Sit-on-topKayaking.com's Designers &
Innovators of Sit-on-top Kayaks
An Interview with
Kayak Designer Hunt
Cobra Kayaks has recently given world-wide exposure to
the Wave Witch; a high performance rotomolded polyethylene surf
kayak; but the roots of the Wave Witch come from the fiberglass
& kevlar designs of Hawaii's Hunt Johnsen.
"I believe The Cobra Wave Witch is a
breakthrough design for the mass market. It is elegant, it paddles
and surfs like its composite sisters and yet is inexpensive. It can
be used by a novice right out of the box, and is already proving to
be popular for women because of its small size and lightweight.
Incidentally, the design is not a one-trick-pony; it is a capable
small sea kayak as well as a surf machine. Judy paddles her Witchlet
10-20 miles at a time on a fairly regular basis in the open water
Photo Spinnaker Wyss-Johnsen
Rider: Martin Leonard III.
"My notebooks were filled with boat
designs as well as hypersonic aircraft and spaceships..."
SOTK: "Where are your roots? How long
have you been designing? What got you started designing
"My interest in boat design goes way back. In the
early fifties my parents bought one of the early Skip Creeger
catamarans, and my father knew Woody Brown, surfer and designer of
the original "Manu Kai" beach cat, so I was exposed to some fairly
radical boats at an early age. While in high school, we had a 19'
Lightning, and I crewed on 110s and Thistles as well.
My notebooks were filled with boat designs as well as
hypersonic aircraft and spaceships and I devoured the writings of Atkins,
Chapelle and the Herreschoffs."
The Wave Witchlet
"I thought it would be possible to
design a boat that would surf better than the Niemier design, and
paddle better than the Shane."
"My first kayak was a stringer and
canvas Greenland style boat built around 1961 for use around
Lanikai, here on Oahu.
I got into sit-on-top design after a
long detour through outrigger canoes, multi-hulls and bigger boats,
construction, Hang-gliding, and back into surfing in the early '80s
where I saw the Shane wave skis out in the line up.
SOTK: "Were you inspired by other kayak designers and if so
and Bark Boats of North America" is a wonderful reference and source
of inspiration. The early fiberglass Ocean Kayak designed by Tim Neimier
and built by Mike Crips got me thinking about
||kayaks again in the early eighties, and the Shane Wave
Skis gave me another shove in that direction.
Having already been impressed with the original Ocean
Kayak as a sit-on-top cruiser, I thought it would be possible to
design a boat that would surf better than the Niemier design, and
paddle better than the Shane.
The first attempt was too small, but the second try
worked really well and was the basis for the 12' 6" original Wave
"I like shaping surfboards freehand,
but for the boats I
usually start with small drawings..."
||SOTK: "What materials or process do you prefer to use
in developing your designs?"
"I like shaping surfboards freehand, but for the boats
I usually start with small drawings, cartoons if you will, and then
loft them out full size to get the frame or station patterns. My few
stitch and glue plywood kayaks were really cut and try jobs until I
got the patterns just right."
"The original Wave Witch was developed using sheets of Clark
polyurethane foam laid up in a female stringer mold. The inside is glassed
and you then have a hollow and light blank to shape. Glass the outside,
and you have a light and rigid prototype to play with. I still use this
method to build most of my plugs, though once in a while I have shaped a
block of poly bead foam. My first fiberglass boat was a 16' outrigger
built in the 60's and I blew and hand shaped a polyurethane blank - the
fumes almost did me in."
SOTK: "Any formal training in design? When? Where?"
"Actually, my college degree is in Marine Zoology..."
"Actually, my college
degree is in Marine Zoology, but I started in aeronautical engineering and
I've been designing stuff since grade school. I've designed and built a
submarine, a glider, geodesic domes, half a dozen houses, and a lot of
boats, including a couple of 45' multi-hulls and a 36' commercial fishing
SOTK: "What specific models can be attributed to your
influence or design efforts?
"My kayak designs in
fiberglass or composite construction currently in production include
the Wave Witch Witchlet, the Wave Witch Horizon, and the recent
update of the original "Classic" Wave Witch.
Recently Cobra Kayaks has introduced the "Cobra Wave
Witch" in rotomolded linear polyethylene.
Several years ago I built a few racing boats called
the "Cheetah". One of these, a 35lbs foam-core epoxy and kevlar
sit-in version, was successfully paddled through the Northwest
Passage by Martin Leonard III."
SOTK: "What do you feel or what have
others said may be your most important contribution to the evolution
of the sit-on-top?"
"Beauty. The design of a family of boats that successfully combine
excellent in-the curl surfing ability with paddling speed and stability.
The boats are all
very forgiving and easy for the novice; yet offer excellent performance in
most conditions. The use of a foot bar controlled under-hull spade rudder
as standard equipment is a fairly major innovation."
SOTK: "Is there a kayak you have some special regard
for and why?"
changes, but right now I really enjoy my kevlar Witchlet. I designed
the Witchlet in 1994 in response to a request for a boat that would
handle tight, fast waves, specifically Ma'alia Bay on Maui.
prototype was so light and cute that I made one for myself, one for
my wife, Judy, and then we sent two to the 1995 World Kayak Surfing
Contest in Costa Rica where, ridden by Spinnaker Wyss-Johnsen and
Martin Leonard III, they won both Men's and Women's events in the
(The B.C.U. then
holding the next World competition, changed the rules, eliminating
fiberglass or composite boats from competing in the sit-on-top class.)"
"My boats are
elegant without being gimmicky."
SOTK: "What role do you see your designs playing in
the future of sit-on-top kayaking?"
"Hopefully they will bring a little simplicity and taste back to
kayak design. I think many of the boats now in production try to do
too much and as a consequence are cluttered and often ugly and slow.
My boats are
elegant without being gimmicky. Their form follows their function, and
they are proof that you can combine paddling ease and speed with a planing
hull that behaves well on a wave. The use of an under-hull spade rudder on
a kayak is also innovative and at this point controversial, but it works
so well that we will probably see it used more widely.
SOTK: "What kind of paddling/boating do you enjoy doing most
these days and what is your favorite model to do it in? Favorite places to
"My paddling is pretty much limited to surfing, cruising is too
much like work. I prefer a new "Classic" for "big" waves (I'm too
old and chicken for stuff over 8' or so), as it is very fast, but I
like the little Witchlet for hot-dog surfing in small and medium
size waves. It turns on a dime and I can hold it down in serious
whitewater. I surf a relatively unknown break out at Sand Island
Park here on Oahu. The few surfers who know about the spot are
tolerant of an old guy on a boat and get stoked when the old fart
SOTK: "What is your slant on the growing popularity of the
sit-on-top concept is so inherently user-friendly that its continued
popularity is assured. I came to kayaking through the back door - I surfed
boards. The idea of being inside a kayak in the surf spooked me. If it
were not for the sit-on-top concept I wouldn't have gotten involved in
kayak surfing at all. As it is, I have to admit I've not yet learned to
roll, although doing so in a Wave Witch is very easy. It is so easy to get
back into a Witch that it is not an issue. I have a brand new Kimo Green
tanker surfboard that doesn't get used because surfing the kayaks is so
easy. I can catch a whole lot more waves with the boat, and even small
stuff is overhead."
"The sit-on-top concept is so inherently user-friendly
that its continued popularity is assured."
SOTK: "What other projects have you been up to?"
"Judy and I spend a lot of time just maintaining
the shop with its population of cats, fish, bufos and plants. We've
developed some optional equipment for the Cobra Wave Witch -
breakwater moldings and flexible cast urethane rudders. Believe it
or not, I'm working with an e-group of designers and engineers and
eventually I'm hoping to help build a reusable single stage to orbit
spaceship. The same techniques used to build lightweight kayaks can
be applied to lightweight fuel tanks and aero shells. If NASA won't
do it, we will. Lots of us old hippies are still space cadets."
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT HUNT JOHNSEN'S DESIGNS
HIS WEBSITE AT:
DEALER IN HAWAII:
INFORMATION ABOUT PURCHASING COBRA'S ROTOMOLDED WAVE WITCH VISIT:
BOOKS BY AUTHORS MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE CAN
BE PURCHASED ON AMAZON.COM BY USING THE FOLLOWING LINKS:
The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America by Howard I.
Boatbuilding : A Complete Handbook of Wooden
Construction by Howard I. Chapelle
The Sailor's Handbook by Halsey C. Herreshoff
American Small Sailing Craft by Howard I. Chapelle
Guide to the Haffenreffer-Herreshoff Collection : The Design
Records of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, Bristol, Rhode Island
by Kurt Hasselbalch
READ & SIGN OUR GUESTBOOK!