TopKayaker.Net's Guide To Sit-on-top Kayak Designers

Hunt & Judy JohnsenAn Interview  with
Kayak Designer Hunt Johnsen

Cobra Kayaks has given world-wide exposure to the Wave Witch; a high performance rotomolded polyethylene surf kayak; but the roots of the Wave Witch come from the fiberglass & kevlar designs of Hawaii's Hunt Johnsen.

Cobra Wave Witch"I believe The Cobra Wave Witch was a breakthrough design for the mass market. It is elegant, it paddles and surfs like its composite sisters and yet is inexpensive. It can be used by a novice right out of the box, and is already proving to be popular for women because of its small size and lightweight.

Incidentally, the design is not a one-trick-pony; it is a capable small sea kayak as well as a surf machine. Judy paddles her Witchlet 10-20 miles at a time on a fairly regular basis in the open water off Oahu."

Martin Leonard III
Photo by Spinnaker Wyss-Johnsen
at Yukutak, Alaska. Rider: Martin Leonard III. 

The Interview:

QUESTION: "Where are your roots? How long have you been designing? What got you started designing kayaks?"

HUNT: "My interest in boat design goes way back. In the early fifties my parents bought one of the early Skip Creeger catamarans, and my father knew Woody Brown, surfer and designer of the original "Manu Kai" beach cat, so I was exposed to some fairly radical boats at an early age. While in high school, we had a 19' Lightning, and I crewed on 110s and Thistles as well.

My notebooks were filled with boat designs as well as hypersonic aircraft and spaceships and I devoured the writings of Atkins, Chapelle and the Herreschoffs."

"My first kayak was a stringer and canvas Greenland style boat built around 1961 for use around Lanikai, here on Oahu.

I got into sit-on-top design after a long detour through outrigger canoes, multi-hulls and bigger boats, construction, Hang-gliding, and back into surfing in the early '80s where I saw the Shane wave skis out in the line up.

QUESTION: "Were you inspired by other kayak designers and if so who?"

Hunt Johnsen designHUNT: "Chapelle's "Skin and Bark Boats of North America" is a wonderful reference and source of inspiration. The early fiberglass Ocean Kayak designed by Tim Neimier and built by Mike Crips got me thinking about kayaks again in the early eighties, and the Shane Wave Skis gave me another shove in that direction.

Having already been impressed with the original Ocean Kayak as a sit-on-top cruiser, I thought it would be possible to design a boat that would surf better than the Niemier design, and paddle better than the Shane.

The first attempt was too small, but the second try worked really well and was the basis for the 12' 6" original Wave Witch." 

work in progressQUESTION: "What materials or process do you prefer to use in developing your designs?"

HUNT: "I like shaping surfboards freehand, but for the boats I usually start with small drawings, cartoons if you will, and then loft them out full size to get the frame or station patterns. My few stitch and glue plywood kayaks were really cut and try jobs until I got the patterns just right."

"The original Wave Witch was developed using sheets of Clark polyurethane foam laid up in a female stringer mold. The inside is glassed and you then have a hollow and light blank to shape. Glass the outside, and you have a light and rigid prototype to play with. I still use this method to build most of my plugs, though once in a while I have shaped a block of poly bead foam. My first fiberglass boat was a 16' outrigger built in the 60's and I blew and hand shaped a polyurethane blank - the fumes almost did me in."

QUESTION: "Any formal training in design? When? Where?"

HUNT: "Actually, my college degree is in Marine Zoology, but I started in aeronautical engineering and I've been designing stuff since grade school. I've designed and built a submarine, a glider, geodesic domes, half a dozen houses, and a lot of boats, including a couple of 45' multi-hulls and a 36' commercial fishing boat."

witchletQUESTION: "What specific models can be attributed to your influence or design efforts?

HUNT: "My kayak designs in fiberglass or composite construction currently in production include the Wave Witch Witchlet, the Wave Witch Horizon, and the recent update of the original "Classic" Wave Witch.

There's the Cobra Kayaks "Wave Witch" in rotomolded linear polyethylene.

Several years ago I built a few racing boats called the "Cheetah". One of these, a 35lbs foam-core epoxy and kevlar sit-in version, was successfully paddled through the Northwest Passage by Martin Leonard III."

QUESTION: "What do you feel or what have others said may be your most important contribution to the evolution of the sit-on-top?"

HUNT: "Beauty. The design of a family of boats that successfully combine excellent in-the curl surfing ability with paddling speed and stability.

The boats are all very forgiving and easy for the novice; yet offer excellent performance in most conditions. The use of a foot bar controlled under-hull spade rudder as standard equipment is a fairly major innovation."


QUESTION: "Is there a kayak you have some special regard for and why?"

HUNT: "It changes, but right now I really enjoy my kevlar Witchlet. I designed the Witchlet in 1994 in response to a request for a boat that would handle tight, fast waves, specifically Ma'alia Bay on Maui.

witchlet in surfThe prototype was so light and cute that I made one for myself, one for my wife, Judy, and then we sent two to the 1995 World Kayak Surfing Contest in Costa Rica where, ridden by Spinnaker Wyss-Johnsen and Martin Leonard III, they won both Men's and Women's events in the sit-on-top class.

(The B.C.U. then holding the next World competition, changed the rules, eliminating fiberglass or composite boats from competing in the sit-on-top class.)"

usa witchlet"My boats are elegant without being gimmicky."

QUESTION: "What role do you see your designs playing in the future of sit-on-top kayaking?"

HUNT: "Hopefully they will bring a little simplicity and taste back to kayak design. I think many of the boats now in production try to do too much and as a consequence are cluttered and often ugly and slow.

Hunt Johnsen design

At Tom's
TopKayaker Shop:


Paddle Leash
Use a paddle leash in surf & wind (NOT in whitewater) to maintain control of your kayak. Cobra Fin

Surf Kayak Fins/Skegs
The addition of skegs/fins add performance, increases the ability of the Kaos Finkayak to hold position while trimming along the wave face and aids in tracking.

We carry fins for both the Cobra Revision & W.S. / Dagger KaosSurf Helmet

These water sport helmets can be used for all paddling disciplines that can involve risk, such as white water rafting, river boogie, rock gardens and sea caves.

My boats are elegant without being gimmicky. Their form follows their function, and they are proof that you can combine paddling ease and speed with a planing hull that behaves well on a wave. The use of an under-hull spade rudder on a kayak is also innovative and at this point controversial, but it works so well that we will probably see it used more widely.

QUESTION: "What kind of paddling/boating do you enjoy doing most these days and what is your favorite model to do it in? Favorite places to go?"

HUNT: "My paddling is pretty much limited to surfing, cruising is too much like work. I prefer a new "Classic" for "big" waves (I'm too old and chicken for stuff over 8' or so), as it is very fast, but I like the little Witchlet for hot-dog surfing in small and medium size waves. It turns on a dime and I can hold it down in serious whitewater. I surf a relatively unknown break out at Sand Island Park here on Oahu. The few surfers who know about the spot are tolerant of an old guy on a boat and get stoked when the old fart shreds."

QUESTION: "What is your slant on the growing popularity of the sit-on-top kayak?"

HUNT: "The sit-on-top concept is so inherently user-friendly that its continued popularity is assured. I came to kayaking through the back door - I surfed boards. The idea of being inside a kayak in the surf spooked me. If it were not for the sit-on-top concept I wouldn't have gotten involved in kayak surfing at all. As it is, I have to admit I've not yet learned to roll, although doing so in a Wave Witch is very easy. It is so easy to get back into a Witch that it is not an issue. I have a brand new Kimo Green tanker surfboard that doesn't get used because surfing the kayaks is so easy. I can catch a whole lot more waves with the boat, and even small stuff is overhead."

Hunt & JudyQUESTION: "What other projects have you been up to?"

HUNT: "Judy and I spend a lot of time just maintaining the shop with its population of cats, fish, bufos and plants. We've developed some optional equipment for the Cobra Wave Witch - breakwater moldings and flexible cast urethane rudders.

Believe it or not, I'm working with an e-group of designers and engineers and eventually I'm hoping to help build a reusable single stage to orbit spaceship.

The same techniques used to build lightweight kayaks can be applied to lightweight fuel tanks and aero shells. If NASA won't do it, we will. Lots of us old hippies are still space cadets."




Cobrakayaks.com or TopKayaker.net's Classifieds


Basic Surfing Techniques - Contributed by the British Canoe Union Surf Committee. This is a beautifully done manual on surfing manoeuvres Originally published at The Watershed-UK.


The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America by Howard I. Chapelle

Boatbuilding : A Complete Handbook of Wooden Boat
Construction by Howard I. Chapelle

The Sailor's Handbook by Halsey C. Herreshoff

American Small Sailing Craft by Howard I. Chapelle

Guide to the Haffenreffer-Herreshoff Collection : The Design Records of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, Bristol, Rhode Island by Kurt Hasselbalch

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