Failure Modes

The first time I heard the phrase, “failure modes,” was in a program about the Three Mile Island disaster. If I remember correctly, a valve stuck open releasing the reactor cooling supply. I don’t remember the specifics, but the valve failed and then a series of mistakes led to what the engineers called “an unanticipated failure mode”. So what does a partial meltdown at a nuclear reactor have to do with kayaking? Ideally, not much… that’s not the kind of scenery I’m looking for when I’m kayaking. But the idea of an unanticipated failure mode has stuck with me. Sometimes an unforeseen small problem is mismanaged, ignored, or misunderstood… until it becomes a really big problem, and this (unfortunately) can have a lot to do with kayaking.

Expecting the Unexpected

You can’t truly expect the unexpected; that’s kind of its thing. But you CAN manage how much room there is for the unexpected to slip in. You can manage your failure modes by playing the great game of What If. The What If game involves imagining what could possibly go wrong. At the end of the game, you will have your anticipated (however unlikely) failure modes. The remaining unexpected failure modes are the epitome of Murphy’s Law: if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. Even, and especially, the unimaginable. Even after several rounds of What If.

So if our What If game isn’t unexpected-proof, what can we do? The best way to limit what can go wrong is to limit complexity; the more complicated something is, the more failure modes it has.

Less is More

If it moves, it will…

  • wear out
  • jam
  • break
  • and/or all of the above, but not necessarily in that order.

This isn’t just about kayaks – it’s true of any mechanical system. Add salt, sand, pebbles, shell fragments, wind, and waves to the equation, and sometimes your failure mode becomes the usual operating mode: broken. When designing a kayak, I like to keep it as simple as possible. This is not to say that there is NO complexity to our kayaks, but wherever possible, we minimize the complexity for the paddler.

A rudder folded onto the back deck

Front End Loading

Complexity, like bureaucracy, never dies. Building our kayaks so that they have few moving parts means the building process is… well, complex.

Right from the start, the tail of our kayaks is difficult to build. The tail of the 17 and 19 hulls is so narrow and deep that we have to apply the gel coat with a paintbrush taped to a thin piece of wood. Imagine trying to apply jelly to a vertical surface with a paintbrush and not having it streak. Now do another vertical surface, this one is facing the first vertical surface, and it’s only a half-inch away. Can you brush the second without hitting the first? As an added challenge, the gel coat will be too thick to use about 7-10 minutes after you start. It can be done, but it has taken years of practice to get good enough that I can do it almost every time.

The tail of an NC17

Don’t Make More Holes Than You Need

Our foot braces are connected to studs that are bonded and laminated in. This means there are no holes through the hull that could leak. It also means we have to do all our finishing work on the hull in a specific order. Add in cure times for adhesives, resin, and sealant, and it takes a bit of time (and a lot of skill) to make a hull. We’ve made it complicated to build the kayak so that paddling our kayaks isn’t complicated.

Replaceable by Design

All of the moving parts on an NC Kayak have been built and installed so that if a part ever does fail, it can be replaced. The foot braces and hatch covers can all be removed and replaced with nothing more than a 10mm wrench and a Phillips head screwdriver. There are no cables, pulleys, flip-up-this, or drop-down-that. The only moving parts are the hatch covers and the foot braces.

Limiting Failure Modes

Because our kayaks are made for long-distance touring, limiting failure modes is a key aspect of our build philosophy. We build a kayak with few moving parts. We manufacture our kayaks with field-repairable materials. It is our goal to make paddling into remote areas not just possible but as hassle-free as possible. Even if you never paddle far from civilization, this design philosophy will make it so you can spend your time kayaking, not working on your kayak.

This is the complex art of building a simple kayak, this is what we do at NC Kayaks


Dnitra AyersOctober 11, 2022

Great post Travis!
You showed how Kayak building is a complex art.

coastal bend kevinOctober 11, 2022

Great Article Travis. with our nc-17's, on the gulf of mexico, we appreciate the simplicity of the kayaks. Interesting to hear about your complicated production process.

Charlotte L GoldmanOctober 11, 2022

Nicely written. Good blog..

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