Sterling's Kayaks stays afloat with custom boats

Bellingham resident Sterling Donalson designs and builds kayaks that are custom-fit to each paddler.

By Isaac Bonnell

In Bellingham, you can tell when summer has arrived: it seems like every other car has a kayak strapped on top. And if you look closely at those kayaks, you just might find the ones that are made in Bellingham.

Sterling Donalson has been building kayaks here for 15 years, first by the name of Chuckanut Bay Boatworks and now by Sterling’s Kayaks. To the untrained eye, his boats look like any other kayak in town. But a closer look will reveal the reason his two signature models — the Ice Kap and the Illusion — are considered some of the best high-performance boats on the market.

“The first thing people notice is the rise in the nose and tail,” Donalson said.
That’s called rocker and it gives the boat a slight U-shape from tip to tail. Historically, boats with a lot of rocker were considered slow and less streamlined because the boat doesn’t ride as deep in the water.

With very little displacement, though, a boat with rocker is very agile — it can turn on a dime and will not get tossed around as much by waves. By adding a sleek profile and then custom fitting each boat to its new owner, Donalson has created boats as light and balanced as a sword.

“The balance point is right in your lap,” Donalson said. “And with the extra rocker you can lean forward and speed up as you go down the face of a wave and then lean back and slow down on the back of the wave.”

Donalson is very specific about the design of his kayaks, mostly because other kayaks on the market don’t fit him. At 6 feet 3 inches tall and 270 pounds, he just doesn’t fit into most boats and the ones that do fit him have the handling characteristics of a battleship, not a kayak.

A well-balanced boat is also key for Donalson because he has only one leg.

“I’m built like an upside down bowling pin,” he said, which makes it especially difficult to find the right kayak.

‘I don’t dwell on it’

At 15, Donalson lost his right leg to cancer — but that never slowed him down from doing the things he loves, especially kayaking. Two years before losing his leg, Donalson built his first kayak from a kit he saw in a magazine ad and quickly became hooked.

“They weren’t called ‘sea kayaks’ back then. They were called ‘sea canoes,'” he said.

Kayaking was just a recreational pursuit before his amputation, but soon became a way for Donalson to escape from his crutches and move freely. He paddled with other amputees, but never liked how often the conversations turned to what kayaking would be like with two legs. Frankly, being an amputee never bothered him.

“It bothered my parents more than it bothered me. I knew it would work out OK,” he said. “I don’t dwell on it, and because I don’t dwell on it my friends don’t dwell on it. After a while they don’t even remember that I only have one leg.”

The one downside that Donalson, now 59, encountered with his disability was finding work. He has a knack for working with his hands and experimenting with various materials, but was often overlooked for jobs because of his disability.

“The only downside that has come with being disabled is I’ve basically been self employed my whole life,” he said. “There were a lot of jobs out there that I couldn’t get because there were other able-bodied people available.”

He doesn’t fault employers for this, but recognizes it as one of the hurdles that led him to start his own boat manufacturing company. That and the fact that he wanted to make a boat that would suit larger people like himself.

The right fit

After launching Chuckanut Bay Boatworks with several successful lines of kayaks — such as the Sucia, which is still featured in the company logo — Donalson met with Steve Schleicher of Nimbus Kayaks in Canada to design a new kayak. They wanted to make a British-style boat, meaning one with a low profile that does not have a rudder.

“You can put a rudder on anything and it will handle great,” Donalson said. “Take it away, though, and you need a well designed boat. Plus it requires some better paddling.”

After several prototypes, the pair settled on the design for the Ice Kap. A few years later, Donalson made some modifications to that design and debuted the Illusion. Both models have gained a strong reputation among expert kayakers and the company now ships boats to customers all around the world.

What really makes the boats stand out, Donalson said, is their ability to be custom fit to the paddler depending on their height and weight. A kayak, after all, is an extension of the paddler and a smaller person needs a smaller boat.

“The fit of the kayak dramatically affects the handling,” Donalson said. “So we’ll make any modification that a customer desires.”

Custom boats are not cheap, though. Prices start around $3,500 and can get up to $4,500. Donalson knows that he can’t compete with the larger kayak makers, who can purchase materials in larger quantities and hire more employees. But as a small business, Donalson can offer the customization and design quality that the big guys can’t.

“We’re not trying to compete with the big guys,” he said. “We’re trying to beat the big guys.”

Demand is high enough to keep Donalson busy year-round — sometimes a little too busy. Like any small business owner, most of his time and energy gets put into the business. Free time is a rarity and he rarely gets a chance to kayak anymore. But when he does, he takes it all in.

“It’s great exercise in a beautiful setting that is always changing,” he said. “You can by paddle the same beach and every time you pass it will be different.”

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