Monday, May 30, 2011

Chesapeake Light Craft, an interview with John C Harris

John Harris looking happy at the helm of his PocketShip

"Not bad for an 8-year-old, though of course it this was not a flight article...

The concept worked better as a kite."

"This was the kind of thing going through my head in high school."

"I'm really fussy with CAD drafting."

"I built this lacy rendition of a Bolger Teal as a 16-year-old."

"The very early days: O'Connell's Wooden Boat Shop."

"I once designed and built a 15-foot electric launch in my living room."

"Kayak design testing, invariably in big waves and cold water."

Mill Creek 13 with a balanced lug rig
found on the Canoe Sailing Resources page

courtesy Craig O'Donnell

CLC’s current sail rig, very similar to mine, can be built from plans or a kit. At first my aka design and CLC’s were very different from each other, and different from what we both ended up with in the end. Over the years I changed mine and they changed theirs and now, when I look at pictures on their website, it seems to me like we both ended up with a very similar design.

courtesy Small Trimarans

Eric's John's Sharpie attracted a LOT of lookers!
Cedar Key Small Boat Meet,April 30th - May 2nd, 2010

I asked John about this design, as I had admired it at the MASCF in St Michaels, his response:
"I designed that boat to win the traditional boat race at MASCF. Its beguiling good looks were meant to look right on the St. Michael's waterfront, but conceal the speed of a racing dinghy. I was 23, and it was a good 23-year-old's boat. I like that it's hard to find an angle from which the proportions don't look good. It's got razor-sharp handling upwind and down. Unfortunately, you get the bad with the good---John's Sharpie is wicked fast but also cranky and wet. It was a good design lesson, including that two tall masts weigh twice as much as one tall mast. I'm not the only skipper to have capsized one. Many builders soon shipped a pair of sandbags either side of the daggerboard trunk to settle her down. "

Courtesy Cedar Key

"A favorite photo: testing my Skerry design."

John's altered design for the Skerry that John Guider is sailing on his Great Loop quest, The River Inside

John Guider's CLC Skerry

photo courtesy John Guider

CLC Noreaster dories building at a class held at the Wooden Boat Foundation last fall.
The boat without clamps is a Pete Culler design and not associated with Chesapeake Light Craft

John Harris shows us around the CLC building shop

courtesy Geezersgosouth

"The CLC showroom circa 2008."

Pete and Donna work out on the Wherry. Matapeake Park Okoume Fest May 14 2011

courtesy Building a Northeaster Dory

CLC Skerry

no attribution

John Pollard and Eric aboard CLC PocketShip

Courtesy David D.

Which looks to have rather amazing interior space for a 14' 10" LOA boat. Her's John Harris looking rathe comfortable. I respond to the plumb bow, workboat look of this seemingly very versatile pocket cruiser

This is the "Squid" a Mbuli class proa designed by John Harris of CLC boats, and built by David Howie of New Zealand. It's a fast powerful design and was impressive at the recent New Zealand Proa Congress.

caption and photo courtesy Gary Dierking/Outrigger Sailing Canoes

"The rollout of the proa "Madness," last week."
You can track the proa build on CLC's blog

All photos and captions courtesy John Harris/CLC unless otherwise noted

I met John Harris last summer at the WoodenBoat Show in Mystic, just walked up and introduced myself. John was helping a group of participants building lapstrake ply canoes, seems at least 20, maybe more. I found him affable, communicative and intelligent, but he basically came off as a regular guy, no airs. But John is no regular guy, though it's to his credit that he approaches people he meets that way, it may be a component of his success. He agreed to an interview, and as a follow through after my interesting talk with Chris Kulczycki, founder of CLC, I give you this interview:

First, of course, I'd like to hear about your early life relating to boats, what got you hooked?

My father, an accomplished engineer, is a really keen sailor and took me sailing in dinghies as a toddler. I grew up on inland lakes in Aiken, SC; most of that story is told here. It's difficult to understate how besotted I was with boats from the earliest age. I was a nerdy, loner kid with bad grades in school who could turn out striking 3D renderings of boats and airplanes. I spent most of my waking hours drawing boats and airplanes and trying to build them. (I have a great photo of an attempted full-scale glider, about age 9.) There was an entrepreneurial streak. My dad bought me a Dremel scroll saw at age 7, and at age 8 I was cutting out toy guns and selling them to my schoolmates---on the playground, no less. So, if I'd been born in the age of Zero Tolerance, I'd have been incarcerated rather than studying to be a boatbuilder.
The first "real" boat was a 16-foot rowing shell, which I designed and built at age 14. It was awful, but it floated and worked. I later cut up the boat so no one would drown in it, but I keep the bow on a shelf in my office here. By that age I was sure I wanted to be a boatbuilder. We had moved to suburban Wilmington, DE, and I was basically on my own to chart a course as a boatbuilder because there wasn't any kind of local scene.
I wanted to go to a two-year apprenticeship boatbuilding program, but my parents opposed this. This was a really painful episode. With my sullen complicity, they picked out a small liberal arts college in rural Maryland, where I got a music degree. (Music was, and is, a second love.) My mom's gone now, but I hope my dad knows how valuable it was that they won that argument. I can't think of a more perfect education for a kid who would go on to run a boatbuilding business. At Washington College, with its heavy core curriculum, I really learned how to think and to write, and I established deep networks. I might have been building boats for a living more quickly coming out of an apprenticeship, but at that age I wouldn't have had the foundation to be an entrepreneur. And no matter; during summers and breaks I built up an excellent boatbuilding portfolio, everything from big workboats to racing dinghies to kayaks.
The April of my senior year in college, I got a job at a traditional boatbuilding shop in Chestertown, MD, and was working full time a day or two after I graduated, in May of 1994. In the corner of that shop was a subcontracted project to make kits for a fledgling company called Chesapeake Light Craft.

How did you persuade Chris (Kulczycki ) to take you on? Give us a vignette of the early days at CLC, before Chris left.

O'Connell's Wooden Boat Shop, in Chestertown, MD, built traditional small craft and repaired larger wooden boats. It would have been a dream job for a boat nut, but we were so broke we could barely pay the power bill, and rent was only fifty bucks a month. The proprietor was and is a talented craftsman but he didn't have much fire as a businessman. I looked at what we were doing and thought, "I'm going to be broke and out of work presently." I was keeping the books, though, and I noticed that the little side job making kayak kits for Chris, who was still working out of his basement at that time, was not only profitable but was growing quickly.
In March of 1995 I got laid off, because there just wasn't any money in the till and the owner was tired of my impertinent suggestions about how to run the business. There were plenty of CLC kayak kits on order, but the money we needed to buy plywood had vanished. I was furious. I got in my car and drove the two hours to Chris's house in Arlington. "This shop you've got making your kits....I can do a lot better," I told him. I proposed to set up my own shop manufacturing his kits and building prototypes. Chris made a counteroffer: "How about you come to work for CLC, instead. I'll set up a shop, and you'll be the shop manager."
Even a guy with a music degree could perceive the better deal, and CLC in its current format was born in that conversation. We had a peculiar challenge: there was no shop. We picked Annapolis, which was halfway between Chestertown and Arlington, and rented the shop that, many years later, is now our showroom. Unfortunately, it would be almost two months before the shop was ready. Meanwhile, the kit orders were stacking up fast back at O'Connell's Wooden Boat Shop.
After a short furlough, I went back to work at O'Connell's so that the kits got shipped. Covertly, I drove over to Annapolis in the evenings to build work benches and assemble the specialized equipment we needed. When everything was ready, I gave notice, and Chris canceled the contract with O'Connell's. On Friday, April 28th, 1995, I slapped shipping labels on the last kits at O'Connell's and loaded them on the FedEx truck. On May 1st we started making kits at the new shop in Annapolis.
Chris's timing was uncanny, and he has a gift for marketing. Sea kayaks, pretty much all we sold in the early days, were the Next Big Thing in the 1990's. The business grew really quickly. Chris's wife Annette joined as the business manager; she was a very steady hand at the helm. I think Annette and I gave Chris the ability to spend all his time on marketing. It was potent chemistry for building a small business.
By the summer of 1997, we had four router tables going at once to keep up. Cutting kit parts accurately using patterns and a router is a tricky business, and slow. That summer one of the college kids we had cutting parts ran his thumb into a router, and within about five minutes we had decided to buy a CNC machine. That was a big move for a small business, and allowed us to expand the product line a lot more quickly and manage the demand. We doubled between 1997 and 1998.
Chris is a smart, driven, Type-A engineer and business sort. I'm an arty, right-brained boatbuilder and illustrator. Under one roof, Chris and I were most productive when we retreated to our respective corners. The one thing we agreed on without reservation was to run CLC like a business, rather than like an artisan's shop. I've nothing against artisans---I'm an artisan myself. And what we do---small wooden boats---is incredibly artisanal. But my experience at O'Connell's was really fresh in my mind. A factory approach to wooden boats, with steady orders12 months of the year and factory-like efficiencies, creates the kind of cash flow that allows you and your staff to settle in and grow. And play with cool boats.

Tell me about your takeover of CLC, how was that accomplished, did you have to leverage a buyout and how. What convinced you to do this? You obviously had a vision...

Chris offered to sell me CLC a few times in the 1990's, but I wasn't ready, psychologically or financially. He got serious about selling the business in the spring of 1999. I was by then the general manager, and I knew that if he sold the company, it was likely that I'd be sacked by the new owners in favor of their own hand-picked GM. I loved my job, especially the fact that I could spend all my free time experimenting with small boats in a big, modern shop. I was really living it. So I got serious about buying the company.
CLC was then, and is now, a valuable company. I had just turned 27 and I had about $4000 in my checking account. I was going to need some heavies to pull it off. I did what any young entrepreneur should do when they start raising capital: call a sailmaker. Sailmakers, at least the ones involved in racing, know all the rich guys in town. I took the sailmaker out to lunch, and a few days later he showed up at the shop with a private banking type out of Washington, DC. It was a classic "elevator pitch" moment. I had about 15 minutes' notice; I was wearing torn jeans and a T-shirt. I made my pitch, and a half hour later I had my first investor. He'd do most of it, but I had to raise the rest of the capital myself. A friend had a Piper Cherokee and flew me down to Norfolk to meet the father of a college roommate, also a banker. It was my own miniature low-rent version of the Silicon Valley pre-IPO dance. My old roommate's dad came in, and brought his uncle, too. That gave me most of the dough, and I leveraged the rest.

That was the easy part.

As the ink was drying on the documents at the end of 1999, there were massive challenges for CLC. The internet was pouring gasoline on our sales, but it was bringing big trouble, too. We had a stable of boat kit designs that were sophisticated and smart, but their step-by-step instruction manuals were thin, underbaked, and getting outdated fast. Some of them were just 14 or 15 pages. And a boat kit company lives and dies by its manuals and documentation and tech support. In 1995, our typical kit customer was a first-time boatbuilder, but invariably brought at least a little carpentry skill to the project. Thanks to the internet, though, by 2000 we were bringing in thousands of boatbuilders who had never picked up a tool in their life.
On one hand, this is a dream situation: CLC is THE portal for so many beginner boatbuilders. But if you've ever tried to write an instruction manual for anything, much less a wooden boat, you know that it can turn you inside out. I made it clear to my new board of directors that there was no way forward without the best boatbuilding manuals ever written. That was probably the most ambitious undertaking of the whole enterprise, though it wasn't the kind of thing we sent press releases about. I hired a full-time graphic designer and a technical writer and created pen-and-ink illustrations night and day for two years. For my investors, this was all terribly frustrating. The exercise cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, took too long, and by the time we had the new batch of 120-page manuals done, it was time to revise them again. We fought like animals over it. It comes back to what the internet was doing: CLC was easy to find on the web when folks had a good experience with their boat kit, but if they had a bad experience, that was easy to read about on the web, too. And you'd just get crucified. Deservedly.

That's pretty much how it went for five years. I spent all of our profits polishing our kits, documentation, and tech support, and filming a boatbuilding DVD and developing a "tips" section on our website. Are all of our manuals and plan sets perfect now? Christ, no. There are still a few 90's-era manuals floating around awaiting their turn. But by 2005 we had gotten ahead of it and fallen into a system of producing manuals of consistently high quality. It was still terribly hard work, but it no longer broke us. And at that point we could sell a lapstrake pulling boat kit to an absolute beginner and have perfect confidence that they would enjoy the project. The effort has paid off, because so much of our business is from repeat customers.
I bought out the investors at the end of 2004, retired the board of directors, and paid off the remaining loans in 2009.

In the intervening years you have expanded and built the business dramatically, continually adding more kits and larger projects, with the
current project proa at about 30' Do you see this trend continuing?

In 1999 we had 22 kit models; now we have over 70. Many of those came along when we merged with Shearwater Boats and Guillemot Kayaks. Don't get me started on the instruction manuals again, but that's really the barrier to growth. That, and the simple problem of managing all of that inventory. In 1999, we made kits to order as they came in. Now we ship from inventory most of the time. It's been a struggle to develop strategies to handle the variety of parts and the amount of CNC cutting involved. We finally had to buy a 24-foot-long CNC machine with two tables on it, so we could be unloading one table while the robot is at work on the other.
We'll be adding a lot of kits in coming years, but not larger ones like the proa. Small boats are what I love, and they're what can be kitted out and shipped through the mail affordably. Special "one-off" projects like the proa are important for CLC. They allow me to stretch out as a designer. Special projects let us experiment with what's possible in a build-it-yourself format. The proa is just stitch-and-glue plywood, all cut on the CNC machine and assembled exactly like one of our small boats. So the proa is a technology demonstrator, and it'll be making the rounds promoting CLC's mission. But mostly the proa is just for fun. The market for large build-it-yourself kits in general (and proas in particular) is vanishingly small, yet the cost of designing, prototyping, and documenting big boats varies as the cube of length. So there are practical barriers to getting into larger boats.
The biggest thing we have on the drawing table right now is an 18'7" electric motor launch based on the Northeaster Dory. That's bumping up hard against the limit of what we can package and ship through the mail, and shipping ain't getting any cheaper.
That said, a big part of CLC's business is custom CNC cutting. We just did a 45-foot ketch for someone, and a 26-foot trimaran. The one-offs fill in gaps in the production schedule and are just fun to do. The audience for proas is tiny, but not zero. Maybe I'll sell a few kits, and I'll be making up a nice set of plans and instructions for scratch-builders. But I'll never cover the cost of building it.

Your success attests to the tremendous popularity of CLC has your business model morphed over the years to encourage and accommodate this growth? What in your background enables your business acumen, did you attend business school or is this native instinct?

Hah! I have zero credentials, other than a music degree. I started reading my dad's business mags as a teenager and I always read the best of the business books. I think that was the nucleus of the woodenboat-shop-as-a-business-rather-than-as-art-studio thing. I think just having that attitude about wooden boats has allowed me to get paid for my hobby.
That, and a genuine terror of going out of business. CLC is a retail outfit like a million others, and a small one, too, and you're never more than one or two ugly shocks away from the abyss. You have to have a lot of stamina and you have to be willing to sweat the details every single day. There were years where I paid myself $32k/year and worked 30 days straight if necessary. To this day, I still answer a majority of the tech emails, six days a week, because it keeps me really close to the customers.

Are you the sole designer of the boats or do you have a design team? How are your days spent?

My dream is to be able to spend ALL of my time designing boats. At CLC, design duties for new boats are split pretty evenly between Eric Schade, Nick Schade, and myself. I'd be happy designing kayaks, but it's the rowing and sailing craft that seem to fall to me mostly. Which is wonderful. These days, it's really rare that I'm able to execute the ENTIRE design, which means the usual architectural drawings but also the plywood panel expansions, bulkheads, and prep work for the CNC machine. More often, I create an extremely accurate and detailed 3-view and rendering of the boat, then turn it over to a CAD draftsman to be fleshed out. No matter whose design it is, at least four or five CLC people have their hands on the design before it's a kit.
I'm really obsessive about the details----the shapes of lightening holes in bulkheads, the curves on frames, even the line weights and shading on the architectural drawings. Different designers have different thresholds about what they call a "design." Some sign their names to a napkin drawing; for me you're just a co-designer unless you include every visible detail in your drawings.

Kayak kits seem to be or have been the foundation CLC has built on. Have you considered offering skin on frame kits, based on traditional or modified designs?

I designed and built some skin boats in high school and college. I love everything about them. We'll definitely do something with skin-on-frame kits eventually, though I've nothing on the horizon right now.

In response to one of my posts, you sent a drawing of a traditional boat, any thoughts of kits more firmly based on traditional historic models, similar to Selway Fisher design/plan offerings, for example?

Anything like that would fall in the same category as the proa. Maybe if we someday have a division that just does boat plans or even fiberglass production boats, I could see it. The logistics of shipping a kit that weighs more than a few hundred pounds is the main filter on what we're doing right now. There are exceptions; PocketShip has been ecstatically popular even though we have to ship the kit on a freight truck. But there's still the filter of development costs. I have no idea how much PocketShip really cost by the time I designed it, had one built and photographed, wrote its 286-page manual, and did a little marketing. Maybe $50,000? That would have been a psychotic business decision, except that PocketShip was a personal "fun" project like the proa. It just happened to get popular, so we did a proper manual. For a company our size, that's too much money to risk in the marketplace under normal circumstances.

I read somewhere, probably your website, that you are the largest supplier of kits worldwide. Tell us about ome of the more surprising or far flung/exotic places you've sent kits.

We've had some shipping adventures. I think the current count is 63 countries. A number of yachtsmen have built kits while living aboard in far-flung spots around the world. One of my sailboats was built in a 15th-floor apartment in South Korea. There's at least one kit in Kyrgyz. There are a lot of them in Alaska, and we had a Northern Exposure-type experience shipping a kit to some bush radio station, who then radioed to the builder to mush in to retrieve the kit. Quite a few have been built aboard Navy ships.

I think you've just moved into a new facility, (photos?) tell me where you are going, what's next, what's your vision for clc for the next decade or so?

As we're sorting out the inventory and instruction manual challenges, it's getting easier to add new boats. We'll keep new things coming, and we'll keep updating the older boats. Our boatbuilding classes are getting bigger and bigger, and we keep getting smarter about running those---it's taken 15 years and hundreds of classes to refine that formula. We just expanded our space by about 20% so we could increase the size of our classroom and build new administrative offices. In ten years, we might look like Chris Craft in the 1950's, or we might just be a design office. I have no idea.
We're building a kit out of bamboo right now, which is really exciting for me. Bamboo plywood isn't really "green"---yet. It takes a lot of energy to make it, and it's shipped from Asia, so the carbon footprint is ugly. But we're learning a lot about how to work with the stuff, and we're going to be in a leadership position on fast-renewable materials in wooden boats. Somebody has to jump into the pool and get the suppliers interested in making this stuff, so that the costs come down and solutions to the carbon issues evolve. Might as well be CLC.

Do you cycle? (Chris Kulczycki, founder of CLC went on to create Velo Orange, a business which imports, manufactures, creates and sells some wonderful bicycles and related accoutrement. ed)

I do not. I take my exercise in small boats, especially rowing craft. I manage to get out rowing a few times a week. There are some genius pedal-driven light craft out there, which I'm coveting. I drive a Mini Cooper S.

Whats your biggest seller, what's your personal favorite design (if that's possible).

The recreational Wood Duck kayak designs have edged into first place. I know it's a cliche, but it really is true that whatever I'm working on today is my favorite design. Abandoned along with the board of directors was the focus group approach to CLC designs, and nowadays we don't do any boats here that I'm not personally in love with. When it comes to what designs we work on next, I rule with a tyranny that would make Stalin blush.

John, thanks for a voluble and candid interview, best wishes to you and yours.


contact info:

John C. Harris
Chesapeake Light Craft
"The Best Boats You Can Build"

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

MotR: Clodia, Giacomo & Co. Cross the Channel

Clodia in Ramsgate prior to the crossing

Giacomo sailing out

crew Bruno rowing out of Ramsgate

Giacomo amidst the Channel

video and all photos courtesy Man on the River/Giacomo De Stefano

Our Man is back on the River, rather, this time on the sea. After a hiatus from his ambitious project, Giacomo De Stefano has triumphantly resumed his adventure after a bout with a rare and potentially deadly virus. High congratulations are in order. Giacomo and his crew Bruno Porto successfuly navigated the English channel in about 9 hours, sailing from Ramsgate Uk to Gravelines France aboard their 19' Ian Oughtred designed Ness Yawl, Clodia.

Here is Giacomo's report of the crossing:

"We did it!

Crossing the English Channel is something special:
To make it real we had to rely on many friends and on our best commitment and effort. Not to mention lots of luck.
I thought to all those people who lost their lives in these cold and troubled waters, even in the best weather conditions as we were so fortunate fo find yesterday.
Streams, sea beds,shallows, big ferries and commercial ships: A lot to worry about for a nutshell like Clodia.

We could never have done it without the help of Chalky, a sailor friend, who escorted us all the way from Ramsgate to Gravelines.

A support boat is required by maritime regulations to cross the Channel for a small boat, engine free, like our Ness Yawl.

This is the report of our day: We leave from Ramsgate at 6 o’clock after a rainy night that didn’t seem like a good omen. Chalky already offered us a good coffee.

We get out of the harbour by rowing, under a bright sun: In the meantime Paolo is filming us from the top of the pier.

To cross the shipping lanes at 90°, Chalky asks to tow us, because the wind is contrary and he wants to get to Gravelines before 4.30 p.m. for the high tide. We can’t turn his offer down, even if it doesn’t stick to our values: We could have easily made it without any help, but not following the regulamentary 90°.

We need to get out quickly from the routes of the big ships, that need many miles to stop, so we accept to get towed for what is strictly needed.

When the shipping lanes are at our back, the wind calms down. The green power of Bruno comes very handy and we row for a couple of nautical miles: Then, when we have to cope with an opposite stream of nearly 2.5 knot (faster than us!), the wind comes to our help at about 12-16 knot, keeping constant for the following hours.

We can now swiftly sail for hours: The day is beautiful and Clodia doesn’t seem to care much about the sea, running fast toward the French coast.
The last 12 miles are fantastic: We literally fly over the waves caused by streams and shallows, and by a stronger wind, reaching 6.3 knot speed.

We enter the canal of Grand Fort Philippe al 4 p.m. local time, after 9 hours and 35 nautical miles of navigation from Ramsgate. A little thrill: The gaff jumps over the peak of the mast, hit by a naughty wave. I quickly turn down the mainsail and leave the rope, avoiding any further trouble. Everything goes well, but it could have been very dangerous.

The access to the channel leading to Gravelines is a bit difficult, but we enter quite well, then we sail for the last 3 miles and dock in the wonderful Marine. Fantastic!

Gravelines welcomes us with all its peace and beauty. The fortress of Vauban is very nice.
We also discovered a 57 metres vessel, replica of the 18th century original, under construction: Impressive! Here you can find more info.

Thanks to all of you for support and help, we felt your presence every time. We dedicate a special thought to Roland, Silvio and Jacopo that should have been aboard with us.
Shortly, we’ll set sails to Saint Omer. A big hug.

Giacomo and Bruno"

You'll find map of the crossing, more on the project, and full documentation with a link to the project Flickr site at Man on the River.

See previous posts on the adventure here.

Giacomo, it's lovely to see your triumphant return, welcome back and my deepest congratulations on the successful crossing!


Friday, May 6, 2011

Chris Kulczycki, Chesapeake Light Craft and Velo ORANGE: Boats and Bikes part two.

Chris and son Alec out in a folding kayak recently

Chesapeake Light Craft

Chris' first CLC boat, built in his garage.

A host of CLC demo boats

An early CLC kayak kit

Showroom and warehouse at the CLC under Chris' tenure

Mill Creek kayak with a reef in

John's Sharpie

Chris at the CLC showroom last weekend


Most cyclists don't race, yet they ride uncomfortable racing bikes and try to go too fast and so miss much of the world around them. Our emphasis is on a more relaxed and comfortable style of riding, and on refined bikes that are comfortable on a century ride, an inn-to-inn tour, or even on a ramble down your favorite dirt road.

For many years some of the wonderful parts and accessories once produced by small firms in Europe for the cyclo-tourist and randonneur have been unavailable, or outrageously expensive. So I started Velo Orange to find and sell these remaining items, and to produce those that were no longer available.

Happy riding,
Founder & President (from the introduction to the Velo ORANGE website)

Chris with his VO Passhunter. VO no longer offers this frame design. It was a custom design and Chris is no longer offering custom designs, due to the great amount of time it takes. It's my impression, however, that his production frames at least approach the quality of a custom or equal it. See here an early post from Chris on Pass Hunting
and here the consideration for such a bike, which was eventually acted on.

VO Gentleman's bike,VO showroom as backdrop. This was also a custom bike, not available at present.
VO is currently offering very high quality production frames, and build kits of components to kit them out with matching gear.

The 'Gentleman's Bike' aka 'The City Bike'

The first VO Randonneur outfitted with the very best classic French components

Blue Randonneuse

Chris' favorite bike is this Passhunter. Nice color.

VO randonneur front rack, quite handsome. Note the small red oval on the rim indicating Super Champion rims.

An array of quill stems, I am particularly interested in the center one

Fender production at the renowned Honjo in Japan. VO offers Honjo fenders as well as their own.

Chris Kulczycki is another rather interesting figure involved very deeply in both bikes and boats. Formerly an engineer, his genius is entrepreneurial. He has created out of whole cloth two rather successful companies, Chesapeake Light Craft, a supplier of wooden boat kits for homebuilders, and his latest venture, Velo Orange, a supplier of bicycle frames and components inspired by the glory days of the French Constructeur.

Chris steered CLC for ten years, I think from 1989 to 1999 when he passed off the business to his first mate, John Harris.

I have been aware of Chesapeake Light Craft for decades and met John C Harris, the current owner, last summer at the WoodenBoat show at Mystic Seaport, and had been trying to find the time to get to Annapolis for an interview and some photos.

Completely unrelated to that, I have recently been building a bicycle from the ground up. While doing research to find components for my new bike, I ran across Velo ORANGE and was pleasantly surprised to find them offering just the kind of components and accessories I needed to kit out my bicycle in the way I envisioned, and at reasonable prices. I was delighted and have already purchased a crankset and other items from VO. I am even more delighted to learn that the owner and creator of VO is also the originator of CLC! A flurry of emails ensued, culminating in this interview:

What was the genesis of CLC, how and why did that happen?

CLC was an accidental company. I was working in civil engineering, but had been moonlighting as a freelance writer for various boating and woodworking magazines. I wrote an article for Sea Kayaker Magazine about a kayak I'd designed and built for myself. And I offered plans for sale, thinking I might sell a dozen or so. The weekend the issue came out I was crewing on sailboat going from Chesapeake Bay to New England. I called my wife when we arrived and she said that 11 orders for plans arrived over the four days we were sailing. Maybe there was a real business in this?

A friend who had recently opened a small marine woodworking business in Annapolis offered to make kits for the kayaks. We outgrew his shop in 6 months. Another acquaintance had a larger shop and we outgrew that shop in about as many months.

John Harris, who had worked at that second shop, suggested that I hire him and simply open my own manufacturing facility. So I did. CLC grew and grew. Soon my wife quit her job to join the company and we hired several more employees.

Why the transition to Velo?

I sold CLC and we retired for about six years. I was, frankly, burned out. We traveled, sailed, cycle-toured and enjoyed time spent with our young son. Eventually I got a bit bored and decided to start a little company to sell some of the cycling components and accessories I liked, but were very hard to find in the USA. The plan was to have a little part-time business. I guess I got carried away because now, 5 year later, we have hundreds of our own products and sell to over 400 shops and custom builders in a dozen countries, as well as through our own e-store. We've outgrown our offices and warehouse twice and today have a staff of 11.

Any inspiration from Rivendell?

Not really. I knew that Rivendell existed and even considered getting a Riv frame once. But the fancy lugs, two-tone paint, tweedy aesthetic are just not my style. Most of the bikes I've owned have been French, or French-inspired like my Ebisu. So that's the sort of bikes I was drawn to. The French custom builders, or constructeurs, developed the most comfortable and advanced randonneuring and light-touring bikes of all time, and that's what inspires VO

Are you still sailing, paddling, riding?

We sold our big boat a few years ago, though we still have a Dyer “Daysailer.” I only go paddling occasionally. I often enjoy cycling, particularly long leisurely rides in the countryside. And I'm flailing away at becoming a competent longboard surfer.

Your business trajectory brings to mind Yvon Chouinard. Any influence there?

My main sport from the age of 16 into my late 20s was climbing, rock, big wall, ice, alpine. So I first heard of Yvon as a climber, even met him a couple of times. I also used his pitons, nuts, ice axes, and other climbing gear. Even today at least half the clothes in my closet have Patagonia labels. So, yes, I've followed Great Pacific Iron Works and Patagonia for decades and been greatly influenced by them.

What are your feelings on the current CLC?

I like what they are doing. John Harris, the current owner, was the shop manager at CLC since the very beginning. He is a skilled builder, but more importantly a supremely talented designer. I like his new boats a lot and drop by the CLC shop every few weeks to see what's new.

Whats next?

After two companies (three if you count VO Imports, our wholesale distribution company) I'd like to share some of the lessons I've learned with entrepreneurs in emerging economies. An organization like SCORE, but in developing countries, might be of use.

I really enjoy building companies and developing products, but running the day-to-day operations of a company is not something I find exciting. So I'll eventually look into selling or merging VO with a bigger company. But for now we are still growing and having fun.

Orange seems very clean, spare and direct (to the point). How'd it get that way?

That is simply the style that we like. Our web designer, Kyle, deserves most of the credit for translating our desire for a simple, but elegant, aesthetic into HTML.

Do you randonnuer?

No, at least not in organized events. A few years ago we went touring in France and we realized that we most enjoyed riding no more than 50 miles or so a day. And we like to stop for a long lunch at a nice restaurant, and visit some of the art shops and harbors and vineyards we pass. It's probably a sign of impending old age. So I stopped doing organized rides, save for the occasional local charity event.

What do you ride, sail, paddle?

I most often ride a custom VO Pass Hunter built by Ahren Rodgers, though I also have access to various VO prototype and production bikes. As for sailing, we have the Dyer “Daysailer”, but are considering buying another cruising boat. We also enjoy our two Klepper folding kayaks.

What did you learn during the CLC years that carried over to Velo Orange?

We learned that it was crucial to communicate with our customers and to be sure that information flows both ways. We learn a lot from the folks who use our products, often making improvements and developing new products based on their suggestions and observations. At VO this has become very easy with the blog.

Another valuable lesson is to hire the best employees; try to hire people that are smarter and more talented than you are.

And we learned to continually improve our products. It drives the factories that make our components batty, but almost every production run has some tiny improvement.

Whats your take on the symbiosis between cycling and sailing?

I'm not sure I know, but here are two observations. First, traveling relatively slowly in a pleasant environment is what I most enjoy, be it in a boat, on cross-country skis, on a bike, or on foot. That is the way that the countryside or the ocean are best appreciated.

A special part of cycling is the rhythmic effort, not only pedals spinning, but enjoying how your effort is in tune with the terrain. It's also low-stress exercise that, with time, becomes almost like meditation. Cross country skiing and sliding-seat rowing are the only other sports where I experience this as fully. Sailing also has a certain rhythm, but it's quite different.

VO and especially Grand Cru, and the CLC boats belie a sensitive, developed aesthetic. Where did that come from?

It's important to study the masters that came before you. Study the best effort of great boat designers or bicycle designers and try to incorporate the lessons you learn. I don't mean copying technical details, but rather trying to emulate the beauty in their designs. I've long believed that, all else being equal, the prettier boat will sail better. Perhaps it's only because her crew appreciates her and tries harder. A similar lesson probably applies to bicycles.

At CLC and at VO we spend a lot of time, an awful lot of time, considering not only if something works as it should, but also if it looks right.

Thanks to Chris for this interview:

Pertinent websites are:

Chesapeake Light Craft


and Chris' Blog and Tweets @ Velo ORANGE

and a generous offering of photos via PicasaWeb

Stay tuned for an interview with John C Harris.