Above: Tom Hennessy (second from left) and his family camping in the 1950's
I attribute my love of the outdoors and of camping gear to my mother. I was the oldest of five kids, and was 12 years old when my mother started taking us all on two or three week camping trips to beaches, mountains, rivers, lakes from North Carolina to Canada and everywhere in between.
Every summer my incredible, nature-loving mother would pile us all into the family’s 1951 Mercury “Woody” station wagon and drive out of sweltering suburban Washington DC, headed out to the sun-burned beaches of South Carolina, the cool and tranquil state parks of Upstate New York, and everything in between. We would spend the summer camping, cooking and cleaning fish and learning about nature. My mother and younger brother and sisters slept in big old umbrella tents and I slept in my WWII army jungle hammock that I found in an Army surplus store.
My mother and I were responsible for selecting gear for our adventures. In the 1950’s, the best deals for camping gear were in the army surplus stores, so each year we would go searching for new stuff. On one of our forays I found a box of WW II surplus hammocks. They were only about 8 inches in diameter and 10 inches long and had a label that said “Military Jungle Hammock”. Without opening it, I decided to take one for $3 and give it a try. On our next camping trip, I set it up and instantly fell in love with it and decided I would never sleep on the ground again. Although I loved camping and getting out into nature, I did not look forward to the roots, the rocks, the puddles and the sloping ground under the tent. My most panicked experience in a tent, when I was 8 or 10 years old, was waking up in the middle of the night with my face jammed into the lowest corner of the tent because I had slid down the slope in my sleep.
At the age of 16, I would make 200 mile, weekend bicycle trips out of Washington D.C. into the Appalachian Mountains. I carried a minimum of food & water, a light sleeping bag and a WWII surplus U.S. Army jungle hammock. I loved this old thing because it rolled up so small and weighed so little and had no poles or stakes, perfect for moving light and fast.
Later at university, I loaned my hammock to a "friend" who never returned it. As the years passed, I continued to miss that little piece of gear and finally decided to duplicate my old army hammock from memory during my winter vacation.
I purchased all the materials in Vancouver B.C. and flew to Florida to visit my mother, who had taught me to sew when I was 10 and still had her original 1949 sewing machine.
The duplicate of the army hammock took less than a day to finish. As I was cutting and sewing, I began to see ways to overcome some of the army hammock's shortcomings.
ABOVE LEFT: This is a World War II surplus US Army jungle hammock, the same as the one Tom Hennessy used as a teenager. ABOVE RIGHT: Tom's first prototype in his mother's backyard in Sarasota, Florida.
The next prototype needed to be more spacious inside to eliminate any sense of claustrophobia. It needed to be wider to allow resting or sleeping on the diagonal without curving your back. The netting had to be increased to improve air circulation and the weather fly needed to be adjustable and removable to create an open and airy feeling during good weather and yet close up for protection at night or during inclement weather. I would cut and sew a new prototype every day and test it that night. In the morning, I would know what to do to make another improvement.
Over the next six years I made over fifty different prototypes for my winter ventures into the Everglades, Costa Rica and Mexico.
The rectangular army shape evolved into a sleek diamond shape; the cord assemblies at each end disappeared to create more interior space by attaching the hammock fabric directly to the suspending ropes. A ridge line was built into the hammock providing a support for the netting and weather-fly and, more importantly, ensuring that the hammock would set with exactly the same curve each time it was set up.
And the most amazing feature, the side zipper was eliminated and replaced with a zipper-less entrance through the bottom of the hammock which snapped closed automatically, activated by your own body weight, as you lift your feet up through the entrance. Finally, a special fold was added at the entrance to provide a tight, overlapping seal.
By the fall of 1998, it was finished. I could not add or subtract any features which would further simplify or improve the design. Camping without a tent was not only possible—it was amazingly comfortable!
TO MARKET, TO MARKET
First, I demonstrated the product to REI and MEC and they both enthusiastically decided to carry the Hennessy Hammock. Independent outdoor retailers almost immediately saw the potential for this product. It has been on the market since May of 1999, and keeping up with demand has been our biggest challenge. We will increase production to meet an anticipated surge of sales in 2002.
It has been shown at the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City with overwhelming interest from retailers, catalogues, and distributors. One gear geek told me that it was so good I could get $600 for it and sell hundreds of them. I told him I wanted to sell it for $99 and sell a million. A week later, it was also shown at the ISPO Outdoor Show in Munich, Germany. The Europeans were more reserved, but did send me home with distributors for seven countries. We have Canadian, USA, and International patents.
ABOUT THE TIME I GOT PICKED UP BY A TORNADO IN MY HAMMOCK
I had an another experience when I was in university, camping in a park on the shore of Lake Michigan. One afternoon I was out sailing with my friends when the skipper of the boat pointed up to very flat purple clouds with many little holes that looked like upside down drains in the bathtub. He said they had to get the boat in to shore right away because that kind of cloud formed tornadoes and it wouldn't be good to be caught out on the lake. They put away the boat and went back to camp for a rest.
My hammock was tied up on one side of the driveway through the park and my four friends were on the other side of the driveway in a big umbrella tent. I never heard it coming, but a tornado came off the lake and followed the path of least resistance down the driveway. As the tornado passed over the hammock, the hammock popped into a reversed curve and I was floating around inside weightless, like I was in outer space. It only lasted for 15-20 seconds and it happened so quickly that I didn't have time to be afraid, just amazed at the weightlessness.
After the hammock dropped back into position, I unzipped the hammock and climbed out to see how my friends were doing. The tent and all four of my friends were gone. When I looked farther off to my left about 100 metres I saw that the tent had been set back down. As the friends climbed out, I could see that no one was hurt. There was a 90 degree turn in the driveway just where the tent got set down. The tornado couldn't make the turn so it continued through the woods, leaving behind a path of destruction.
Maybe if I hadn't been in the hammock, I would have been carried farther and skewered on one of the shattered trees.
New Zealand Design Studio…
Hi everybody! I've finally found a quiet place to do some more designing. Over the last couple of years, people have made some valuable suggestions of ways we can improve Hennessy Hammocks. I must admit that the pressures of keeping everybody supplied with 8 models has dominated my time and made it almost impossible to get more than a few hours or days at a time to experiment with new ideas. I also find it difficult to focus on design in the Canadian winter when the days are short, cold and wet and the light is low.
And then I found the answer! The sun was hiding on the other side of the planet, so I got on an airplane and found another summer happening in New Zealand. I decided that two summers were better than one, bought a little cabin in the mountains in a town called Athol near Queenstown, have set up a design studio and have started prototyping as many ideas as I can. Hopefully by the time I leave at the end of February, I will have at least a couple of new accessories ready for testing, that will make Hennessy Hammocks even more versatile and comfortable.