My heart pounded, while I maintained a cool exterior. I was navigating my way through the rock garden and into the Tribunal room where I came face to face with my retailer. This man represented his business in an argument about the seaworthiness of the kayak that he sold me, and a consumer issue. I was contesting that the kayak I ordered did not match the boat I test paddled. The fault with this sea kayak was with the rear oval hatch and rim. The hatch presented as flimsy, imploded into the rear of the boat with little effort, leaked, and did not match the Valley Canoe Product Hatch (VCP) and rim that was on the boat I test paddled and ordered. I paid over $2,500.00 for the kayak in question.
The lead up to the hearing brought a certain degree of anguish, in a battle that often felt like I was David and the kayak manufacturer and retailer was Goliath. However, reasonable requests do not go unnoticed and I believe the Tribunal favoured my evidence. I presented photos of the previous dubious hatch and the recently fitted VCP hatch both bearing a load of 10 kilograms. Please note that the dubious hatch imploded and was unable to carry this load. As kayakers, we should all be aware that the force of a wave is much stronger than 10 kilos.
Recent comments on the chatline of the NSWSKC suggest that the force of a 0.5 metre wave on an area of a kayak measuring 25 cm x 45 cm would be greater than 56 kilograms, extraordinary, and double that for a 1 metre wave. This calculation does not include the velocity of the wave or the density of the salt water. These important considerations need to be measured when pursuing your perfect boat in ready made form or when you are making one at home. Manufacturers and retailers too, need to take note that we do not paddle our kayaks on millponds as member Coldbeck observed and stated in the hearing. We paddle the oceans and the bays and we don’t wait for a sunny day or the wind to stop blowing, so we require boats that will stand up to often harsh conditions. Other evidence I presented at the hearing included a test conducted after a regular Club meeting of the Victorian Sea Kayak Club (VSKC) at Canadian Bay, Mount Eliza. Mike appeared out of the blue, and delicately took on the task on this winter day of simulating the effect of an imploded rear hatch in ocean conditions. Maintaining the stability of a boat in a swell with a rear hatch filled with water presents a very dangerous position for all kayakers and one to be avoided. Re-entries and rolls became difficult if not impossible to this well-balanced and proficient paddler. We were glad to be simulating rather than enduring the hard reality had this hatch remained on the boat.
This exercise only fuelled my desire to seek resolution of this issue and heightened the urgency in having the hatch replaced. I felt reluctant to paddle the boat on anything other than what resembled a millpond. My safety was my greatest concern. I exchanged several letters with the retailer prior to the hearing. Unfortunately, the letters became increasingly frustrating and did not satisfy my request to have the hatch replaced. I was offered to trade-in the boat (still under warranty I might add and only 2 months old) which I declined for the following reasons: The hatch was my only concern, and the costs involved with improving the boat since the purchase date (e.g. thigh braces fibreglassed into the cockpit increased the vessel’s value, not detracted from it). For the interest of other kayakers I have included several arguments the retailer presented against the hatch replacement, by the way these arguments were not presented in the Tribunal hearing, only in prior letters. I’m sure like myself you will understand why and see their absurdity. He stated that the structure of the boat would be compromised if a Valley Canoe Product (VCP) hatch were fitted. I quote from a letter I received dated 20 June 2002, “The proposed work breaks the structural integrity of the kayak and therefore it is not something we would ever undertake or recommend.” I was shocked to read this, knowing that a VCP hatch was previously used in the design of the boat.
How then could it detract from a kayak’s seaworthiness? Independent advice confirmed for me that fitting the VCP hatch would improve the structural integrity, as I believe it has done. And from a letter dated 11 June 2002; “The old Valley hatch covers… lack UV resistance. The hatch cover loses its flexibility after some time and cracks up under the Australian sun.” I shared this with several kayak colleagues including David Winkworth who stated in a letter to me that, “I’ve been using Valley hatches for over 10 years and have never had one perish—it’s all just how you look after your gear.” And, “If Valley hatches are so bad, why do so many paddlers say they are happy with them? They certainly are waterproof which I understand your current one is not, to say nothing of imploding with ease.” I sought legal advice through the local Community Legal Centre. We decided that without waiting for the hearing I would pursue the repairs to the boat at my own cost, and then seek the costs through the Tribunal. I presented the boat to two individual craftsmen for quotes with assurance that the hatch could be replaced. I was secure then in the knowledge that at least I was paddling a boat that was safe, and I felt satisfied with. My hatch was replaced in NSW, during a brief holiday on the South East Coast. My rear oval hatch now bears the VCP emblem and when mounted correctly, fits neatly into a flange and so I’m satisfied. The Tribunal hearing drew closer. Although I was attached to two clubs with members that supported me in their own way, it was the battle in the tribunal I had to face alone. Club members from NSW and Victoria assisted me with the following: photographic evidence, legal advice, expert advice, simulations, wave calculation formulas and calls to the retailer. All of which I am very grateful for.
I felt well prepared for a possible stormy ride and the adrenalin rush that a Tribunal hearing might bring. Following the presentation of evidence from both parties the Tribunal Member ruled in my favour. The Respondent (retailer) was ordered to pay me the cost for fitting the VCP hatch forthwith. I was also pleased to note that in the days that followed the hearing, the retailer notified me that he had decided to pursue the matter further with the manufacturer of the boat, and will recall all kayaks he sold bearing this hatch. I understand today the retailer is reconsidering this option. One shouldn’t go lightly into any Tribunal hearing. We should though be encouraged to uphold our principles and our own knowledge of right and wrong. I’ve been kayaking for only 18 months and in that short time I have been able to develop a sense and knowing about kayaks that led me to pursue this issue. Please if you have any doubt regarding the seaworthiness of a kayak before purchasing, do check with your club, it’s a damn site easier than pursuing a legal battle. I would be pleased to speak with any members or advise people with boats experiencing similar problems and can be contacted though the Victorian Sea Kayak Club or on the NSWSKC chatline. Keep paddling.