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Tom & Nick On Walden PondBic Sport Kayaks - Field Review of the Bilbao & Tobago By Tom Holtey with remarks by fellow field testors. This review is NOT a paid advertisement. All Sit-on-top Manufacturer's are welcome to submit kayaks for a fair review by TopKayaker.Net

Bic Sport Kayaks, also the makers of Bic Windsurfers, surfboard & wake boards, has come out with a line of sit-on-tops and we had the opportunity to review the Bilbao and the tandem Tobago. Both the Bilbao and Tobago are recreational kayaks, made for fun on protected waters with modest wind and waves for relatively short trips. Photo by Dave Barnes

BicWe reviewed the two kayaks in several settings both on the ocean and on fresh water. We tested the kayaks on Squam Lake, NH, The New Hampshire seacoast and on Walden Pond, MA. Conditions on Squam Lake were 10-15 mph winds, with small chop. Conditions on the NH seacoast were 10-15 mph winds with small swell and surf. Conditions on Walden Pond were placid with little if any wind.

We will start with my thoughts and conclude with the reviews of other paddlers.

FEATURES COMMON FOR BOTH KAYAKS:

linesGunwale Lines, Wheels, Seats, Eyelets, Cargo Straps, Hatches?

The kayaks are made to accept lifelines running down each gunwale. This I find is an excellent feature. It gives a swimmer a place to make a grab for the kayak and can be used in righting and reentering the kayak in deep water. In addition the lifelines provide options for tie off of gear and could be of great use to snorklers and free divers.

handle"Some assembly required." We had to string the lifeline through the eyelets and tie it off. The directions are quite clear on how to do this and there is room to be creative in your own way. I added an over hand knot between each pair of eyes to "lift" the rope off the side, making it easy to grab. I also used some of the extra length to tie a central loop on the bow of the tandem.

Built-in Wheel

The Bic Sport Kayaks Bilbao and Tobago are both outfitted with a rear built-in wheel. This is a unique feature that makes toting these kayaks less of a chore. A good kayak cart can cost about $100 or more, and then what are you going to do with it once you have made it to the beach? We tested the wheel on both paved and unpaved surfaces. When on a paved surface the wheel is great, even the Tobago did fine, tandems do weigh a bit more. The Bilbao was very easy to roll along. The large comfortable handles on the bows facilitated trundling of the kayaks.

wheelWe rolled off to the beach in one trip, both kayaks fully outfitted, with paddles, seats, leashes, life vests, and some basic cargo heaped onboard. Naturally the Tobago tandem is harder to handle than the Bilbao solo while rolling. I also feel that a wider wheel on the Tobago would make for a "stabler ride" with less side-to-side wobble.

The wheel is however prone to some problems on unpaved surfaces. For the most part they can handle rolling over hard packed earth and grass with a few loose stones. Smallish size stones can jam the wheel preventing it from turning. This actually happened to me with Tobago. We parked in an unpaved lot across Route 1 from the beach. The kayak was rolling right along very nice over the dirt parking lot. As we got to the edge of the paved roadbed a small stone was picked up and jammed the wheel in the middle of Route 1, in beach traffic mind you, the wheel stopped turning. Well there was little I could do with a 12-foot kayak on a busy two-lane road, so I just made it to the other side. This caused some damage to the rubber on the wheel, but has not had any significant effect on performance. The wheels are replaceable and readily available from Bic's North American location. Also of note, the skid plates are replaceable as well. While not many individual users will need to do such a thing, some rental fleets may need to from time to time.

Bic Backrest Option

seatOur kayaks came with Bic brand backrests, and that may be part of the package through some of the Bic dealer network (REI, on-line, is currently including them, summer '04). They are very easy to mount to the kayak, however one component, the rear clips, was reversed in assembly and that was very easy to fix by removal and re-assembling. (This is probably a fluke.)

tandemThe forward clips are not the usual brass snaps, and I found them to be nice to work with, they are also of a good quality and we did not break any. The backrest design over all is ok. I feel that the seat back could be a bit stiffer and more supportive for most folk's tastes. That said, I would not run out and replace them if they came with the kayak as a package deal, I would keep them and use them. The seats are certainly serviceable, and we will be keeping ours to use with the Bics. The removable / adjustable lumbar pad is a nice touch.

Gear Attachment Points

seatThe eyelets for backrest attachment and the safety lines are quite different from the standard nylon deck loops found on most US made boats. They appear to be of good quality and will allow for a larger clip, or more than one. We had no problem with them in our testing, and they would appear to stand up over long use.

Cargo Straps

The elastic cargo straps included with each boat are quite handy to have for stowage of packages. They are best used on the stern deck, but can be used anywhere. I especially liked their use on the center area of the Tobago.

Hatches?

It is possible to install a 6" hatch on the small round spot on the bow deck, and the rear cargo deck too. The rear cargo deck of the Bilbao could accommodate a larger hatch. The foam rubber padding can be peeled off and re-stuck if you would wish to install a hatch in that spot.

Tom's Review of Bic Sport's Tobago:

Mounting seats, handling, solo paddling, cockpit, stability, deepwater reentry, storage

cockpitMOUNTING SEATS

While mounting the Bic backrest to the bow seat on the Tobago I felt that I needed to add a pair of strap eyes for the forward straps to secure to. While one could "jury rig" the seat to the stock eyelets or safety line, the addition of a pair of eyes will provide for a more comfortable fit.

There is soft foam rubber padding adhered to each seat area and seat back, as well as the bow deck and the mid cockpit. Those places, bow and mid, can be used to ride small children and the middle can be used for solo paddling. The foam is thin, for traction primarily, but the padding is adequate for some additional comfort.

The overall comfort of the bow and stern seats was quite good. One can feel comfortable for an hour or more at a time without fatigue, sore butt, leg cramps, or feet falling asleep. The foot support is however a bit scant. While it did allow for modest amount of support, the foot ridges in the cockpit did not cut into my ankles like many others do on different kayak makes and models. There are three leg-sizing options in each seat. (44" max length in front, 48" max length in rear, but could go more with out support.) Exceptionally tall paddlers may have some trouble fitting. The rear seat of the Tobago would be the best place to ride such a person. The seating is relatively wide; each seat pad is 12" wide with a maximum space of 18" in the stern seat and 23" in the bow.

handlingHANDLING

The tandem Tobago paddled well in a variety of wind directions, always maintaining the heading I wanted, never weather cocking or drifting off. I did not have to do an unusual amount of corrective strokes as is common with many recreational kayaks. The tracking ability must be attributed to the unique hull design. The Tobago will be easy for most beginners to handle with little skill and practice. (Of course I still recommend a lesson!)

Turning of the Tobago was easy, with some teamwork of course. While the kayak is not "loose" like a surfboat, it is easy to maneuver in tight places like small coves and inlets. It is not so maneuverable that tracking was affected. Turning can be done effectively using sweep strokes (both paddlers) and rudder stroke (rear paddler).

The Tobago is so stable and sort of wide that I would not suggest a need to practice with lean turns, unless one would really like to. Knee straps would be required for lean turns, and the Tobago would need to have some strap eyes installed to mount the knee straps to. We tested our Tobago without knee straps and found them not be necessary for recreational boating.

I found the Tobago easy to paddle when the bow rider was "resting" and also when both paddlers are stroking. There is a reasonable amount of space to reduce, but not eliminate, paddle clashes. The speed and glide of the Tobago is comparable to any other 12-foot tandem, providing a good pace for fair distance goals. We did a five-mile trip, with lunch stop!, in about three hours easily. The Tobago kept well ahead of the solo Bilbao, not surprising, as there is twice the "horse power."

solo tandemSOLO PADDLING

Solo paddling of the Tobago was sluggish. It really moves along with two paddling, and while solo paddling is quite possible and enjoyable, I felt that I would not care to paddle it solo for very long. Also on the topic of solo paddling; The center seat area is rather narrow and I found that my butt was either too wide, or not wide enough to be comfortable sitting there. I did not set up a backrest in the center position, and I am sure that would have enhanced my comfort. I had only the thin pad to sit on. Custom outfitting of strap eyes would be necessary to add the backrest to the center seat. There are no footrests for solo paddling either. So I would say that the Tobago is not a kayak to get if you plan to paddle solo a lot. (I would say that about any tandem really.)

COCKPIT

The bow seating is very high and dry, providing the front paddler with added visibility to spot obstacles and judge depths. The stern seating is rather low and wet. The floor of the cockpit slopes back to the rear seat and water can pool there. The stern paddler is rather dependent on the bow paddler's sight, as it should be with a tandem. Both spots are comfortable, using the Bic backrests.

Drifter BackrestBIC Seat w pad underneathTo reduce the wetness of the rear seat one option would be to sit on a seat pad that can elevate the rider by an inch or two. A Drifter Seat could do the job very well. I tested the fit and would advise adding a pair of strap eyes for the front straps if one were to use a Drifter Seat.

There are two scupper holes in the Bic Tobago and they are outfitted with corks that can be used in calm water conditions to keep water from coming up. The corks are quite nice in fact as they can be screwed into the holes, and removed if wanted.

Each cork has a retaining clip, so you can open the cork, leaving it in place while allowing the cockpit to drain. We used the corks on Squam Lake, both closed and open, and removed them completely on the Ocean for faster draining. One thing to consider is a stowage option if you wish to have the corks completely off. They could be lost, being so small. The addition of a stow bag or two mounted on deck would be nice. Bic North American can provide these as replacement parts if necessary.

tandemdrainThe cockpit floor is above the water line, so you do not have to worry about flooding. The drains will start to gurgle when the kayak gets up to speed, it kind of sounds like a percolator type coffee pot cooking. I found that a kind of fun sound, others may not.

For the most part the cockpit is dry and drains well, but the rear seat is at a lower lever and some water flows back into the seat area and stays there. I find that a dry butt is something I must give up on most kayaks anyway.

The only time I ever stay truly dry is on very calm water, and I think this is achievable on the Tobago if one is very careful not to ship any water. In rough water it will be impossible to keep the cockpit dry, as is the case with all SOTs. The bow of the Tobago will plunge through waves, if steep enough, and allow some wash to come over the deck and into the cockpit. I would expect a bit of wash-over, but some may find this a surprise. We found that a medium size boat wake, taken head on, will come over as well as modest shore break on the ocean. Over all I do not see this as a major flaw, it is "par for the course" on many small kayaks, it just makes the rear paddler's butt wet.

stabilitySTABILITY

The stability of the Tobago is outstanding, literally! I was actually able to stand fully erect on the cockpit floor. Bear in mind I was the only one on board. Nonetheless the kayak is stable enough to please any family with kids, or those who need and want a secure feeling. The Tobago is hard to tip, so there will be little ability, or need, to do any J Leans or fancy moves. I would say the Bic tandem will carry two adults and two small children with ease. (It has a 550 pound capacity.) When riding larger children you could go with two adults, one child or one adult and two small/medium children. The Tobago would also be a good boat for older children to use as a play boat, with supervision of course.

DEEP WATER RE-ENTRY

deep entryGetting back into the Tobago from deep water was rather easy. While the safety lines can be used as a grip, the backrest straps make for better gripping.

The gunwale did not pose a problem for sliding into the cockpit. Naturally there are some folks who will have difficulty with deep-water re-entry on any kayak, but practice and increasing upper body strength will help. Those who are a tad more athletic will manage quite well. The Tobago is stable enough that re-entry of two paddlers, one at a time, will be ok, but I still recommend bracing and maybe the use of knee straps as part of the tandem deep-water re-entry procedure.

STORAGE

tandemThe storage options are scant on the Tobago. The kayak lacks any internal stowage, but comes with some nice cargo straps for securing packages to the rear deck and on the central section of the cockpit. The center section was really a nice place to stow handy items, like a chart, sunscreen and other "need to reach" gear. The back deck is the perfect place to mount a sit-in-side kayak style deck bag, basic dry bag or cooler. A small "fanny pack" style dry bag or basic bag clipped to the rigging or front handle will be perfect for the bow deck.

Get a Bic Tobago kayak for two person and family fun. Those who are looking for a recreational kayak for pleasure, light touring, some fishing and snorkeling will enjoy this kayak. The Tobago, with its built in wheel, may be perfect for beach houses that are not quite on the water. I would recommend this kayak to any one who is looking for a general-purpose recreational tandem kayak.

Tom's Review of the Bic Sport Bilbao:

Seating & stability, handling, deepwater reentry, knee strap use, storage

The Bilbao Is a nice little recreational kayak. It is built for modest distance paddling in mild conditions. I would hazard to guess that it would be fun in small surf, but Bic's Quassou would be more appropriate for that. We were able to do a five-mile trip with ease, (3 hours, w/ lunch break) but speed is not the reason to get a Bilbao, you would want to get the Scapa for distance paddling.

SEATING & STABILITY

BilbaoOne thing you notice right away when on the Bilbao is the stability and the comfort. The tri-hull design creates the stability. There is some built in back support, enough that a seat may not be entirely needed. The cockpit floor slopes gently to the footwell providing legs-lower-than-butt comfort. A drain in the foot area and the seat allow any water to flow out. The cockpit floor is higher than the water level and little if any at all water flows up into the seat. Over all this kayak provides a very dry ride, even on some small choppy wavelets.

The Bic brand backrest integrates well onto the Bilbao and no custom fitting of backrest strap eyes is necessary. I will also say that many other backrest styles will fit this boat, possibly requiring some custom outfitting.

Foot support is scant, however the low profile foot supports will not cut into your heels like other kayaks have for me. There are three leg positions to choose from, not many, and some may find them selves between sizes. This can be fixed by adjusting a backrest forward a bit. The cockpit is 48" long and 18" wide in the seat area. Exceptionally tall paddlers will have to ensure fit by test paddling, or at least test sitting, a boat in person.

AthenaHANDLING

Tracking of the Bilbao was very good. Once again the tri-hull design came into play. While the tracking was excellent the turning ability was also quite good. I had little to no problem holding a course with the Bilbao on straight line paddling in wind and waves. The kayak performed well for me in all wind directions. The Bilbao was also easy to maneuver in tight spots with limited space. Photo by Shawn O'Donnell, Photo Genesis

The Bilbao is not a speedboat, but neither a barge. I was quite happy with the glide it was able to produce. I had to paddle across Walden Pond on a mission (forgot phone in the car, having too much fun and running late) fully expecting to be disappointed by my progress and exhausted on my return. I was quite surprised in my "sprint" (ok, stroll) and did not feel tired or disappointed. Greg Barton, Seoul summer Olympics, No. Regular guy, fun on Walden Pond, Yes!

I thought I would test the Bilbao in my SOT kayak lesson program for new beginner paddlers. My students and I were pleased with the results. The Bilbao did wander a bit when new kayakers were learning to paddle a straight line, but turning, and spinning were a big hit. It is common for new paddlers to have difficulty keeping on a straight path. The stability was such that extra effort was needed to do the capsize drills. Re-entry was OK for the newbies. Photo by Shawn O'Donnell, Photo Genesis

BicDEEP WATER REENTRY

Getting back onto the Bilbao kayak from deep water was easy. The safety-lines help facilitate righting the kayak, maintaining contact with the boat and in re-boarding. I do however find that grabbing a backrest strap is preferable over using the safety lines, but I like them non the less, as they run the whole length of the gunwale and are easy to grab for if needed. Windy conditions can blow a kayak faster than one can swim. Yes there are those who will have a trouble with deep-water reentry, but practice is the key.

KNEE STRAP USE

The Bilbao kayak is so stable, and is a recreational kayak after all, that I believe that lean turns and J leans are quite over the top for use with this kayak. We did attach some knee straps and found that the Bilbao needs no customization to accept them. The use of knee straps would allow for J leans and such, and will enhance paddler control. I even tested the roll-ability of the Bilbao, sorry to say that I failed. I have been paddling sit-ons too much and my roll has suffered, and while a wide little rec boat is hard to roll it is not impossible. But who would need to roll such a sit-on anyway? I was not tiring very hard to pull off a roll, but was able to really get the kayak well on edge and do some extreme bracing. All in fun on a hot summer's day! The stock eyelets held up very well to the added strain of bracing and "rolling."

STORAGE

The storage available was par for the course for a 9' kayak. The bow bungee net is a very nice addition. I used it primarily as a paddle park, but we did also tuck a water bottle under it. The rear deck has quite a lot of space and I found that a sit-in-side style deck back was perfect fit there. Of course any type of dry bag and even a small cooler will fit.

The Bilbao would make for a decent dive kayak for free divers and snorklers, but the stowage for a scuba tank (Sorry not tested, have you? Please fill me in.) does look too high to allow for decent stability.

I recommend the Bilbao kayak for anyone who is looking for a small light weigh boat for recreational paddling. The best uses would be for mild conditions, ocean and fresh water, for short trips light touring, some fishing and for snorkeling. The Bilbao's built in wheel, makes it perfect for beach houses that are not quite on the water. The small Bilbao rolls along with ease, and would be decent for car topping (46 pounds). I would recommend this kayak to any one who is looking for a general-purpose pleasure kayak.

FIELD TESTORS SUPPLEMENT:

Athena on Squamby Athena Holtey: Squam Lake & Jennes Beach, NH

Both boats - This unique construction process really appeals to me. It gives the boats a classic look and the feel of them is that of a solid and sea-worthy vessel. The clip-on seat backs & cargo straps were effortless to attach; I liked the unique clips and the large ring option to the strap eyes. I paddled both kayaks on lake and ocean waters. Photo by Shawn O'Donnell, Photo Genesis

Bilbao: Although this little kayak is not promoted for the ocean, I loved it on those lullaby swells of that ever buoyant salt water. I have never met a small kayak I've liked very well, but in the Bilbao I felt so confident and was having so much fun I might have paddled off beyond the bounds of my strength to return. This might actually be a real danger for a novice paddler and so it is a good idea to keep it within protected waters. It tracked remarkably well; did not have that "squirrelly" feeling of small recreational kayaks. The cockpit was comfortable sitting, but the foot rest lacked enough support. I would cut some sort of pad to fit in the cockpit's forward area as a foot rest. That being said, it is not a touring kayak so I doubt one would be in it long enough to mind that much. It is a jump off and on kayak for snorkeling or swimming. Anything you might need for a days enjoyment in and on the water would easily stow on the bow or stern. I surfed it in on a small swell with ease to a quiet landing at the seashore. On Squam Lake it was a bit of an effort to keep up with the Tobago on the 5 mile round trip lazy paddle we planned; but if just me taking the day to enjoy the sights of the lake my only concern would be that I'd underestimate the distance to strength ratio I was capable of because it paddles very capably, like a touring kayak. We took it on small Walden Pond on the 4th of July to find our friends at a picnic there and that was almost not enough room to enjoy this kayak. So I would say, protected bays and lakes with many options for landing and launching would be the best use of the Bilbao for anyone.

Tom, Athena on SquamTobago: all right I'm not a tandem paddler. Sometimes it's fun when you are in a zone and you and your partner are able to anticipate each other's moves...but I did not enjoy the Tobago tandem for our purposes that much. The forward seat was nice and high so if we were out to take photos or scout out some wildlife it is a great seat for that. The aft seat was too low for me to tell where I was going even with Tom's weight in the front. It was very wet back there as opposed to the dry front seat. You can see the contrast in the photo. It's stable and seaworthy, however as it is 2 feet shorter than the touring kayaks I usually paddle solo so I was surprised that it managed the capacity of both our weights so well...although the design of it was not able to level out the kayak as I would prefer. In our pictures you can see that the bow was occasionally out of the water and that was the case in some conditions even with Tom in front. Photo by Shawn O'Donnell, Photo GenesisTom, Dave Walden Pond

It is not promoted for ocean paddling but we surfed it in on a very small wave and it wanted to perl or nose dive. Very wet in front on that occasion. In contrast to Bilbao, Walden Pond was an excellent place for this kayak. I could see this well used by a bunch of kids or kids and dogs just having a great day on protected calm waters. It is so stable I watched Tom & Dave jump off simultaneously from a standing position! Again, it has excellent features for stowing gear on deck and the feel of it is that of a very seaworthy boat, tracks well, but it does not paddle as efficiently as I found Bic's Bilbao to do, so I would not take it along on an expedition as we do sometimes like to have a tandem along in case someone becomes ill.

by Shawn O'Donnell: Sqaum Lake

Both boats - Solid construction. I do not feel that the materials will fail with normal use and the occasional bottom out. I liked the hull design in that it seems to add stability. Both were more stable than expected. Wheels are helpful for transporting and the incorporation of replaceable skid plates is great. The carry handles were strong, secure, and well placed. Entry to the kayaks was straightforward and not difficult. Both were dry, although in waves, the front of the tandem got a little wet on the seat. Both felt a bit wide for extended paddling. Both could possibly be improved with internal storage access. Both have multiple molded in place footrests that are nice to accommodate paddlers of different leg length, but with longer legs, the intermediate rests could be cumbersome. Numerous lash points were conveniently placed and outfitted with quality hardware. Both had adequate above deck storage capacity for carrying the necessities and a few luxuries for a day trip.

Shawn on SquamBilbao Solo

For a short kayak, it tracked pretty straight, given no rudder. Handled waves well, stayed dry, even in boat wakes. I liked the placement of the above deck storage straps, but not great for on water access of cargo, very convenient at shore. Steering, handling and tracking were all superior on this boat, possibly due to the hull design. All things considered, I thought this was a fast recreational boat, which is well suited to shorter excursions and simply enjoying the paddling experience. I believe it would take significant effort or imbalance to tip this boat. One neat feature for tying down gear on the back is the incorporation of a stretch web fabric between with clips that can significantly reduce time spent adjusting the webbing length for each different dry bag or whatever is placed behind the paddler.

Shawn & Tom on SquamTobago (Tandem)

For a kayak of this width, I thought it was fairly fast, even with only one paddler paddling. The well for seating was huge leaving lots of options for storage. Steering from the rear position was remarkably easy and predictable. Didn't seem terribly heavy for a tandem. Stability was quite good. Able to stand in the rear with a paddler seated in front.

Shallow water change of seating position was not difficult. In front paddling position, plenty of room and excepting for plowing through powerboat wakes was generally dry.

I would give both of these kayaks thumbs up and could recommend them for use as recreational kayaks.

Nick on Walden Pondby Nick Morse - Walden Pond

My general impression of the BIC Bilbao one-person kayak was favorable. I would rate my own kayak experience as "advanced beginner". The first thing I noticed was that it was easy to get into the boat while standing in about 2 feet of water. Next, I noticed that the seat (optional equipment as I understand) was comfortable and provided good lumbar support while keeping me in a slight reclining position. The boat was not the easiest or hardest that I have paddled. Tracking was good and turning was a bit harder than other kayaks I have tried. The boat had a very stable feel when paddling. The deck was well appointed with nets for storage, standard equipment, and there was adequate space in the footwell for a small amount of non-water-sensitive gear. The built-in wheel is a definite plus for travel over relatively firm surfaces. For sand/dirt, etc a more robust dolly would still be necessary. Photo by Dave Barnes

Design & Construction: From a conversation with Steve Thomas of BIC SPORT Kayaks of North America

The first thing you will notice about the Bic Kayak line is the unique design and the alternative construction technique. Most plastic kayaks are roto-molded in one piece. Bic uses "Twin Sheet Technology." A sheet of Linear Polyethylene (same plastic as most kayaks) is extruded and then vacu-formed over mold. One for the deck and the other for the hull. The two parts are then fused together under heat and pressure, essentially welding the deck to the hull. Inserts for the mounting hardware are melted into the deck at this phase, permanently bonding them. The boat is then pressure tested for leaks. This process allows for different shapes that rotational molding cannot provide. The plastic is a high quality weld-able polyethylene with UV protection. (Can also be recycled)

The designers at Bic wanted to make a unique kayak shape. Ergonomic seat for comfort. Tri-hull for stability with a center displacement hull section for tracking and nimbleness.

The Bic kayaks have a child's "jump seat" molded onto the bow and padded with an 8" diameter foam sheet. They are intended for children as old as 12 yrs, up to about 60-70 pounds. The built in back support of the regular adult seats is adequate, and an accessory backrest is not entirely needed. The Tobago's front seat is built high & dry, while the back seat is lower for added stability, being in the stern and not at a wide point of the boat.

Bic kayaks are available at many of the larger chain stores, and increasingly more specialty kayak shops. If you plan to shop on-line please use our REI link to help support TopKayaker.

KAYAKS AT REI

BIC WATERSPORTS: A BRIEF HISTORY

Bic of course is known for pens, razors and lighters, but they are also a leading innovator in the windsurfing community. They made the popular 1980's sport of windsurfing available to many by producing high quality, low cost boards. They went on to produce surfboards, wake boards, and recently kite boards. The designers at Bic have built boats before in the 70's.

Many windsurfing enterprises shifted focus to the new sport of Sit-On-Top Kayaking as that sport began to take on popularity in the early 1990's. Bic is keeping in step with the ever-changing water sports market.

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