Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Get your Royalex while you can

Popular material for canoes is no longer being produced

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A profile and top view of a Royalex NovaCraft prospector.


A profile and top view of a Royalex NovaCraft prospector.

Imagine if peanuts suddenly went extinct and you could never make a jelly sandwich again.

Imagine if the world exhausted its entire supply of lithium and no one could ever manufacture another iPhone or flat-screen TV.

Nowhere near as many people paddle canoes as eat peanut butter or use electronics. But the canoeing world is suffering from a shortage of its own: the disappearance of Royalex, a material used to manufacture boats for decades -- and a big reason rocky rivers are even navigable by people who are not expert-level paddlers.

If you've paddled a few canoes, you've probably been inside a Royalex boat. Invented in the 1970s by Uniroyal -- yes, the tire company -- the vinyl-plastic composite quickly became the nearly indestructible material of choice for canoes used by summer camps, whitewater paddlers or any user group likely to dish out a lot of abuse on a boat.

Up until the '70s, aluminum canoes were the toughest boats out there. Boats made by Grumman and Alumacraft were ubiquitous.

The problem was, aluminum canoes were noisy enough to scare off fish and wildlife, grabby on rocks and obnoxious to repair. The seats also had a propensity to tear and present a jagged edge to any paddler who failed to notice they were plunking their butt down on a serrated surface.

Royalex, which is basically a sandwich of vinyl and ABS plastic, proved more useful than aluminum because it was lighter, more buoyant and all but impossible to destroy in a single mishap.

Royalex is amazing at retaining its shape, which is great when you're bouncing off rocks in a river or getting dropped on a granite landing. There are numerous tales of Royalex boats falling off moving vehicles or getting wrapped around rocks in high-volume rivers and still surviving to paddle another day.

Royalex wasn't perfect -- Kevlar and fibreglass boats proved to be lighter and ordinary plastic was cheaper.

But the mere existence of Royalex boats meant many rivers once deemed too rocky to paddle were suddenly navigable. You no longer had to be a perfect paddler to go tripping in remote places.

Now, the material is all but disappearing from outdoor retailers, though not for a lack of demand.

Last year, an international plastics company called PolyOne purchased a smaller one called Spartech, which happened to own the former Uniroyal plant in Indiana that was the only place in the world where anyone made Royalex.

According to Canoe & Kayak magazine and other outdoor publications, PolyOne was simply too big to bother producing a product that was only used by canoe manufacturers.

Canoeing isn't a big growth industry. Since the 1980s, it's faced competition from other water sports such as windsurfing, kayaking, kiteboarding and lately, stand-up paddleboarding.

Faced with little prospects for growth, PolyOne announced last year it would stop making Royalex. Production wrapped up in the winter, shipments of the material ceased this spring and manufacturers are now scrambling to find a replacement.

In Quebec, the Esquif canoe company is developing a similar material it hopes to put into production next year, Canoe & Kayak reported in May. The new stuff is supposed to be lighter than Royalex, but also more expensive.

That means now is the time to buy a new or used Royalex boat, assuming you've always had your eye on one, you absolutely need one and you can get your hands on one.

Winnipeg retailers The Wilderness Supply and Mountain Equipment Co-op are both reporting brisk sales of Royalex boats this year, but may have enough supply coming for the next few months.

There is no need to panic and buy a boat; a replacement will come, even if Esquif's plans are delayed. But if you have a pressing need for a very durable canoe, go see what's still out there.

As a longtime flatwater paddler who's still figuring out whitewater, anything less durable would prove disastrous. People with merely passable skills -- that is, people like me -- are fine paddling dainty fibreglass on lakes, but need something that can handle punishment on rivers.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2014 C16

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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