The Legacy of Pygmy Kayak: A Woodworking Revolution

Throughout history, remarkable individuals have emerged as pioneers in their respective fields. While names like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs may come to mind, there are those who chose a different path, one immersed in the tranquility of the North Pacific. John Lockwood, an Ivy League-educated enthusiast, established Pygmy Boats over three decades ago in Port Townsend, creating wooden kayak kits that would change the way people explore rugged shores.

Lockwood’s journey into the world of wooden kayaks began in 1970 when he embarked on a 900-mile adventure, paddling down the Yukon River in a collapsible Klepper kayak. This experience, coupled with his fascination for ancient boats crafted by indigenous Northwest communities and Aleuts, sparked his passion for designing and building lightweight, efficient kayaks.

In 1986, Lockwood took a leap of faith and devoted himself to his true love. He meticulously designed the Queen Charlotte, an ultralight boat, which marked the birth of Pygmy Boats. The name “Pygmy” paid homage to the Mbuti people, also known as “Pygmies,” whom Lockwood had studied during his anthropology classes.

At that time, the kayaking craze was sweeping across Puget Sound, and Lockwood’s wooden kayak kits offered a unique alternative to the expensive and heavy fiberglass boats dominating the market. Year after year, Pygmy Boats introduced sleeker, lighter, and faster models, often named after Northwest seabirds like the Osprey, Murrelet, and Arctic Tern.

Each Pygmy kit, priced at approximately $1200 plus shipping, arrived in a long cardboard box filled with precut plywood panels, fiberglass cloth, epoxy, and hardware. Assembly involved drilling holes, connecting the panels with wire or plastic ties, and reinforcing the joints with fiberglass and epoxy. Though the process seemed straightforward, novice builders often spent months working on their kayaks, seeking guidance from Pygmy and even turning to YouTube videos for assistance.

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Despite the occasional challenges, Pygmy Boats garnered a loyal following. An online community, boasting nearly 900 contributors, formed a Facebook group dedicated to sharing advice and paying tribute to Lockwood’s dedication to improving his designs. These individuals proudly showcased their finished masterpieces, with family and friends eagerly awaiting the opportunity to paddle in their own Pygmy kayaks.

However, all good things must come to an end. Lockwood recently announced that Pygmy Boats would be entering a temporary hibernation phase. At the age of 77, he desires a well-deserved retirement. Unfortunately, negotiations for a potential buyer fell through due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The showroom at Point Hudson has closed its doors, and Pygmy’s production of kits has ceased for the time being.

Lockwood’s departure from the woodworking scene, however, does not mark the end of Pygmy’s legacy. Thousands of kayaks designed and built under his guidance will continue to grace the waters for years to come. The momentary pause offers an opportunity for reflection and the potential for a future resurrection of Pygmy Boats.

In the meantime, for those seeking alternatives, Chesapeake Light Craft, based in Annapolis, stands as a potential successor to Pygmy’s throne. Their boats-from-kits have been showcased alongside Pygmy’s at the annual Wooden Boat Festival, and they had expressed interest in acquiring the company before the unfortunate turn of events caused by the pandemic.

As Lockwood bids farewell to Pygmy, his wooden kayaks remain a testament to his dedication and the allure of Northwest seas. They adorn the roofs of Subaru cars, becoming symbolic of Port Townsend’s identity as a Northwest destination. These boats, embodying the peace of wild places, will continue to carry adventurers along rugged coastlines, unearthing the serenity that comes from immersing oneself in nature’s wonders.

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Photo © by Joel Rogers

To explore more about wooden kayaks and the potential future of Pygmy Boats, visit UpStreamPaddle