Pete Astles: Kayak Session interview
Pete was recently interviewed by the Kayak Session team to discuss thirty years of Peak UK, kayaking carnage, environmental causes and much more...
Words: Philippe Doux & Anna Bruno | Photography: Courtesy of Peak UK
For some, getting mononucleosis at what was poised to be the start of your slalom career would be ruinous. For Pete Astles, it was the start of something bigger. The founder of Peak UK reflects on 30 years of success, sharing a story of passion, dedication, and love. His humble genius took Peak UK from a few items manufactured in a friend’s warehouse to a global brand. More impressive than his eye for innovation is Pete’s continued desire to give back. Pete - and Peak UK - aren’t sitting on success. Instead, they are working to create a new legacy and a new vision for the industry: one where paddlesports has as close to zero environmental impact as possible.
How did it all start for you? Rumour has it, your parents were runners and climbers who made you wait until you could swim before joining the local paddle club. True?
Yeah, that’s right. I grew up in the Lake District, a great place for outdoor activities. My dad took me fell running and orienteering, but I was not very good at it and found it really tough. I loved the lakes where we grew up and always had a yearning to get out on the water. To join the local canoe club, you had to swim 50 meters, two full lengths of our local pool. I was nine when I finally made it down and back.
The 4As Canoe Club, 1980. Pete’s the sprog in the ribbed PFD at the front left.
Why was kayaking so attractive at that early age? What was the club scene like in England at the time?
In Ambleside, where I lived, there was an outdoor education college.The head there was a guy called Colin Mortlock, an inspirational sea kayaker and adventurer. He started a local adventure association called the 4As (the Ambleside Area Adventure Association) to give local people, especially kids, a chance to take up outdoor activities such as fell-running, climbing, and kayaking. He got his students to run the club as part of their course. This was 1979, the club scene was thriving. Many slalom clubs were based around the main university cities of Leeds, Manchester, Chester, and Stafford. Stafford & Stone was the best club, with Richard Fox, Melvyn Jones, Ken Langford, and more. Today that club is still booming, producing champions like Joe Clarke. Sadly, the 4As finished many years ago...
With such a strong local scene, what inspired the move to Nottingham?
Until I was 17 and could drive, my parents would take me up and down the country to races and training every weekend. I trained on a little river in Ambleside called the Rothay. I had six gates, and most days, the local anglers would cut them down!! So it was pretty tough. In 1986, the whitewater course opened in Nottingham. As kids, we'd raised money to help build it, and as a GB Junior team member, I was invited to paddle at the official opening. The course was amazing: world-class whitewater, 365 days a year. It was a dream compared to my six gates on the Rothay. I’d head down to Nottingham any way I could, even catching the train. I’d stay with my friend and later Olympic Silver medalist Gareth Marriott. As soon as I could drive, I headed down there for good.
Who was your paddling hero? Richard Fox or Shaun Baker?
Richard Fox, for sure. I saw him win the world championships in Bala, Wales, in 1981. From that point on, I was hooked on slalom, and Richard was definitely my hero. Later on, I got to know Richard really well, even training with him during my time in Nottingham. My claim to slalom fame is beating Rich in a head-to-head pool slalom at the Crystal Palace International Canoe Exhibition in 1990. I think that year would have been a good one for my racing....
How did you finance life in those early days?
I didn’t enjoy school, so I left without doing my exams. I was into photography and started my own business taking pictures. The government would pay you £50 a week plus your rent to start a company, so I took the cash and went training!! I did take a few pictures and sold some to P&H, a local kayak manufacturer (now owned by Pyranha). They needed someone to manage their kayak shop in Nottingham and offered me the job. I was 18-years-old, and they gave me a shop, with the keys and a cheque book, and told me to sell kit.
What motivated the shift from being a slalom bum working in a kayak shop to making your own kit?
In 1990, I was twenty, living and training in Nottingham, working at No Limits when I caught glandular fever (mononucleosis) and couldn't train for six months, so my mind wandered in other directions. The gear in the shop fit badly. The colours were terrible, and the fabrics very basic. I had no formal qualifications and no background in textiles or business, but I started to play with designs of kayak jackets and PFDs. With the help of a couple of friends, we made some prototypes. My mates, all being top racers, wanted to buy them. I borrowed some cash off my father, purchased some fabric, foam, and a sewing machine, and started Peak UK!
Do you still remember the first piece of gear you made?
Yeah, purple and black racer long and short-sleeved jackets and a matching racer PFD featuring pretty cool breathable fabrics. I have one still on our sample rail.
What was the community reaction to your early attempts? Were you off and running from the get-go?
The gear was an instant hit and I quickly added more products. A drytop and polo PFD came next. From there, the business grew from hand to mouth. For the first year, I lived rent-free at my mate’s house, making gear in his backroom. I had a weekend job in the same friend’s cycle warehouse, which meant I could re-invest any cash I made into expanding the range. I added more and more products each year until the business could stand up for itself.
You also significantly influenced the paddling scene by importing brands like Riot Kayaks and Necky. How did you transition from making gear in a friend’s house to being one of the most influential companies in the industry?
We were in the right place at the right time. In 1997, we opened our own Peak UK shop at the whitewater course in Nottingham. Due to there being another paddling shop close by, we couldn't get any UK kayak brand accounts. I stumbled across Corran Addison and the Riot Hammer in Playboating Magazine. When Corran sent me a VHS tape with the Offspring soundtrack,I was instantly blown away by the wave moves those guys were doing at Lachine in Montreal and thought,“I must have one of those boats.”Within a couple of weeks, we were importing Riot Kayaks just before the playboat evolution exploded. A few weeks later, at the Outdoor Show in Friedrichshafen, I bumped into Mike Neckar and Spike Gladwin, a friend from the No Limits days and Necky designer. They gave me a Rip and a Jive to take back to Nottingham. We were now the UK importers for the most advanced two playboating brands in the world. Sales went through the roof over the next three or four years. Every few months was like Christmas. We had a new toy to take on the course and new tricks to learn. Great times. When I hear that Offspring soundtrack, the hairs on the back of my neck still stand up!
In addition to importing the boats, you also contributed to developing the freestyle scene with the Peak UK Whitewater Challenge. What was the inspiration for these events?
The first whitewater challenge we ran was at Nottingham in 1997. We were crazy about paddling, fired up by Riot and Necky. I invented the event format as a one boat event that combined freestyle, extreme slalom, and downriver events to find an overall champion, usually me! We gave gear prizes, including kayaks, paddles, and kit to the entry-level fun paddlers.We rewarded effort ahead of performance, and yes, we had parties! My favourite bands came and played, and we loved and lived every minute of it. The event became a series of seven around the UK. They were the introduction to competition to many future champions, including Claire O’Hara and James Bebbington.
Later, you brought that competition model to both Nepal and the Zambezi. Why there? Are those events still happening?
I became very fond of Nepal, going there every year for around six weeks to run rivers, trek, mountaineer, and bike. We ran the Peak UK Himalayan Challenge off the back of Pete Knowles’s Nepal Rodeo for ten years. Ours and Pete’s legacy continues on there even now. We also ran a whitewater challenge on the Zambezi in 2003. The event involved downriver racing from Vic Falls to just above rapid number 9, slaloming rapid number 7, and freestyling below Livingstone Bridge. Amazing times. Unfortunately, politics put us off going to the Zambezi again.
For some, those were the days... How did you do it all?
I had a good team. We thrived on and loved every minute of it. We loved the boats we imported, the gear we made, and the sport that shaped our lives. It was easy. I have great memories of pioneering new paddling skills and making life-long friends. Corran Addison was part of our 30th Birthday celebrations a couple of days ago in our online pub quiz.
Pete and Team Peak legend Babu in Nepal
What is your role in the company today? You are in the driver’s seat; do you also remain involved in R&D?
Yes. We’re a small team of nine pretty hands-on people. I'm involved in most things on most days. R&D, for sure, is my main job and is most rewarding. Since COVID and the increased importance of having a safe and clean working environment, I've even been cleaning the kitchen and restrooms regularly! Anything to keep my team safe.
The whitewater industry is quite small. How have you managed as a company to expand and grow, whilst still remaining true to your core values? What inspires your product development?
At Peak UK we’ve always followed our own paddling interests. We’ve basically made gear for ourselves, not for commercial success. When I started I was a slalom racer, so I made top class slalom kit. I played polo, so we made polo PFDs. I paddled freestyle and whitewater, so we developed products for on the river. I later got into expedition sea kayaking, so we developed and evolved those products. More recently I’ve become a parent, so we’ve developed kids kit. We’ve had commercial success with everything we’ve made, so we are very lucky!!
Innovation has also been a driving force at Peak UK, and you have consistently brought new things to the table. Take the leg-entry drysuit, for instance. What is the process behind developing a concept like this? How long does it take?
I really like to bring groundbreaking innovation to the table, but not just a gimmick, something that really works well, that no one has done before.The leg entry one-piece is one of our finest inventions. My friend Hoopla, a fellow ideas man, suggested the leg-entry suit a few years before we launched it. We cut up his existing suit and fitted a knee to knee zip. You couldn’t get it on!! So, we shelved the idea. A couple of years later, we decided to add drysuits to our line, and I wanted to do something special, so I started to play with the leg entry idea again. By extending the zip all the way to your ankles, it was possible to climb in... Although at that time, the dry-zips were metal and far too stiff to go around the legs, so it was back on the shelf. A year later, TiZip launched its plastic Masterseal zip, which was flexible enough to go around the legs. Boom, project done!
Among other creations and successes is the Racer ST, a game-changer for competitive paddlers.Tell us a bit more about the process behind the ST.
Again, the Racer ST was a few years in the making. Many of my friends are top racers. They would always ask me for thinner PFDs, and I started wondering whether some of the flotation foam could go into the spray deck. By putting 40 mm of foam in the spray deck, we could half the foam on the body, giving athletes a considerable performance advantage. I studied the ISO PFD safety regulations, and nowhere does it state that the buoyancy foam must be on the upper torso. I quizzed the testing governing body in confidence, and they did not see a problem with repositioning the buoyancy foam into the spraydeck. The first sample was made before the London Olympics, but the project was delayed due to testing complications.
Were you inspired at all by Harishok Life Deck?
The Racer ST was inspired in part by the 1980s life deck that had all of its buoyancy within the spraydeck. This was later banned as it was deemed to be unsafe. The old life decks were very crude, flimsy, and insecure.The Racer ST is refined, secure, and is tested for strength and swimming safety, so very different.
What is the story behind the fact that only team GB could use it at the Rio Olympics? Why keep such a design secret?
One of my best friends is Paul Ratcliffe. He was Team GB’s head coach. They have a marginal gains program that works on finding small areas where performance can be improved. They hired a team of experts to find improvements in equipment. Independently, they suggested that the PFD’s foam could go into the spray deck. Knowing in confidence what I had already designed, Paul asked if we would be willing to make it exclusively for Team GB at the Rio Olympics. It was a huge risk to go with one team only, but in 2016 most athletes used a different gear brand, not ours, so we had nothing to lose. We kept the project secret, testing garments in the early hours on the Lee Valley Whitewater Course right up to the games. Joe Clarke won the gold medal wearing the Racer ST, and orders immediately followed. Now, our team includes most of the finest racers on the planet, including Mallory Franklyn, Peter Kauzer, Jiri Prskavec, Evy Leibfarth, and Hanes Aigner, to name a few.
What is the process to prove to the ICF you have a valid product that should be allowed in competition?
With the ST, we followed the ICF’s competition rules exactly. Firstly, the PFD must meet the ISO 12402 standard. Then, you must send the ICF technical committee a sample and test certificate so that it can be added to their official register. In 2016, once they received the Racer ST, the ICF made us jump through several more hoops before finally adding it to their registered list for the games because they knew that it would provide a considerable advantage. After Rio, there was unrest regarding the Racer ST exclusiveness, so the rules were modified, giving a deadline to submit future garments to the ICF by January 1st, 2020. To avoid any future misunderstandings, we have worked with the ICF and other brands to create an acceptable set of PFD rules for 2022 that remove any previously grey areas.
Is the design complete, or are you still working to refine it?
For the 2020 games, we took the Racer ST a couple of steps further. By engineering the strength of the shell fabric, we removed all of the garment's body straps, removed all of the garment’s front foam and added it to the spray deck, and we made it secure for swimming with the addition of a crotch strap.We had a whole world of fun and games to be race-legal yet again, but we did it. This time we plan to supply every nation and hope to see the ST bring back many medals. Bring on Tokyo 2021!
More recently, Peak UK has also devoted significant energy to being more environmentally friendly and making gear more sustainably, introducing the Peak ECO line and ethos. What are you doing differently?
Firstly, we scrapped all of our plastic packaging. Now, your item comes only with a small recycled cardboard hangtag attached with hemp string. No bag, sorry. We’ve saved tons of single-use plastic by not supplying poly bags. We are also manufacturing our products from more sustainable materials. All of our new jackets are made from fabric woven from recycled yarns, some up to 100 percent. We are using CFC-free water-repellent finishes on garments and are removing PVC and CFCs from all of our products. The pocket zips are now made from recycled polyethylene, and the neoprene is Bioprene, which features recycled yarns and rubber expanding agents sourced from seafood and shellfish industry waste.
The new Adventure Double Evo - 100% recycled fabric and sustainable Bioprene neoprene.
It’s ironic; kayaking (and outdoor sports in general) use fabrics and a manufacturing process that is quite bad for the environment, all while advocating for river health and fighting dams in the name of a cleaner world. Do you think the industry can have (close to) zero environmental impact?
Yes, it is ironic. Sadly, almost everything paddlesports is derived from oil, and one day goes to landfill. But, we’re learning to make better and better sustainable products all of the time. Recycled fabrics and sustainable materials are becoming more common, which is a good move in the right direction. I am currently lobbying my suppliers to create environmentally-friendly materials such as webbing and buoyancy foam, which will use less oil. It’s always been a question of quality in addition to environmentally-friendly. Fortunately, our products last and are used for many years. Speaking of, I’m really keen to repurpose old used paddlesports garments. I’m talking with Derby University to work on a solution for what we can do with our gear when it reaches the end of its usable life. Any suggestions? Building insulation or construction materials, perhaps... Materials and manufacturing aside, collectively, the paddlesports community could offset the bad by caring for our environment. It doesn’t have to start with much, even a simple river clean.
You have already begun this process. Is that true that starting in 2021, you will pay your staff to go and clean rivers?
Last year, we went on strike with Greta Thunberg and closed the factory. Instead of sending them home, I made my staff team come out and clean the river and river banks. I'm planning to make this a monthly occurrence, where we pay regular wages, close the factory, and look after our environment. We’ve become guardians of the river. I want to make Black Friday an annual industry-wide river clean day, where globally, we all shut shop and get out and clean our local playground. Are you in?
This is in addition to the work you are doing with Paddle Peak. What is the goal behind this project?
Paddle Peak is a local community project in the Derwent Valley, where we are based.The vision is to improve access to our local rivers and lakes. In Derbyshire, there is only one kilometer of the river Derwent where we can paddle un-challenged by the local angling community.You cannot paddle anywhere within the Peak District National Park.How can our sport grow or inspire people if we're not welcome on the water? Our goal is to responsibly share the river with other users and coexist in harmony. Sadly, our goal is not mutual yet. To help fight that battle, we organize regular river clean-ups. Last year we did a mammoth 27-kilometers of the river over a week-long period, removing every piece of plastic and rubbish possible. We also want to inspire and enable all local youngsters to try paddles- ports and take them up if they like it. I’d love to see a future Olympic Champion from the Derwent Valley. I was inspired by Colin Mortlock back in Ambleside. I want to give all our local kids the chance Colin gave me all those years ago. Watch this space.
When you look back at 30 years with Peak, is it a bittersweet success, or was it destiny? Would you do it all again?
Good question. It was an amazing journey. I loved every minute of it, and I wouldn't change a thing. I was a skinny little indie kid back then and not strong enough to go fast enough to win. However, I later returned to competitive kayaking a stronger and better boater and was the top European finisher at the gnarliest freestyle worlds ever in Graz, Austria, in 2003. Still, the business was probably the best move. 30 years have passed so quickly; we've achieved so much, with so many highs and very few lows. I'm very proud of our achievements so far and look forward to the future.
Despite giving up a career as a slalom racer, do you think all those years of competition and training proved instrumental?
Yes, I would say so. Slalom racing taught me a lot. You always chased The Ultimate Run (a good read by Bill Endicott about the Bala worlds, by the way), not the win. If you ever achieved the ultimate run, chances are you won anyway! I’d say I’m a perfectionist, always chasing the ultimate run. I also think the key to my starting Peak with little or no financial investment was the fact I was so young and able to live on very little income. As you get older, you gain financial responsibilities, such as homes, loans, and families. Starting a business from scratch is a huge risk.
As a perfectionist, have any moments brought you close to the feeling of the ultimate run?
Building our very own premises in 2012 in Darley Dale was a huge milestone, as was being riverside when our friends Baillie/Stott and Hounslow/Florence won gold and silver at the London Olympics. Watching Joe Clarke win in Rio wearing the Racer ST was pretty special. So much time and effort went into that journey, and Joe winning was the icing on the cake. The launch of Paddle Peak and taking 240 local kids paddling on the Cromford Canal last year was hard to beat. And more recently, running rapids on the river Derwent with my six-year-old son Alfie was pretty cool too...
Alfie Astles on Cromford Canal
It really is remarkable to see what you have done, and it is not over. What is the future you would like to see for the sport?
Post COVID lockdown, there has been an enormous surge in participation in the outdoors and paddlesports. Let’s hope as things return to some kind of normalcy that the new paddlers will continue to enjoy the water as much as we do. Locally, as soon as we’re through this epidemic, I want to start a community riverside base. I want to give the local kids the chance to try paddlesports, experience the outdoors, and care for their environment. Let's give people, especially the young and less fortunate, the opportunity to try and experience our wonderful sport and its environment. Then we can inspire a new generation of people who will love, care for, and fight to protect rivers. People will only care for something they love. If they have no experience of it, then we cannot expect them to care for it. This is one of the goals of our Paddle Peak project.
What for you is the most important aspect of the whitewater community? What keeps the love alive after all these years?
Friendship. All of my friends are paddlers or somehow connected to paddling.They live all over the globe, and any one of them would make me welcome at their home anytime. I think that’s what makes us paddlers so special.
Do you have any advice for future entrepreneurs or those looking to start the next paddle company?
Do it. There are very few start-ups in our industry. I’d love to see some new, young upstart entrepreneurs exhibiting in next year’s Lyon show!! Bring it on! I want to see new passion and fire....
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