"Tom! Is that you?" A yell came from a van passing us by as we walked the several long blocks to The Avenues Hostel in Salt Lake City. It was the welcome voice of a friend: Warren Aitken. We were staying at the hostel while attending the Outdoor Retailer's Show as publishers of the first book on Sit-on-top Kayak instruction.
Since leaving Hawaii our travels from shop to shop across the country with boxes of books in our car was pretty fun, but this annual extravaganza was a different ball park altogether. The winds of corporate outdoor America had been blowing around us all day, leaving us two weary paddlers.
Warren pulled along side and got out to talk. His native New Zealand accent dancing enthusiastically throughout the conversation. He visited Tom in Hawaii while testing the market for a new sit-on-top kayak design idea in the early '90's. Such efforts became the foundation for the formation of Cobra Kayaks in 1993. "It's still fun for us!" he said. "We're about the only ones left who own our company."
Yes, unlike so many small kayak manufacturers getting swallowed up by big corporations, Cobra Kayaks was still run by its founders, Warren with his wife, Glenys Aitken.
Before all that, however, when sit-on-tops appeared to be nothing more than a flash in the pan, he found himself at a Florida trade show and was intrigued by one of those small upstarts, Tim Niemier and his "Scupper."
Warren was no novice when it came to watersports. Although he really liked Niemier, his sit-on-top design did not make a big impression on this wave sport expert.
You see, Warren had gone from being plant manager of Wind Surfing International for eight years to establishing his own sailboard, surfboard and wave ski business, "Aitken Industries." They were the first to manufacture the "wake ski" or "wake board."
Fate surfed on in, however, in the form of a waning interest by the public in this gear intensive sport. Then in 1992 a government edict was declared against the use of the Freon gas used to foam fill their polyethylene products. This resulted with Aitken Industries closing its doors.
Meanwhile, small sit-on-top companies run by passionate dreamers, usually out of their garage, were benefiting greatly from this slowing in the wave sports industry.
"One of the things that happened," explained Niemier, "was that windsurfing got too technical and the sit-on-tops moved right in on that. The timing was absolutely perfect. There was a whole sales force already in place. " (From "Tim Niemier: In The Beginning...")
Exercising the cautions of a boat caught in the storms of the past, Warren invested some time in researching the possibility of a world market for such a craft as self-bailing, open top paddle craft.
After a year of travel he found himself convinced that this "user friendly kayak" concept was here to stay.
So, in 1993 Warren and Glenys established a sit-on-top kayak company in Southern California. Applying his expertise and that of designers he'd come to respect in the wave sports industry, they founded Cobra Kayaks. The Cobra XL was the first model out of the mold, and thus began a new evolution in the sit-on-top revolution.
Soon, a ground swell of manufacturers of sit-on-top kayaks began to move across the country and Glenys and Warren's Cobra Kayaks was now leading the wave.
Engaging designers like Danny Broadhurst, a well-known surf and wave ski architect, and Hunt Johnsen, Cobra now turns out hi-tech racing and touring kayaks like the Expedition and Tourer, award winning surf sit-on-tops like the Cobra Strike, and even an Olympic flat water trainer, the Eliminator.
And just as they thought, the sit-on-top was to become of global interest. Years later Cobra's twelve unique models are now distributed in at least sixteen countries.
In the spring of 2009 Warren finally decided to pass the torch to Aquatx Distribution Corp. staying on for a few months during the transition.
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