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Submitted: 05-15-2014 by EE

Charleston County Small Claims Court has ruled that South Carolina kayak manufacturer Folbot, must pay restitution to the plaintiff owner of a Cooper model kayak. Folbot advertising claims that the kayak exterior "kept water out," and that the craft was "designed for oceans" were challenged by the plaintiff whose St. Lawrence River expedition was cut short due to the unseaworthy kayak. The Cooper's failure to resist gushing from waves through inadequate zipper and Velcro closures was demonstrated in court with video recorded inside the boat.

Folbot CEO Eric Thome admitted seeing the leakage video last July and immediately telling the plaintiff to return the boat for full refund; he also admitted reneging on that offer. Folbot's counsel argued that all purchasers have an opportunity to return any boat without question within their standard 30-day warranty period but the plaintiff successfully argued that the product's closure system only revealed its flaws after repeated opening and closing.

While Mr. Thome touted the company's 80-year reputation for quality, it was pointed out that his "Death Valley Ventures LLC" had purchased the company only recently (2012). The current owner's reputation is still in the making, however, it doesn't bode well that while declining to appeal the court's decision, they've also declined to make restitution ordered by the judge.

The Folbot Cooper has to be my most expensive shopping fiasco – especially as the company accepts no responsibility for their product's failure and refuses to take the boat back for refund. When the sales rep recommended the Cooper to me, she was aware the boat would be used on an upcoming St. Lawrence River expedition. Folbot's catalog does boast that the boat is, "Designed for oceans, lakes and rivers," however, that couldn't be farther from the truth.

When taking waves along the starboard bow or over the stern deck, the boat quickly became unseaworthy as water poured into the deck zippers. Video demonstration available at YouTube "FOLBOT FOOL – Leaky Zipper"
The Folbot catalog proudly boast, "quick, easy gear access through zippered decks…Velcro storm flaps cover zippers to keep water out." Unfortunately, water also finds quick easy access and the flaps certainly did not prove reliable; after just 3 weeks of opening and closing (2-3 times daily) the Velcro had weakened so badly that a gap opened up allowing water to directly enter the zippers.

The company ran a gentle spray over one of their boats and discovered a trickle which they attributed to leakage through the stitched seams along the zipper, but they never subjected the boat to a blast of water equivalent to a strong wave. So, rather than looking at the possibility of a design problem, (i.e. Does the zipper flap need to be wider? Would higher quality Velcro improve seal? Is it even possible to waterproof a zipper? How can we prevent this issue?) they assigned me the responsibility for sealing these seams. Sure enough, the Cooper Owners Manual mentions, "If you plan to roll your Folbot or bury the gunwales frequently to turn abruptly, we suggest you apply a thin coat of this sealant to the joint between the deck and the hull on the inside of the skin." I never buried a gunwale.

Yet this whole business of customers obliged to seal their own seams does not sound entirely credible for folks selling boats. Isn't a normal boat buyer justified in expecting that a boat, by definition, will arrive water tight? After all, my rain jacket and tent arrived with sealed seams. Why is anyone out there selling boats that do not keep water out? Turns out others have had problems with leaky zippers and have posted online suggestions about plugging leaks with beeswax. Umm, sounds sticky to me but I'm sure neighborhood bears would love it.

Folbot has never been truthful in advertising and to add insult to injury, their lifetime warranty covers framework and skin for manufacturing defects but does not address their major design flaw. Just in case you hadn't heard enough to convince you to select another manufacturer's product, consider that pieces of my frame arrived too long and I had to saw them down to size and that Folbot's new Elvaloy
bottom material is nearly impossible to field patch as only an elaborate three part epoxy seems to stick.

I can't get Folbot to buy back my boat but I can help others avoid the same pitfall. I've learned that, "the bitter taste of poor quality lasts long after the sweet taste of a good price is forgotten." Perhaps I can help others avoid wasting money and compromising their security on a poorly designed boat. For me it's a moral issue – for boaters, it's an issue of safe paddling.

"In brief, we are sorry that this customer had issues, we have worked with her for more than a year to satisfy her needs and have already compensated her for more than half the value of her kayak. We work hard to match a kayak with its owner and its intended use but can only go so far. Our thousands of customers over the lifetime of Folbot's history can and do attest to our enduring innovation, high quality and excellent customer service.

In full, Folbot as a manufacturer and retailer of our folding kayaks went above and beyond to help this customer research, try and test her kayak before her planned trip. We involved most of our staff, previous customers and additional resources to meet this international customer’s needs. In general, we try our best to help each customer select the right kayak for them and their intended use but we cannot and do not claim to be experts on any waterways or conditions. This customer required a kayak that fit into a single bag for her travels and we focused on matching her and a traveling companion with either a Kiawah or a Cooper. After her receipt of the Cooper, for the next month we helped her trouble shoot minor issues over the phone, via email and with Skype and managed to satisfy her to the point she commented via an email in March, "I think we now love each other."

While she used the kayak daily in Italy she had some instances where she noticed water inside her kayak. While this is not common it is not unheard of either. In our Owner's Guide we discuss sealing the seams of our kayak to help minimize or prevent this. Then, we heard from her before her main trip that while hosing away raccoon prints from the kayak deck she noticed water inside the kayak. We tested the Cooper with a hose at the factory, spraying the full stream on the sewn lines of the deck/hull seam, the d-rings, and the storm flap on the stern of the kayak. Noticing water ourselves we repeated the test after sealing all the sewn lines on the bow of the boat. After the seal dried we applied the same, full force of the hose and noticed no water. We communicated our findings to the customer, re-emphasized the need to seal all the seams and felt as if we responded quickly and effectively to her latest need.

During her trip we started receiving communication from the customer and read on her blog about her issues with the kayak. Given her blog reports of extreme weather, with major rain and heavy wind gusts we understood the issue to be the extreme amounts of rain and waves that were causing unsafe conditions and disturbing her trip. We understood the conditions were so poor that her traveling companion was injured and forced to stop the trip. Our customer continued alone and continued to make negative statements about Folbot on her blog. At this point, we considered it a major customer service issue and, of course, a public relations issue. However, we read comments on her blog by her followers to the tune of, "I saw you paddling on the river today and could not believe you were actually out in those conditions."

As it turns out, the customer did not seal all the seams of her deck as we recommended. At the start of her trip the conditions were fair and she had no complaints about the performance of her kayak (even after she punctured the hull while packing her camp stove). However, once the weather turned for the worse, her kayak took on an unmanageable amount of water. The customer continued in these conditions for nearly another week before finally ending her trip.

Soon after the end of this trip she contacted us for a refund for her kayak. From all her descriptions of her paddling it seems as if the kayak performed as it was designed. From my notes, at that time I disagreed with her that the kayak was faulty. However, I offered her a 30% refund for a kayak she had used extensively for more than four months. She was unhappy with that amount and as her review fulfills, she said that she would "liberally add to our advertising campaign". I told her then that even if we refunded 100% of her money that I could not control what she said. Her reply was that she would be "much more likely to delete all negative posts if we gave her a full refund."

The back and forth went on for weeks and eventually I told the customer to return her kayak and I would give her money back. I never watched her videos but simply realized this was not worth the time and attention she was demanding. Since continued attempts to negotiate and after asking legal counsel about our options in this matter I finally realized that this would never end and chose to break off communications. I never reneged on any offer but I did stop reading and responding to the customer's messages.

Eventually I was legally obligated to face the customer as she sued Folbot in our local Small Claim Court. She flew herself and friend from Italy to Charleston to meet with us before a judge for less than two hours. The judge finally ruled that we owed her a partial refund because her kayak still had residual value. Slightly disappointed but glad that the event would be behind us, we followed the court's order and sent money to the customer. As the review shows, apparently this episode will continue. However, we will use it as an opportunity to improve the way we do business and hope to bring our customers better products and services.

And as a point of pride, I must say something about our manufacturing and quality. When I had the fortune of getting involved with Folbot a little over two years ago I inherited one of the finest crews of craftspeople I have ever dealt with. Their tenure with Folbot is from 10 to 32 years at this point and they have been with the company through all sorts of changes. They constantly strive to produce the finest kayaks - period. Their dedication to quality and the customer experience is what makes a Folbot a Folbot. I am proud that we employ six dedicated craftspeople in Charleston, SC to make wonderful kayaks we ship to customers all over the world.

Also, our materials are absolutely top of the line. We have made changes to materials and design and we learned about change, our process to manage change and customers' reaction to change. Our hull is seriously tough stuff to prevent issues and we have easy patches for when those issues happen. Our repair kit to add replacement material uses one tube of adhesive and we have offered it on our website since early 2013. We are dedicated not only to making the best kayaks but also to keeping them in the best condition.

As another point of pride, I must say we have some of the finest customers in the world. We are lucky to be in this industry and working to help people enjoy their health and the outdoors. The stories we hear of great times on the water with friends and family fuel us every day. In fact, most of our business comes from customer word-of-mouth. Thank you to everyone that paddles a Folbot and spreads the word about the folding kayaks you love. As always, please let us know if you need anything."

Eric Thome
President and CEO

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