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Lightning Kayaks | Catching Lightning in a Bottle

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Yennefer of Vengerberg, the hunchback turned vixen mage from the Witcher series, had to prove herself by catching lightning in a bottle. She failed at this task, but only because she channeled the lightning into herself, using her own body as a vessel. Through mastering balance and control Yennefer was able to use this power to manage chaos. 

We recently sat down with Stuart Lee, founder and CEO of Lightning Kayaks, and we think that he and his team would prove worthy mages. They too have managed to catch lightning. But rather than a bottle they’ve channeled their passion and skill into building a successful and innovative company that’s taking the industry by storm. 

Paddling Origins

In 1997, Stuart  joined the family business, manufacturing Cannon Paddles with his father in Minneapolis. After a few years of learning the ropes, a chance encounter at an industry trade show sparked a new partnership. Stuart and Lee Bonifiglio, a World Champion Kayaker and composites engineer, teamed up to form Accent Paddles. The team identified an opportunity in the marketplace for high performance paddles crafted from cutting edge materials and processes. Accent Paddles soon became the go-to choice for paddlers in Touring, Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP), Whitewater, and Fishing categories.

While Stuart was busy running Accent he began to notice a trend with dealers he worked with. Pedal driven kayaks were flying off the shelf. Pedal driven boats have been around for a long time; but it wasn’t until Hobie introduced the Mirage drive in 1997 that they began to gain traction with fishermen. “Hands Free” fishing offered anglers greater dexterity on the water, and competing companies began introducing their own proprietary drive systems. 

The Team

With his industry knowledge Stuart knew that he could build a great pedal kayak at a lower price. The Accent/Cannon team had never built a kayak, let alone one made for fishing, and knew they would need some help.

Tim Niemier
Tim Niemier – Inventor of the SOT Kayak

If you’re going to build a kayak, you should get the best of the best, and that’s exactly what Stuart did. Two new team members joined Stuart and Lee. Tim Niemier, the original designer of the sit on top (SOT) kayak, has over 40 different kayak designs under his belt. He’s the founder of Ocean Kayak, a kayak manufacturing company, and has a litany of maritime patents to his name. 

Robert Field with a LMB
Pro Angler Robert Field

Fishing kayak design requires extensive knowledge of an angler’s equipment, thought process, and motivations. When it comes to experienced kayak fisherman you’d be remiss to find somebody more dedicated than Robert Field. Robert eschewed the trappings of corporate life to follow his true passion, kayak fishing. Since his debut in 2016 Robert has traveled the U.S. hooking up everything from Virginian snakeheads to Texan alligator gars and everything in between. The Lightning Team was effectually formed with Robert on board. And they set to building an American made pedal kayak that everyone could afford.

The Design Process

“When we started this we realized we only had one shot. Our kayaks are overbuilt to exacting standards with high quality materials. They can withstand the use and abuse anglers will put it through”

– Stuart Lee, Founder and CEO of Lightning Kayaks

Designing a kayak is no easy feat. Countless hours of engineering, modeling, and computer aided design (cad) are needed to arrive at a viable model. From concept to production model the process is fraught with complexities and potential pitfalls. If you don’t get your math right then even a quarter inch deviation could mean that your pedal drive won’t fit; which would be catastrophic.

The first step in building their kayak was figuring out exactly what features were must haves,  and what was simply window dressing. Robert was instrumental in narrowing down the essential and useful elements for kayak anglers. Stuart and Lee were able to  accurately cost these features to ensure they could arrive at their desired pricepoint. Tim and his team took these requirements and began working out the details.

“Thank God for C.A.D.”

– Stuart Lee

In a perfect world the kayak hull would be built first, and then the accessories (chair, drive, rudder, etc.) designed around it. The Lightning team knew that speed was of the essence, and so they decided to do things a little differently. They began designing the hull, pedal drive, and bolt on parts in parallel so that they could get to market faster. After four computer iterations Lightning was ready for its initial prototype.


Lightning Team around the plug
The team working around the wooden “plug”

The first Strike HD was actually built out of wood. The handcrafted prototype serves as a final check before the molds are made. After measuring twice, and then once again for good measure, the final model was sent off to the mold makers. All in all Lightning Kayaks had moved at an incredible clip. They formed their company, designed the first model, and began commercial production in less than 9 months.

Lightning Strikes the Earth

The Lightning Strike HD is an impressive watercraft that proudly displays the pedigree of its designers. The Freedom Drive propulsion system, completely blueprinted and fabricated in house by Lightning, is smooth and quiet. The trimaran hull design provides stability for surefooted standing without sacrificing tracking or being awkward to paddle. At a weight of just 94 lbs fully rigged the Strike HD is lighter than most of its pedal kayak competitors, and even many paddle only kayaks to boot.

LIghtning Kayak Strike HD
Lightning Strike HD

The market has met the Strike HD with unbridled enthusiasm. Lightning Kayak’s Indiegogo campaign exceeded its initial goal by over 950%. Critics and paddlers alike have lauded not just the Strike HD but Lightning’s customer service support as well. Stuart and his team are dedicated to taking care of their customers and go out of their way to fix even the smallest issue.

Lightning Kayaks Strikes Twice

They say that lightning never strikes twice. Stuart and team are aiming to prove that wrong in 2020. Following up on their freshman debut; Lightning Kayaks is releasing the Lightning Kick in late March of this year.

The rotomolded Kick will deliver the same mobility and stability as its older brother, albeit in a smaller package, and lower price. Measuring in at 10’6” the Kick will undoubtedly make big waves at a retail price of just $1,150. At this price point the Kick will be the most affordable pedal kayak on the market under 12 feet long; and it’s made entirely in the USA. 

When Stuart isn’t busy building kayaks he’s spending time with his family, reeling in sharks, or fishing around Lake Minnetonka. If you’re in Minneapolis be sure to drop them a line for a quick tour and then grab a beer at Pyres Brewery right around the corner. 

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