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Walker Bay: 60,000 dinghies and counting

Early last year Walker Bay, of Yakima, Wash., launched its Genesis family of polypropylene RIBs and Odyssey line of air- and wood-floor “rollup” inflatables through 25 dealers, a number that has grown to 300.

From apple crates to dinghies to rigid-hull inflatables, Macro Plastics is using the world’s largest injection-molding machine to shake up some old-line industries. In agriculture, the company is replacing wooden produce crates with Macro-made plastic bins, and its WalkerBay subsidiary is transforming boating by replacing small-boat fiberglass hulls with tough, lightweight plastic ones.

Early last year Walker Bay, of Yakima, Wash., launched its Genesis family of polypropylene RIBs and Odyssey line of air- and wood-floor “rollup” inflatables through 25 dealers, a number that has grown to 300. WalkerBay ( ) already was one of the world’s largest dinghy builders, with more than 60,000 8- and 10-foot polypropylene dinks sold since 1998, when it started manufacturing them.

“We sell a lot of dinghies,” says WalkerBay marketing director Michael Carroll. “We might even be called ‘King of the Dinghies.’ ”

From the get-go, WalkerBay has tried to set itself apart. Aside from the polypropylene hulls, its dinghies are available with optional inflatable collars for stability (the rigid inflatable dinghy) and wheels at the stern for ease of launch and retrieval. The company also offers kits to accessorize a WalkerBay for rowing, motoring or sailing — or all three. Cost of the dinghies is usually comparable to or a couple hundred dollars below the competition’s. WalkerBay used much the same formula — unique design, polypropylene hull and affordable price — to launch its lines of RIBs and inflatables.

The brand has gained a reputation for being rock-solid in value and quality and has given inflatable dealers something new to whip up excitement in a market niche that WalkerBay figures to be 130,000 units globally. The company thinks it can grab a big share of that — like it did with dinghies, with its durable, low-maintenance polypropylene hulls. The company plans to expand beyond its current Genesis, Odyssey and dinghy models to other small boats, including a center-console inflatable in 2008.

The engine driving Walker Bay’s rapid expansion into the marine industry is Macro Plastic’s injection-molding machine — the world’s largest — which cranks out big plastic bins for Washington State’s apple industry and for vegetable and fruit growers around the country. Macro led the change from wood to plastic crates in U.S. agriculture, and three years ago there were more than a million of its bins in use around the country. Yet the big injection-molding machine, which cost millions to build, had — and still has — plenty of excess capacity.

Carroll credits Macro’s Italian founders, the Carlo Rista family, with the entrepreneurial vision to branch out from crate-making to boatbuilding. Avid yachtsmen, the Ristas are third-generation textile manufacturers that emigrated to South Africa in 1965 to produce textiles. In 1985 they built a plant in Fairfield, Calif., to make plastic crates for the wine and stone fruit industry. Today the family lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, where WalkerBay has its corporate offices, a lifestyle choice dictated in part by the Ristas’ love for boating.

“Our shareholders are keen boaters,” says WalkerBay’s Carroll. “They had found that running a dinghy was an awful experience. They thought they ought to be able to build a better one with a one-piece hull and classic lapstrake look.” And build it out of polypropylene. “The classic WalkerBay dinghy was born, and that put us in the business.”

Rista’s son, Paolo, designed and product-tested the dinghy and inflatable lines. Paolo is an artist, boat designer and one-time professional boardsailor who understands both injection-molding technology and the hydrodynamics and performance characteristics of small boats.

Injection molding is widely used in making small plastic parts, but the machinery for manufacturing pieces the size of a hull is expensive and the engineering to build the molds formidable. Carroll says the Italian-made stainless steel molds number 40 for the inflatable line alone and cost millions to design and build. But their life span is long, and the manufacturing technology is a world away from the tedious process of laying up resin-impregnated fiberglass.

In injection molding, polypropylene pellets are heated to 180 C and injected into a 70-ton mold at five injection points under extremely high pressure. In 120 seconds the machine pops out a hull — with flawless finish, Carroll says.

With plenty of excess capacity, the plant can crank up production on demand and grow the boat lines as needed. The only real constraint: 11 feet is about the largest piece this machine can handle. The company is confident the success of its dinghy line has paved the way for polypropylene in inflatable and other small-boat hulls, and Carroll says serious competition in the polypropylene boat market is unlikely because of the cost of buying injection-molding equipment in the size needed to produce hulls.

“This is the biggest injection-molding machine in the world. It’s the only one in North America,” he says. “We’re able to do it because our parent company owns it. There’s not enough demand in the marine industry for anything to fill the capacity of this machine.”

WalkerBay, which sells dinghies in 50 countries and designs its hulls to stack neatly in containers for export, expects demand for inflatables to keep growing. Its Genesis RIBs come in three sizes — 8 feet, 10 inches; 10 feet, 2 inches; and 11 feet, 2 inches. They are available with a folding or rigid transom and either fully tricked out or stripped-down in a lighter, cheaper version.

Carroll rattles off the Genesis features: tough, one-piece hull; wheels recessed in the stern for one-person launches; channeled vee hull for maneuverability and smooth ride; replaceable tube that slides on and off an aluminum track; folding aluminum transom for easy stowage without its tube; fixed trim tabs for ease of planing with small outboards or heavier 4-strokes; telescopic oars; ergonomic seats with stowage beneath and removable cup trays; removable folding polypropylene floor with space underneath for fuel lines; tapered tube and wide bow for more room; and replaceable urethane keel strip to protect the hull when beaching. With a 25-hp outboard on its 11-foot Genesis or 15-hp on the 10-footer, the boats plane in less than three seconds, reaching speeds of 25 knots, according to Walker Bay.

The Odyssey and Genesis lines comprise 21 models, priced from $1,049.99 for a stripped-down 7-foot, 11-inch Odyssey inflatable with polyvinylchloride tube and slatted wooden floor, to $3,899.99 for an 11-foot, 2-inch deluxe Genesis RIB with Hypalon tube and folding polypropylene floor.

“We are one to be watching,” Carroll says.