Invention inspired by kayakerâ€™s desire to bring calm to rough waters
During much of his working life, Carl Vopal was content selling insurance from a Cedarburg office.
Now that he is retired, Vopal delights in finding challenges on the open water â€” whether it is the gentle roll of the Milwaukee River or the churning waves of Lake Michigan.
In fact, the former Port Washington residentâ€™s business card highlights his recent change of heart. It proclaims his avocation as â€śRetired, adventure seeker.â€ť
He and his wife Janet, a retired teacher, now live in Mequon.
Vopal long delighted in taking to the stateâ€™s waters, whether it was on Phantom Lake in Mukwonago, Lake Beulah near East Troy or the Rock River.
Then he became fanatical about kayaking, thanks largely to a group of like-minded paddlers he hooked up with through the South Shore Yacht Club in Milwaukee.
â€śThey are mostly very successful professionals, but they are also just nuts,â€ť Vopal said of the paddlers who cruise along the western shore of the lake, even in the
depth of winter.
â€śAs long as there is open water, theyâ€™ll go out,â€ť he said.
As he got more involved in kayaking, Vopalâ€™s practical side â€” developed during his years with Koehler Insurance â€” spoke to him.
â€śI had been kayaking for three seasons when I began looking for a boat that would comfortably fit my body. My second boat was a 17.5-foot fiberglass kayak that
handled well, but my legs numbed up quickly. I needed more open cockpit room,â€ť Vopal recalled.
â€śAfter lots of research and shopping, I found a 19-foot sea kayak with enough cockpit room that would allow my legs to move freely.â€ť
The problem, he quickly found, was that weighing just 165 pounds, he had trouble keeping the large boat steady in choppy waters.
â€śI needed more weight. I considered changing from my low-cholesterol diet to fast food. My other option was to add additional weight in the boat and secure it,â€ť Vopal said.
He started in his quest for a ballast system five years ago, testing materials and configurations.
Traditionally, kayakers have used water jugs, sandbags, lead shot and even rocks to add weight and stability to their boats, but Vopal said all of those items tended
to roll around inside the hull.
It was a design suggestion made by his wife that led to the concept for the Paddling Partner.
The device uses a flexible frame to secure a weight-filled canister right behind the kayaker, using the boatâ€™s day hatch or stern hatch.
Vopal secured patents in the U.S. and Canada, then searchrf for a manufacturer.
â€śThis is my one and only invention. It has never been our goal to get rich on this, just to cover the cost of developing it,â€ť Vopal said.
With detailed designs in hand, he first sought to have the device manufactured in China.
â€śThat didnâ€™t work out. We couldnâ€™t get the consistency we wanted when the pieces were bore molded,â€ť Vopal said.
Disappointed, he looked for other solutions and found his answer much closer to home, at Port Washingtonâ€™s Molded Dimensions.
â€śWe looked all over the country, but found a great team right in Port with Aaron Stanek, Carol Nikolaus and Ehan Khan,â€ť Vopal said.
Switching the material to urethane, which Molded Dimensions works with regularly, proved to be the key.
It provides a solid base, with a nylon bolt connecting the 9.5 pound BB-filled canister to a flexible, black frame. The device is portable, easily installed and removed
without damaging the boat.
â€śThe product is just what I wanted. It fits perfectly, just like a surgical instrument,â€ť Vopal said.
He said the device has provided the solution he was looking for.
â€śWith the Paddling Partner, I can walk into any store and buy a kayak off the rack and know it will work for me. Lake Michigan pretty much delivers the worst
conditions possible, and I feel comfortable on the water now,â€ť Vopal said.
â€śI know a lot of people who tried kayaking, but found they didnâ€™t like it because their boat was too unstable. There are people who have $3,500 boats that are
hanging in the garage, gathering dust. This could get those people to try kayaking again.â€ť
Vopal said marketing the Paddling Partner has been more difficult than he expected.
â€śI put it on the Web and thought it would be magic. It hasnâ€™t been,â€ť he said.
Vopal got a plug in an instruction video by kayaking guru Wayne Horodowich, but reluctantly concedes he will need more of a presence at boating shows, such as
the annual Canoecopia held in Madison.
â€śI think it often costs more to be at these shows than you end up making, but I am convinced if we can get 100 people to install the Paddling Partner it will sell
itself,â€ť Vopal said.
â€śThe units cost $125, but everything is expensive in boating. Most of our cost comes from having to use urethane and rubber, which are expensive materials.â€ť
Vopal has contracted with Portal Industries in Grafton to package the units, The company which hires Ozaukee County workers with disabilities will receive a portion
of the proceeds from each sale.
More information and ordering details for the Paddling Partner are available at www.paddlingpartner.com.
CARL AND JANET VOPAL posed with a sea kayak equipped with the Paddling Partner. Photo by Mark Jaeger