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I’ll never forget the first time I paddled a ducky down the Cheat River Narrows. My friend let me take out his ThrillSeeker for the day, which is a custom inflatable kayak where the paddler sits on top. As someone used to paddling a hefty raft with a partner, the freedom of paddling a watercraft on my own was liberating. By the time I got to Calamity, the biggest rapid on the Narrows, I was feeling perhaps a bit too confident in my abilities. I zigged left, zagged right, and then bumped into a hidden rock, spinning me around so I faced up-river. Knowing I didn’t have time to turn the ThrillSeeker around, I steered the boat with my thighs and took a few strokes to line up with the narrow gap between an intimidating hole and a giant boulder. Plunging backwards into the pool below, I hooted and hollered amidst giggles and the disbelief that I made it down without swimming.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that supremely fun and forgiving craft was made by Attila Szilagyi, owner of Custom Inflatables in Reedsville. Since founding his company in 1989, Attila has designed and made thousands of duckies and inflatable rafts for those who love to play in the water. His signature boat, the ThrillSeeker, played a pivotal role in the first descents of several legendary steep creeks in West Virginia.
I spoke with Attila about his experience river guiding, designing boats, and paddling throughout the Mountain State. His light-hearted stories and desire to bring smiles to people’s faces through custom watercrafts reminded me to never let go of the silly nature of outdoor pursuits.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your coming to West Virginia story?
I was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio. I went to Germany for a few years of high school before moving to South Florida with my family, and then here to Albright in Preston County. When I was finishing high school, my oldest brother Imre asked if I could come help him at his rafting company, Appalachian Wildwaters. My goal when I finished school was to go to Ohio State and become an architect, but it didn’t take long for the river life to prove that college and Attila were not going to be compatible.
How did you get into paddling?
My first rafting trip was on the New River in ’71 or ’72 with my family. When I moved to Albright, I was fortunate there were a lot of people around who were great paddlers like Jimmy Snyder, Steve Schmidt, and my brother Imre. I tried to learn from them as much as I could. The first two years of paddling, I had no roll in a kayak but I still paddled with everybody; I just tried not to swim. I guided for 13 years at Appalachian Wildwaters from ’76 to ’89. The whole world was interested in rafting. Regardless of lifestyles or occupations, people came from everywhere because we were offering fun. We had nine people in a raft plus a guide. Self-bailing wasn’t even a concept then, so you had to empty the boat using milk jugs and five-gallon buckets every time it filled up with water.
I guided on several sections of the Cheat, Tygart, Upper Yough, Gauley, Big Sandy, and New rivers. Guiding back then was very different. The New and Gauley were deserted. When you ran trips, you were by yourself, which was really nice. The opposite was true on the Cheat River; there were 20-some outfitters here. We were putting well over 1,200 people a day down the river on the weekends. Now it’s flip-flopped. The New and Gauley are crazy busy and very few people come to the Cheat, which is alright with me.
How did you transition into boat repairs?
The flood of ‘85 had a whole lot to do with that because the Appalachian Wildwaters building got flooded. When the floodwaters receded, they receded fast enough that the water couldn’t leak out of the building that stored all the rafts. The building finally gave way to the water, so we went chasing boats down the Cheat River for a long time. I think that there were only three or four that we never found. Most of them were trapped in trees with water in the tubes. There were pregnant duckies draped around branches and the only way to get them out was to poke a hole in them. The trick was to put the hole in a place where it was easy to patch. Hence, we ended up getting work putting patches over the holes that we put in the boats. We repaired over 200 boats from the flood.
What are some of the challenges you faced using inflatable boats?
Most of the rivers here are natural flow, so if there’s no rain, it’s low water, which causes abrasion. The first inflatable rafts were made out of neoprene, which is an incredible air-holding material, but it doesn’t wear as well. Hypalon came along and it incorporated neoprene’s air-holding ability, but it had an abrasion-resistant coating on the outside of it. That was huge for the rafting industry because you could start keeping boats around for more than three or four years.
In the late 70s and early 80s at Appalachian Wildwaters, we used Sea Eagle and Camp Ways duckies; they weren’t great but Sea Eagles were affordable enough. After you put them on the river three or four times, you were pretty much fixing them daily. Then we started using Avon rafts, which were considered top-of-the-line rafts at the time. There were also a whole lot of design issues. Duckies were just too slow. We couldn’t go from the back of the trip to the front of the trip without a major workout. So we guided trips from kayaks, which were much faster. But in kayaks, we couldn’t do anything to help our customers; all they could do was grab ahold of our boat, flip us over, and then let us roll up. We couldn’t really supply the kind of safety that we should have been able to.
Tell us about your first forays into boat design.
We had some kayaks in a building that had a fire, and the top of one kayak melted a bit, so I cut the top half off, duct-taped a Sea Eagle inflatable on top, and ran it down the Cheat Narrows. Or I should say I attempted to run it down the Narrows. The first rapid is called Ducky Muncher, and I punctured both tubes from the plastic edge. After that, I started playing around with different materials. I was working for Duckworks at the time, which was Imre’s company that did repairs and boat production. He wanted us to build him inflatable kayaks, and hopefully do it well enough to be able to make a living out of it down the road. Hypalon was the best material at the time, but it was expensive. PVC made the most economic sense for building our first boats and it was a lot easier to work with.
How did you design the SuperDuck?
There were 12 or 13 XD boats, which were experimental duckies. We played around with all kinds of concepts that were pretty bizarre. All the other inflatables were manufactured like stovepipes: there were straight sections that were put together, which created an angle that wears on rocks, and creates eddies and pillows that slow the boat down. We tried to eliminate those angles by building two tube halves and coming up with a kind of seam that no one had ever used or has used since then. The seam was influenced by my mother, who was a seamstress and tailor.
I’ve been using it for 40 years now and it’s still holding up. Every time we got a boat ready to go, I’d take it to the “Ducky Test Track” on the Cheat Narrows and evaluate how it performed going upstream, downstream, surfing and, of course, the ease of carrying it to and from the river. Then I’d come up with some changes for the next one. When we got to the thirteenth one, Imre thought it was good enough and that we needed to build this boat for him, so that’s how the SuperDuck came about.
What inspired you to start your company Custom Inflatables?
The SuperDuck was created to help anybody run class III whitewater. It had a lot of volume in the center and both ends were tapered, which allowed the SuperDuck to pinball down rapids. As people developed skills to get around rocks and through rapids, we needed the ThrillSeeker, which is a boat made for an individual. One of the biggest complaints with the SuperDuck was ‘I didn’t fit it right.’ That’s how Custom Inflatables came to be. The first four ThrillSeekers were made for friends of mine in 1990.
How do you customize the ThrillSeeker?
It’s a drawn-out process that takes way too long for most people’s liking. There’s information that I need and body parts that need to get measured—and they’re odd measurements. When we get the heel measure, we’re looking for a power position where you’re sitting with your knees bent. That allows you to use the most powerful muscles in your body, which are your thighs, to help maneuver the boat. Height and weight tell us what size tubes to make and how long to make the boat. We also want to figure out what people want to do with the boat, what kind of waters they like to paddle, and how much gear they need to haul.
What role did ThrillSeekers play in first descents?
Back then we called them bumper cars in the woods. You always had that silly factor and everybody always had smiles on their faces because you could bump into rocks without worrying about getting trapped in a rapid. There were a lot of really good boaters who would go out and develop lines with ThrillSeekers that they wouldn’t try in their kayaks initially. Elsey Run is probably the biggest one. Quarry Run was first run in kayaks, so it was doable, but once they did it in ThrillSeekers, the silly factor took over. Eventually, they ran everything on Quarry. Several creeks that probably shouldn’t have been run in kayaks were successfully run in ThrillSeekers.
What are some of your favorite paddling adventures in WV?
Lick Run was always an adventure. Jimmy Snyder and I used to paddle Roaring Creek every time it was up. I had a lot of fun on Decker’s Creek. We’d do five or six different runs in a day because it was such an easy shuttle. The first trip down Elsey was a major adventure. We’d been looking at it for years on topo maps. We hiked up and down it as far as we could, but we had never seen parts of it until we were actually paddling it. At one point, we had to crawl up on top of this house-sized boulder to scout a rapid that we call Cherry Drop. We tried everything we could to get on top of it. Once we got up there, we stood on this incredible, thick moss. I don’t believe that any human had ever stood on that rock before us—there was no reason to go there. A huge part of my dedication to the ThrillSeeker is that it allows me to escape.
What’s it been like to own this business here for so long?
Feature Photo: A-chill-a the Fun. Photo Courtesy Attila Szilagyi