Manufacturer Profile: Custom Kayaks

Monday, 06 February 2006 15:54 | Written by 
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(By Rob Mousley) 

In my first conversation with Mark Lewin in 2003, he told me that I should be banned from paddling…

The 2003 Cape Point Challenge Qualifier was held in a fierce southeaster and I had joined the race at Millers Point to do a downwind run. On my own, I had counted on the race’s safety organisation to help me out if I got into trouble. As Mark later put it, how would I have felt if the rescue crews had had to leave a competitor to drown while rescuing me?

But he didn’t put it like that to begin with – he calls a spade a spade and his initial bluntness took me aback. It was quite an introduction to one of the most visible (at 6’10’’ tall) characters in South African Surfski.


We’ve had many less contentious conversations since then and I’ve grown to respect Mark as a passionate advocate for the sport (and for his products).


When a team from Cape Town flew up to Durban in July 2005 to take part in the Scottburgh to Brighton (my first ever), he collected and delivered skis, and offered plenty of advice (it’s hard to stop him once he gets going) on handling the surf conditions at the various beaches.


Opinionated, brash, helpful to a fault, and as a Master still a highly competitive paddler, Mark has been part of the Kwa Zulu Natal paddling scene for nearly 30 years.


He started surfski paddling in 1977, after a ligament injury put paid to a budding cricket and rugby career. “My first problem was finding something to paddle,” he said, “at 6’10’’, nothing fitted me so I had to build my own.” Since then, Mark has shaped a ski, kayak or knee board every year for the last twenty five years.


His paddling pedigree in impressive: seven Sunshine Coast Challenges (244km over four days between Port Elizabeth and East London); four Cape Point Challenges (56km through some of the roughest water in the world); two Molokai Challenges and he’s represented South Africa five times. His best year was 1987 when won the South African National Surfski title, came fourth in the Molokai Challenge and won the 46km Scottburgh to Brighton marathon.


In serving the surfski community as a whole, he is currently chairman of the National Surfski Committee. Preparations are under way for the 2006 South African Surfski World Cup race to be held in Durban on 2nd July. “The race is key to our vision for the sport worldwide,” said Mark, “we intend to make it bigger and better than ever – our aim is to bring no fewer than fourteen international teams here to take part.”


Barry Lewin


 Barry Lewin at the World Cup in Perth Australia, 2005

Mark doesn’t hide his pride in his son Barry. Clearly a chip off the old block, Barry represented South Africa in the World Marathon Canoeing Championship in the UK at age 15 and was part of the successful South African team that won the inaugural 2004 Surf Ski World Cup in Cape Town.


Although he doesn’t play a role at the factory, “Barry is a wonderful ambassador for Custom Kayaks; his consistently great results are the best possible advert for our products.”


Like his father, Barry also contributes significantly to the sport as a whole. Manager and coach of the Durban Surfski School, he was instrumental in founding the first development surfski paddling team, which took part in the 2005 Winter Surfski Series.


Custom Kayaks and the MARK 1


Mark started Custom Kayaks in 2000 and hasn’t looked back. The company has grown rapidly to the point where he employs a staff of eighteen and manufactures a range of water sports products ranging from paddles to racing canoes, knee boards, fishing skis and surfskis.


The first Custom Kayaks surfski was the MARK 1. At the time, Mark saw a gap in the market for an

 The MARK 1 as an icebreaker - Vancouver Island, Canada
intermediate ski, faster than the Wedges and Hammerheads that dominated the entry-level skis, but more stable than the high-end Fenn skis. His estimation was that by far the majority of the paddlers in the top-end skis were not and would never be capable of handling them. In a nutshell, he designed “an open ocean ski that was a bit more stable and forgiving”.


Clearly he struck a sweet spot. There are over 4000 MARK 1 skis being paddled in seven countries around the world and Custom Kayaks still makes one each day.




Having covered the majority of the market, the time was right to tackle the top-end with a faster ski. “We wanted to develop a fast competitive single ski,” said Mark, “but we felt that we could improve on the characteristics of the then current top-end skis.” Goals for the new design included: better manoeuvrability; good secondary stability; a better sitting position and volume distribution. “Overall we wanted a ski that you could paddle faster”, Mark explained, “and that would run more efficiently.”


The ICON ski was the result, and the first skis came out of the mould early in 2004. Mark didn’t expect to crack the market any time soon: “At the top end, skis are expensive and I wasn’t expecting guys simply to drop their current skis and buy the ICON. It’s only when they come to replace their skis that they have an opportunity to shop around.” He was pleasantly surprised: the ICON has been “staggeringly successful” in that it featured in 11 out of the top 15 positions in the 2005 Durban Summer Series.


Internationally the ICON has featured too – Nathan Baggaley won the 2004 Australian World Cup race in Perth on an ICON and raced one into second place in the 2005 Molokai Challenge.


Double Ski – the MARK 2


The double ski currently manufactured by Custom Kayaks is the MARK 2. Following the same basic design precepts as the MARK 1, this ski was designed for the majority of the market and has been successful in allowing a range of paddlers including novices to enter doubles surfski competition. That’s not to say that the MARK 2 is a slouch. “Put a combination of any two good paddlers in the ski and they are capable of winning,” said Mark. To back this up, he cited the example of son Barry Lewin who, combined with Matt Bouman won the 2005 Dolphin Coast Challenge, breaking the record by fourteen minutes. “And that wasn’t in optimum downwind conditions, either.”


Spec Skis – the TITAN


 TITAN spec ski
The latest addition to the Custom Kayaks surfski stable is the TITAN, a lifesaving spec ski. Part of the motivation to develop a spec ski was the lack of development and innovation. “The current crop of spec skis in South Africa,” Mark said, “are all just copies of Australian skis, the last of which came to South Africa over ten years ago.” Much effort has been given to improving speed through the surf. “We reversed the normal design of the stern,” explained Mark. “Most skis have a deep-V hull with a flat deck but we noticed that the waves tended to push the stern under the water. We’ve effectively done the opposite. The deck is shaped like an inverted-V and the hull is flattened slightly. The water now drains off the deck immediately and this gives much more buoyancy to the stern.” Such is the success of the new tail design that Mark intends incorporating it into his next generation of open ocean skis.


The first demo skis were shipped overseas in 2005 and proved an instant hit, and a large consignment was shipped recently to lifeguard stations on the US West Coast.


Future Models


What’s next for Custom Kayaks surfskis? Look out for a new double ski, currently under development and due out later this year. Just as the ICON was designed to be faster than the MARK 1, so the new ski is intended to be a top-end double, faster than the MARK 2.


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