Canoes, Unleashed: A step into a world without limits

 A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.   -The Matrix

Da nana… Da nana.  OK, its not that great, but it’s close.

Working on the first hull, all I could think was. “where were these things back then?” There’s something about laying carbon prepreg in the mold that transports the mind to a place somewhere mid-Pailolo Channel, rolling down a big-ass wave. BBBZZZ oh yeah, I’m in the factory, where was I?

Oh yeah, I was trying to convey how exciting these canoes are.  Picture, in black and white, some dude in a ’65 corvette convertible with some dirt on the projector messing up the image (think spec boat).  Next, imagine a supermodel in a bikini and high heels stepping out of a McLaren with champagne floating in the air in slomo (think unlimited). That’s how exciting these new canoes almost are.

At one third of the weight of the canoe you paddled yesterday, and free of the rules that were established to preserve the shapes of canoes hewn from logs (no disrespect – appropriate tech at the time), these new canoes are a huge leap into the present.  The first thing that impresses is the weight, about the same as the average Brazilian female (137.8 lbs. – American women average 167.4).  While the weight is impressive, it’s really only a small part of what is really cool about this new class.

The HCRA specs for canoes define the entry and exit curves at the waterline, making it illegal to have sharp bows and sterns.  This makes it very difficult to design efficient hulls.  Sonny Bradley and Karel Tresnak came up with really great designs working within the confines of these rules.  Without the troublesome entry and exit requirements the gates are wide open to new efficient designs.  I can only guess whether the new shapes or the lower weight will yield bigger gains in wave performance and hull speed.

There’s more… One-seat is my favorite because I get to push off of the bulkhead.  The rules also “nayed” the use of foot braces.  There’s really nothing like paddling with foot braces, it’s breathtaking- I highly suggest you try it.  You feel locked in, and can drive straight through your leg.  After a season in a canoe without them I have knee problems from driving with my leg pressed out against the hull.  I say, “aye to foot braces”.

It’s ironic that Tahitian canoes have decks and Hawaiian canoes are open while Tahiti has reefs and lagoons and Hawaii has open water.  Years ago my thinking was that a canvas at 15 pounds was arguably a lighter solution than the deck and skirts combo used in Tahiti.  The tipping point is the stiffness that the deck imparts into the hull. Combine this with the tight fitting individual spray skirts, and a venturi bailer and you have a very dry boat.  That means that the canoe keeps weighing 140 lbs, not 400 plus 8.56 lbs per gallon (salt water – 8.33, repeating of course, if you paddle in distilled water).

Ok, now you know what I meant about the McLaren, so what’s special about UNLEASHED (haven’t really decided on that name)?

When we decided to design and build a production OC6 we faced a problem.  How do you measure the quality of your design when there is no yardstick?  What’s the fastest unlimited canoe?  No one really knows, though I’m sure there are many who will claim to know.

We built Kaumualii, a one-off prototype, using the same design methodology that we have used and refined for 20 years.  Because our hull models are parametric we are able to test hulls and make changes to one or more variables without changing other key parameters.  Imagine that prototype has 12 inches of freeboard at seat one, and a 37′ waterline, but a narrower bow will improve performance.  So you trim down the entry.  The bow would sink lower, the tail would come up, and the freeboard would change everywhere.  With parametric modelling you can sharpen the bow, keep the waterline the same, etc, by generating a new set of hull sections.  ZZZZ ZZZZ

Next we got committed to the idea of building OC6s the way we build the Storm and now the Ehukai – CNC mastered, prepreg tooling, one-piece carbon prepreg construction, with all the extras included.  It’s no joke, it influenced our decision to move into our new 58,000 sf factory.  We built a 5-axis 50′ long CNC.  Designed, purchased, and outfitted (controls, heating, pressure, vacuum) a 46′ autoclave.  Milled the masters, which need trussed steel dollies to support them.

Why not just make a mold old-school?  Typical composite tooling becomes about as rigid a boiled pasta at the temperatures used to cure carbon prepregs, and heat resistant vinylesters expand and contract with heat – a lot.  So if you want to do it right the answer is prepreg tooling.

The result is a canoe that is so stiff that we think its overbuilt, but we’re going to be a little conservative and just go with 140 lb.  The level of finish inside and out is what you would expect on your OC1.  From the testing of Kaumualii, we are excited about the performance of the original, and eager to test the final version.  The ergonomics and comfort are refined from the original which was already good.  Lots of items have been added from hydration systems to GoPro mounts.  It ships ready to race.

Construction Details:

  • One piece construction, lightweight, no seam line making stronger overall canoe
  • All carbon construction, Toray T300 UD carbon fiber prepreg is used 100%
  • High density sandwich core. T500 corecell (much harder than standard foam cores)
  • All cured under high pressure and temperature in an autoclave
  • 100% carbon seats with eva cover, bungee under seat for storage
  • Carbon foot braces with adjustable positions
  • Integrated skirt track, low profile, 100% carbon, light and strong
  • Custom made skirts included, YKK waterproof zippers, color matched to the boat color
  • Velcro mounts for GPS & heart rate monitors
  • Eva covered carbon fiber paddle holders
  • Retractable venturi drain
  • 100% carbon Iakos
  • 100% carbon Ama, 1 piece construction, same construction as canoe, stainless steel/nylon bushing connection
  • Integrated GoPro/fishing pole holder
  • Carbon fiber bulkheads with drains
  • Painted with Awlgrip 2000 paint, high end marine paint
  • Autoclave cured hull heat stable to 210F Produced under high pressure
  • 600gm2 Toray T300 3x200gm2 UD carbon (17.7oz yard) on the outside, 400gm2 Toray T300 2x200gm2 UD carbon (11.8oz yard) on the inside
  • T500 corecell (95kgm3) (5.8lbs per cubic foot) 20% more dense than standard construction


  • Hull weight 140lbs
  • Ama weight 24 lbs
  • Iakos 10 lbs
  • Skirts 8 lbs
  • LOA: 42′ 7″
  • Beam: 19′ 7/8″

Factory Built vs Custom Made

Vacuum Bag and Carbon Replaces Hand Laminate Fiberglass

When we first started making canoes in 1991 most canoes were hand laminated fiberglass and polyester. Some builders were using foam cores and coremat and vacuum-bagging the laminates. Since then the biggest change happened in the early 1990s when builders switched from fiberglass and polyester resin to carbon fiber and epoxy with coremat or foam cores. When we began making the Hurricane ages ago, that was the only construction we offered. Still today nearly all builders continue to use this same construction.

Autoclave Replaces Vacuum Bag

Beginning in 2001 we went a step further, using an autoclave to cure our laminates. An autoclave is a large, computer controlled, pressurized oven. Using an autoclave we apply much more pressure that one can get from simple vacuum bagging while precisely controlling the time/temperature profile of the cure.

Autoclaves are used to make high end composites for aerospace, formula 1, and Americas Cup components. Most of these use carbon fiber prepregs, something we weren’t ready to adopt, yet.

Outsourcing and Prepreg

In 2006 we abandoned outsourcing, and set up our own facility. We chose a location near several prepreg manufacturers so that we could make the transition to prepreg construction.

What is so challenging about Prepreg? Prepreg has to be kept frozen to keep it from curing, so shipping it is really expensive. By locating near these suppliers we are able to get materials made to our specifications, and bring the cost down to a level where it’s practical for use in canoes. Prepregs are usually only used for big budget projects like those seen in aerospace and aeronautics.

What are the advantages of Prepreg?

Prepreg has a multitude of advantages.

  • Our laminating room is clean.
  • There are no toxic fumes, and no respirators.
  • There’s no resin spilled on the floor.
  • We don’t mix batches of resin, so there are no bad batches, and no sticky mess.
  • We’re never under time pressure because prepregs require heat to cure.
  • The ratio of epoxy to carbon is tightly controlled in the prepreg, so we don’t have dry or overly wet areas in our laminates.
  • And the list goes on and on and on..

In 2011 we started work on our monocoque construction that is currently used to build the Storm and all of our ama’s. Rather than build the hull and deck separately, then bond them together with epoxy putty, the canoe is molded as a single unit. This process eliminates the hull/deck seam, which makes the canoe both stronger and a lot lighter.

Additional Features and Benefits In Our Process

We have completely reinvented our painting process. We recently moved to a larger facility, and used the opportunity to redesign and upgrade our painting equipment. We purchased a custom-built automotive spraybooth. We then designed and integrated three infrared curing tunnels with filtered air circulation. This allows us to produce a very high quality finish with custom graphics and high gloss. These paint jobs also weigh less than what we were doing in the past.

We have also deployed these new technologies into all of the components that we make. We have migrated nearly all of our components to carbon prepreg construction on our newer models. This has cut the weight down significantly on many of our parts.

While some aspects of the construction are still the same as before, we have changed the way that they are built. We have gone digital. Our cores, seats, bulkheads, reinforements, and molds are all CNC cut. Our prepregs are cut using a CNC tangential knife. Every component of every canoe is built from a CAD model. This means that our tolerances are tight, and our repeatability is high.

Service with Integrity

A great process is only part of the equation, and we’ve worked hard to hire and keep the best people we can to put it all together. It starts at the top, and Brian Dalbey has over three decades of composites and management experience. Many of our staff have been with us since we opened the facility in 2006, and we are continually recruiting the best people we can find.

Two months in the Storm

Back in March, about a week before the Olamau race, we got the first batch of Storms in Hawaii.  I spent most of April and May paddling the Storm on Maliko, Keanae, and Napili runs.  As the designer, I tend to scrutinize every detail, but after two months of paddling I wouldn’t change a thing.

I was immediately impressed with the maneuverability of the canoe.  It was a lot quicker than the prototype, despite the similar hull shape.  I didn’t anticipate the impact the reduced weight of the canoe would have on the responsiveness.  The lighter hull (15.5lbs) has a lot less inertia so it reacts quickly.  When the surf is hard to anticipate, this lets you make last second course changes and accelerate faster.

The canoe comes alive in the surf.  As soon as the nose drops the canoe really hits it’s stride.  The canoe is designed to be efficient at higher speeds, so it wants to stay on the bumps. It took me a while to get used to the idea that I didn’t need to do much to keep it in the sweet spot on a wave.  I could go faster with a lot less effort than I’m used to.  I had to reign myself in to keep from running away from the wave.

Storm in Makena, Maui

All that restraint left me looking for opportunities to expend some of that energy.  After 20 years of feeling like I knew all there was to know about how to surf an OC-1, I am constantly surprised with the new things I can do with this boat.

Initially I found the ultra-lightweight ama a bit challenging, but after a few runs your mind re-calibrates you stop thinking about it.  Well, except when you pick it up, which always surprises me.

Comfort is subjective, every paddler is built differently, but we put a lot of energy into the cockpit design.  The Hurricane had low marks for comfort, so we were focused on improvement.   The larger footpedals are ergometric with an arch support and move the way your foot does.  The cockpit is wider than the norm to give adequate padding without pinching.

The construction is a real breakthrough.  Despite being a high volume canoe, at 15.5 pounds for the hull, a pound for the iakos, and 2.25 for the ama, this is by far the lightest canoe on the market.  We didn’t achieve this weight by using less carbon, less reinforcements, or a thinner core material.  In fact, we use close to double the amount of carbon in the Storm as some of our competitors use in their ultralight constructions.  It’s by using more carbon, and less stainless steel, and less fiberglass, and less resin, and less putty, and less paint that we can get the weight so low.  We also use high density corecell instead of coremat for greater stiffness.

People will certainly question the durability when they pick up the canoe for the first time.  How can something so light possibly be durable?  The truth is that we are using the same laminate that we have been using in our OC-1s for the last 6 years.  We’ve just eliminated the seam, reduced the amount of paint, and substituted carbon fiber for weaker materials whenever possible.  This is the strongest canoe we’ve ever built.

Note: When you compare the weight of canoes from different manufacturers be sure it’s apples to apples.  Some will tell you the weight of the hull without the seat, rudder, and footpedals which can add a couple of pounds.

The one piece construction also means greater integrity.  We’ve been building canoes for 20 years, and the seams are always the first thing to fail when things go wrong.  So that’s gone.  We love this technology so much we are migrating everything we make to one-piece.  The Kai wa’a ama, and Tempest ama have already been re-tooled for this process.

We’ve also stepped up our graphics capabilities.  We’ve dropped using vinyl decals and are doing our logos and graphics using a basecoat/clearcoat system.