayak--long, lovely, and exceedingly fast.
The definitive test compares the Greenland Solo and the best high-performance hard-shell sea kayaks--a contest that's ultimately between sinew and steel. Both track relentlessly, keeping a straight course on a delicate balance, and they're equally fast. The hard-shells are athletic boats, dynamic like blades; the fold-ups are hunting boats, organic like fins.
Both are seductive, but the fold-ups glide in eerie silence over flat seas as the skins flex and become one with the water. To the distress of some unenlightened paddlers, they writhe in high waves, the ash stringers bending and rubbing and creaking. Fleckles says that's as it should be, since the seal hunters of west Greenland took 5,000 years to achieve just that timbre.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Logan Fleckles and kayak photos by Randy Tunnel.