Klepper Kayaks

Quite often I find myself, like some crazed evangelist, telling one more person about Klepper kayaks. So for a simple reference I'll lay it all out here.

Learning to love a boat

Back in 1958 my dad announced he was buying a boat. I envisioned vroom-vrooming around in a flashy outboard. But come to find out, what he had in mind was unflashy and un-motorized: a damn oddball, foldable thing he described as a "kayak canoe." (Although in every way a kayak, it had a lengthy open cockpit rather than the torso-fitting opening one tends to associate with kayaks.) Somewhere in Manhattan he bought a used Klepper that he brought home in canvas bags in the trunk of the car. Following a brief period of disappointment, I developed a lifelong appreciation for this fine, German-made craft.

How did my father come to buy a Klepper? In 1956 Hannes Lindemann, a German doctor, set off in a Klepper kayak on a solo voyage from his side of the Atlantic. His two-person boat was virtually identical to the one I grew up with. Paddling some but mostly sailing, he aimed for the American side and arrived in the West Indies 72 days later. No support crew on a nearby boat, no electronics, no GPS of course—just one man alone on the ocean in a 17-foot vessel. He later wrote a book about the trip, Alone At Sea.

The boat has a one-piece hull that's navy blue canvas above water and silver-gray rubber below. This "skin" is stretched tight on a masterfully engineered light frame of wood, 30 pieces of Finnish birch and mountain ash hardwood. Altogether the boat weighs about 70 lbs. In Europe, where people typically take a train to go on holiday, a boat that you can disassemble and tote in canvas bags as luggage is a handy item. Thus the Klepper was born in 1907, from the workshop of a Bavarian tailor, Johann Klepper. Over the years its design was refined until perfected around 1950; only a knowing eye can tell the difference between a 1950s Klepper and one sold this year (check the keelboards in the frame--the hull remains pretty much unchanged.)

So the good doctor Lindemann crossed the Atlantic with barely more than the skin of a soccer ball between him and the deep blue sea. But his boat, modeled on the age-old Inuit kayak design of a frame covered with skins, was suited to open water. And get this, it was news because he traveled solo. Boats like his had already traversed many an ocean. Anyway, in 1957 Life magazine did a feature story on Lindemann and his trip, a story that made my dad think, I've got to have one of those. Although he's no longer around to say, I'm sure what he paid would seem like lunch-money today.

So, a seven-year-old in 1958, I grew up paddling that blue boat and fishing from it on Sterling Lake in New York state. (Power boats were not permitted on Sterling Lake, something else I appreciated more as time passed.) What won me over as a kid was, going from a row boat to the kayak, the Klepper cut through the water like a knife. It would outrun any row boat and with less effort. Returning to the Klepper as an adult, I learned to refine my paddling technique some. But an un-athletic kid like myself could step into the Klepper and take off without any training. Handling a Klepper required only instinct and common sense.

Later, when I moved to the little town of Redwood and then Rossie, in upstate New York a few miles from Canada, the Klepper came north with me. It came to a sad end in 1974 when a neighbor's steer put a hoof through it (there's more to that story, of course). At the time, I inquired about a new boat from a Klepper dealer in Manhattan. In the early 1970s you could buy a new Klepper for $399, and complete with the sail kit and rudder assembly it was $522. But I couldn't scrape together $400—big money back then—for such luxury as a boat. Again, in 1985, I contacted the Klepper dealer in New York City. By then the basic 2-man boat had gone up to $1600, and the sail and rudder kit added $550 to that. Today the same boat sells for over $3,500, and that's without a sail kit.

Klepper makes both single and double kayaks, a single being made for one person and a double for two. (Though commonly known as a "Klepper double," the model name of my boat is "Aerius II.") Solo paddling a double is a breeze. With one adult, or even two, there's also room in a double for a kid or two. These are versatile craft.

My current boat(s)

Several years ago my boat lust and bank account found common ground. Rather than spring for a new boat, I bought a used one on eBay. It's a tribute to Klepper workmanship that the guy selling the boat thought it was 10 to 15 years old and advertised it that way, although it was more than twice that old. As soon as I saw the boat he shipped to me (it's a rare 17-foot boat you can send cross-country by UPS), I knew it was older. Although the wooden frame parts looked great, places on the rubber portion of the hull had deteriorated with age, a condition best described as "elephant skin." The boat had parts Klepper hadn't used since 1968. Nonetheless, the skin was entirely watertight, the boat ready for use.

Mark Eckhart, a knowledgeable Klepper man, told me that a skin in that shape wouldn't last long. Anyone interested in a boat like this should get acquainted with Mark, who does business as Long Haul Products in Cedaredge, Colorado. A former Klepper dealer, he is an authority on these boats, buying, selling, repairing and renovating old models. He now makes his own Long Haul folding kayaks, which at least equal the Klepper and may even outshine it, yet they sell for much less. I bought a new skin from Mark, one made in his shop, that I've been very happy with. Yet the old skin was still sound—it's never leaked—and I've used it off and on for the last four years, especially in water that may have sharp rocks or other hazards.

Now I have two Kleppers. I found another one selling on eBay whose skin was shredded and worthless, and with a frame described as fair to good. This second frame was dirty yet complete. I essentially bought a cheap frame to go with my aged skin. Over the course of last winter I sanded and varnished it. Due to Klepper's exacting workmanship and impeccable materials, you can mix and match frame elements and skins, old and new.

        
        Bruce and Susan, my brother and sister-in-law, in my Klepper off Jekyl Island on the coast of Georgia.  Moments later they were being followed by a dolphin.

Assembling the boat

A foldable kayak—some people hear "foldable" and wonder, Will it fold up and collapse on the water? But foldable refers to construction, not the character of the assembled boat, which is more stable in open water than rigid kayaks. Folding, collapsing, or otherwise coming undone in the water could never happen. In rare circumstances a puncture or swamping could occur, but reasonable precautions prevent either. This is an ocean-going, touring kayak.

No, being foldable is a virtue of these boats, not a liability. It's a virtue because you can repair or replace damaged parts; because it's eminently portable; and because its design makes it light and flexible, yet durable. Just like the necessary flex of an airplane wing, the limber Klepper will move and react well in forceful water.

Putting one together for the first time takes probably half an hour, maybe longer. Once you're familiar with the boat, you'll have it down to about 15 minutes. A trained team of two, like the military people who use these boats, does it in about 8 or 10 minutes. The record time is something like 4 minutes. When I was young my dad assembled our boat once each spring and kept it in the garage between car-top trips to the lake. (A gadget lover, Dad suspended the boat from the garage ceiling with a series of pulleys, rope, and a hand-operated winch that would lower the boat to the roof racks.) I carry my boat in the back of a small car and assemble it each time I use it, which takes me just a few minutes longer than the preparations of my paddling buddies who carry their rigid kayaks on roof racks. Disassembly after paddling is even quicker. When I drove a pickup I carried the front and rear halves of the frame assembled in the pickup, which cut down considerably on set-up time.

Putting the boat together requires no tools. The frame pieces connect mostly with aluminum fittings. It's a rare event to assemble the boat without attracting some amazed bystanders. Even those who have no interest in going out in such a craft agree that its design is elegant.

To appreciate the boat, let's begin with it disassembled. Laid out before you, typically on the water's edge or in your garage, are three canvas bags. In one you have the loosely folded skin of rubber and canvas. It weighs about 35 lbs. and folds up to the size of a large sofa cushion. This you remove from the bag and roll out to its full length of seventeen feet. The wooden frame pieces, about 42 lbs. altogether, pack into two bags--one long and narrow, just over four feet in length, and the other one smaller and oval.

Basically you make two assemblies of the wooden frame pieces—the front half and the rear. You then shove one into each end of the skin and connect them in the middle where they lock together like two halves of a hinge. Add three more ribs and the coaming pieces, and the frame is complete.

Finally, you inflate the "sponsons," a hallmark of the Klepper. Enveloped in the skin and running the full length of the boat on each side is an elongated rubber air tube about five inches in diameter. (Think of a tire tube crossed with a hot dog, stretch it nearly seventeen feet, and you've got a sponson.) The sponsons serve two purposes. The first is to stretch the skin over the frame. During assembly the skin lays somewhat limp on the frame, but the sponsons swell as they inflate and the canvas tightens to where you can drum on it. Secondly, this air chamber running down each side makes the boat very buoyant in the water. In most kayaks paddlers must balance themselves carefully to avoid rolling over, but the Klepper is quite forgiving—good news for big, un-delicate people like me. It's not as if the boat won't capsize, but you'd almost have to be trying to roll it before it will. I've seen many a kayak roll, but I've never rolled the Klepper (not while paddling, anyway). This is also a function of how wide the boat is, or its "beam." My boat is 34" wide, which is comparatively "beamy," making it quite stable. The tradeoff for a wide beam is slightly less speed. Although it's a two-person boat, I paddle it solo all the time. It clips right along, although someone in a sleeker kayak can pass me by.

       
                                An overhead view of the assembled frames of a Klepper double and single.

Out on the water

I've had my boat in salt water on only one trip, simply because I don't live near the sea. I've paddled on any number of rivers and lakes and even maneuvered in a swamp. The worst problem I've run into is sharp rocks cutting the boat skin, yet even these are less of a problem than you'd think. The boat tends to slide past obstacles. My experience with cutting the skin came in rapids too shallow to float, while dragging the boat across rocks with a passenger onboard—empty, the boat slid over rocks with only minor scratches.

You could compare a Klepper double to a tandem bicycle: though it's bulkier than a single, the combined propulsion of two people makes for more speed than that of one person paddling a single. When paddled solo it moves a bit slower of course. The boat has an impressive capacity for cargo: it carries 750 lbs., ten times its own weight. Even with another passenger I can load up with plenty of camping gear and such.

One time after camping with my wife, Marcia, on Eleven-Mile Lake in Colorado, I packed the boat full to ferry all our supplies back to where my pickup was parked. Marcia elected to walk because a stiff, cold wind had the lake rolling with a pretty healthy chop. I had not only packed the Klepper solid but lashed a few items atop the hull as well. Headed for the parking area I had the wind coming at a wide angle off my bow. Instead of making a straight course for my destination I had to angle out into the lake, toward the wind, so the rolling whitecaps would break over my bow rather than buffet the boat broadside and possibly roll it. Fighting wind and water, it was slow going. Cold spray whipped my face. If I'd been new to the Klepper this might have seemed a hair-raising trip—fully loaded the boat cruised low in the water; heaved and contorted by the swell, the wood frame creaked with a grating tone as if being wrenched into splinters. But the Klepper excels in just this sort of water. After unloading and dragging the boat ashore at the landing, I disassembled and toweled off the frame members. The bright European birch and mountain ash hardwood was entirely intact, as I knew it would be, with no sign of stress.

Marcia and I often go paddling with other members of the Oklahoma City Outdoor Network (OKC-ON). They all paddle various hardshell kayaks—one-person boats, smaller and nimbler than the Klepper. While I consider the Klepper lithe, next to their boats it resembles a lumbering steamship—the Queen Mary of kayaks. Once while expounding on my Klepper I referred to it as "the Cadillac" of foldables, to which Marcia said, "It's more like a station-wagon."

A fitness buff, I've never come home from paddling worn out or sore, although I know kayakers who do. Sometimes it's a matter of poor paddling technique, and just as often people are not in shape. (See below for paddling technique.) Yet even someone out of shape and paddling badly would not be fatigued by a leisurely jaunt in a Klepper. Long trips are another matter.  Paddling a kayak is not hard work. Short of lovemaking and certain rare moments of drug ecstasy, I can't think of anything better than being out in a Klepper.

Out on the water you wind up emulating something like a cross between a fish and a bird. You're down in the water, not sitting above it. And paddling takes you to wildlife. I love to come skimming into a fishing spot with no motor noise, no clunking of aluminum, just the quiet ripples of sliding through water. I've paddled among ducks, herons, beaver, dolphins—in a Klepper you join whatever is in the water.

Sailing the Klepper

For a boat strictly to sail, you can do better than a folding kayak.  But for a multi-purpose boat to paddle and sail, the Klepper can't be beat.

Paddling a kayak comes naturally—sailing it does not. I don't know if my father had any previous experience with sailing, but his efforts trying to sail the Klepper were nothing but comical. I remember him trying it out one summer when we rented a bayside cottage on the Jersey coast. He'd sail a little ways then capsize. Not one to give up, he kept at it. Sail and capsize, the overturned boat's sails resembling the drenched wings of a downed butterfly. I don't know what became of the sails, but Dad apparently learned his limits.

A few years ago, after buying my first Klepper on eBay, my wife and I took sailing lessons at Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City (a great course sponsored by the YMCA).  Because I don't hoist sails often enough I'm still a very novice sailor, but I can sail the Klepper. Oklahoma's high winds are often too strong for sailing, especially for someone like me. In fact, the only time I've ever capsized my boat was one day when I took it out sailing in too high a wind, experimentally. I shot around the lake for maybe half an hour but then hove up toward a leeward bank and lost it while turning broadside to the wind.

Klepper vs. rigid or hardshell kayaks

These wooden framed kayaks were popular in the first half of the twentieth century. Then, they lost ground to the fiberglass and plastic "hardshell" or rigid kayaks that were developed in the 1950s. They're made after the original Eskimo kayak design, which was skins (seal, walrus, or some such) stretched over wood or bone frames. Most of the rigid bodies are designed for river use, white-water, or play. The Klepper kayak is more of a touring boat, a sea kayak. Its un-rigid design allows it some flex, essential in waves and rough water.

Buying a Klepper or other folding kayak

In addition to Klepper, several other companies have been making folding kayaks for some time: Folbot, Pouch, Feathercraft, and Nautiraid. And as foldable kayaks have grown in popularity, their makers and suppliers have proliferated some. The quality differs among them, and some are more difficult and take more time to assemble. Besides the Klepper's quality and distinction, my devotion is partly an emotional attachment; but the other companies make good boats too. Among folding kayaks you could compare the Klepper to a Mercedes or BMW, in both price and workmanship. Among the other brands, in this sense, you can also buy a Chevy—of lesser quality but still quite serviceable—and several other levels of quality.

And now Mark Eckhart's Long Haul boats come into the mix. His are based closely on the Klepper design, yet they're less expensive to buy. Having been to his shop in Cedaredge, Colorado, and done business with Mark and his crew, I recommend him wholeheartedly. Even though he is selling a product, Mark will be straight with you as few dealers are. He is an expert on these boats, as knowledgeable and innovative as anyone you'll find.

A great source of info is Michael Edelman's informative and growing Folding Kayak website: www.foldingkayaks.org This site deserves to be anyone's first step in learning about Klepper or other foldables. From reviews I've seen on his site and elsewhere, Mark Eckhart's Long Haul kayak may not just equal the Klepper—it may surpass it.

For a folding kayak owner, Ralph Diaz's excellent book, The Complete Folding Kayaker is indispensable. (Find it on Amazon.com) I recommend his book to anyone considering a folding kayak. Two early chapters, comprehensive yet succinct, help a buyer to determine what kind of boat to settle on—double or single? wood or aluminum frame? used or new? accessories?— and then compare the merits of various makes and models.

Here's the gist of what I know about buying a Klepper. If you've got money to throw around, buy a new one.  Lots of people have bought Kleppers over the years, and in any given week maybe several of them are selling on eBay. Like buying anything, you want to know what you're looking for and not just jump up and snag the first one to catch your eye. There are many more used Klepper doubles available than singles. Offhand I'd say most used doubles range in price between $1,200 and $2,500. But depending on age, condition, and whether they're equipped with sails and rudders or other accessories, they can run higher. And sometimes you can get a bargain on perhaps an older but still seaworthy boat. In fact, for a newcomer I'd suggest starting with something inexpensive, or better yet arrange to try one out before committing big money to own one. Most eBay sales (I keep an eye on them) tend to price shipping the boat at $150, which is higher than it needs to be. I shipped my boat, and some fishing tackle, to upstate New York last year by Fedex for $73, insured (from Oklahoma).

resources:

www.klepper.com

Ralph Diaz's book, The Complete Folding Kayaker. (get it from Amazon.com)

Michael Edelman's foldingkayaks.org  www.foldingkayaks.org

Mark Eckhart's Long Haul products  www.longhaulfoldingkayaks.com

http://www.paddling.net/Reviews/showReviews.html?prod=281 user reviews of Kleppers.
 

Basic Forward Paddling Technique

While you can shove off in a Klepper and paddle almost by instinct, good form will serve even better. It's finesse not manhandling that will best get you through water. The learning curve is simple.

Start with your position in the boat. You want to be seated upright, not leaning back. Plant your feet against a frame rib for a brace, and keep your knees bent slightly. Feet and legs play a considerable part in paddling.

Grasp the paddle shaft lightly (palms facing away of course), with your hands shoulder-width apart or a little more. You'll naturally tend toward a firm grip on the paddle, which will, after several hours, tire your hands and cause blisters at the base of your thumbs. But your hands need really to do no work—they're only your point of attachment to the paddle. The lightest possible grip is all you'll need.

The key to good paddling is a fairly straight-armed pulling stroke. Rather than wearing out your arms, the stronger muscles of shoulders and torso do the work. A good trick is to imagine your arms encircling a beach ball between your chest and paddle that keeps your pulling arm extended. With each stroke you swivel at the waist and turn the upper body to follow the paddle in the water.

So, start by extending one end of the paddle, the left, say. It should enter the water at a point about ten o'clock in front of you. No need to plunge the paddle deep; merely slip it into the water until just submerged. Your left arm should be straight out, and your torso turned to face about two o'clock so as to get a full forward reach of the paddle. Of necessity your right arm raises up, elbow crooked and hand approaching your cheek, but you hand shouldn't rise much past the level of your chin.

Now, don't wrench the paddle toward you. Imagine that your paddle is planted in something solid and you're pulling yourself toward that point, rather than forcing it to come to you. Counterbalance your upper body pull by bracing your left foot against a frame rib. As your left arm draws the paddle shaft rearward, the right arm pushes its end of the shaft forward. So rather than one arm doing a job of pulling, the work of each paddle stroke is distributed between both arms, as well as shoulders, back, and legs.

At the end of this stroke your right hand will have pushed the paddle to where your right arm is fully extended before you and your torso faces ten o'clock. You're now in position to begin the next stroke, setting the right end of the paddle into the water and raising the left end out.

This process might sound complicated, as if paddling requires deep concentration. But paddling requires no more concentration than walking or stirring cake batter. Once you develop a good stroke, muscle memory takes over. You acquire a satisfying rhythm that becomes second nature.

I've summarized only the most rudimentary details of the basic forward stroke, and nothing about turning or other matters. Ralph Diaz's book, Complete Folding Kayaker, includes a chapter on paddling technique providing better and fuller instruction than this.

I sometimes hear hardshell kayakers discussing the "Eskimo roll" and all sorts of daredevilry, none of which is relevant to a Klepper. Get Ralph's book—he'll explain it all.

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