For Anton Willis to grab a boat from his San Francisco apartment and slide it into the cold Pacific waters, it only takes one step: unfold.
That is how you launch what is likely the world’s first origami kayak. Willis, a San Francisco designer who grew up paddling rivers and ocean swells in Mendicino county, California, launched the Oru Kayak with a Kickstarter campaign last week (it exceeded its $80,000 goal within five hours).
When Willis first sketched out his idea on a few scraps of paper four years ago, he was trying fulfill a personal need: finding a way to store a kayak in a cramped apartment and carry it easily on the subway down to the Bay.
Mission accomplished, and more. Willis’s first version—four sheets plastic held together by zip ties and duct tape—sank in the waters off of Berkeley, but he set out to perfect his design, improving more than 20 prototypes at the San Francisco workspace, TechShop. His latest version is the new and improved Oru Kayak.
The kayak is a marvel of compact choreography inspired by origami expert and physicist, Robert Lang. The rectangle unfolds from a single sheet of grooved corrugated plastic. The 33x29-inch package can easily be slung over one’s shoulder, and unfurls into a traditional kayak hull. Simple straps and rubber gaskets bring the two sides of the sheet together to guard against splashes. Although recommended for calm water, the kayak has survived pounding surf at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, and run-ins with California’s coastal boulders (dented plastic can be popped out by hand).
Willis says the ultimate goal of Oru Kayak is to introduce new enthusiasts to their local waterways, and rekindle the passion among those who gave up their paddling after relocating to urban apartments. Even commuting by water from places such as Oakland or Brooklyn are difficult without a place to stash your boat. The Oru Kayak, says Willis, is designed for almost anyone since so many cities lie just minutes away from rivers, lakes, or a coastline.
I tested the kayak in San Francisco’s Aquatic Park this past month. Willis helped me unfold and strap together the assembly in a few minutes. "In the water, it feels like any other kayak," he said. "You don’t want to smash it into rocks if you can help it." We slipped past the nearby barnacle-crusted piers and out into the Bay. The kayak handled indistinguishably from its plastic and fiberglass brethren, and the boat’s lines tracked well in the water, while betraying no hint of instability. After returning to shore, the boat simply folded up, the paddles collapsed, and Willis left the beach with the kayak (now a rectangle) back on his shoulder.
Oru Kayak is currently only available on Kickstarter for $800, but it goes on sale online later this year. Willis plans to start distributing them through retailers next year with a kids’ model as well.
The idea of commuting to work by boat, or storing one in your apartment, may be just around the bend.