Kayak Evolution: Gold From Plastic

Part 3 of an in-depth feature by Paul Lebowitz on the modern fishing kayak

Unlike the Royak, Tim Niemer's Scupper was designed to tackle the surf, offering a high volume nose and tiny cockpit. Kayak Fish tested one of his first fiberglass models and found it supremely seaworthy, if cramped. Photo Aaron Schmidt

Unlike the Royak, Tim Niemer’s Scupper was designed to tackle the surf, offering a high volume nose and tiny cockpit. Kayak Fish tested one of his first fiberglass models and found it supremely seaworthy, if cramped. Photo Aaron Schmidt

By Paul Lebowitz

Gold From Plastic

A few days later I dial up Tim Niemier and find the 65-year-old as dynamic as ever. If you don’t know his name, you should. Niemier’s genius propelled the sit-on-top kayak from a niche product to its current popularity.

It wasn’t so much Niemer’s inspired design as the production method he chose that made kayaking accessible for the masses—not just anglers.

A Malibu waterman who was more sculptor than engineer, Niemier artfully crafted his own sit-on-top kayak out of fiberglass in 1971. This kayak was born to conquer the surf. It had a low cockpit that quickly shed water, carried the bulk of its volume in its rockered bow, and tapered in the rear like a tadpole’s tail.

Niemier’s creation was quick, lightweight and graceful on the water, and the first to establish the enduring pattern: bow hatch, open cockpit, stern tankwell.

Niemier reminds me he got into the kayak business by accident. “Someone walked up to us on Dog Beach and asked how much. I said $150. $50 for materials and $100 to split with my friend. That was the first sale,” Niemier says.

Niemier founded Malibu Ocean Kayak in 1972. Five years later he’d sold 25 on that one-mile stretch of beach. He asked himself, how many beaches there are in the world? Plenty.

He figured if he could sell boats to one-tenth of one percent of the coastal population, he’d hit critical mass.  From the beginning, anglers gravitated to the design.

“Scott Winner, who went to kindergarten with me, used my boat specifically for fishing. Also Richard Marin, Cheech, he would go out and get rockfish,” Niemier adds.

Then came the true revolution.

By 1986, Niemier needed a more efficient production method to meet the potential demand. He settled on rotational molding. He based his new polyethylene plastic Scupper kayak on his fiberglass original. It was 14 feet long, with a second aft hatch in place of the original tankwell.

He made his own cast aluminum mold. At 15 feet long and 400 pounds, Niemier was dismayed to discover the mold wouldn’t fit in any nearby rotomolding ovens. He had no choice but to set up shop and build his own.

“It proved to be a really good idea,” says Niemier, noting that the financing of the business was ahead of its time, too.  “My friend Nancy Bennetts got her friends together. They gave me $250 each to make 25 kayaks. That bought enough material to make 50—the first 50 were crowd-sourced way before Kickstarter!”

Niemier would shorten the name of his company to Ocean Kayak. He moved the company to Ferndale, Washington in 1988. Scuppers, the kayaks named for their self-bailing feature, flew out the door.

Competing companies quickly adopted rotomolding. It remains, by far, the prevalent kayak manufacturing method. Ocean Kayak was challenged by Cobra Kayaks, which debuted the 36-inch wide Fish ‘n Dive in 1993, the first big-man sit-on-top. Wilderness Systems followed with the Ride, another heavy hauler, this one based on a tunnel hull design that was quicker than it looked.

I ask Niemier if he felt threatened by the competition. “A little at first,” he answers. But then he changed his mindset.

“Kayaks are prosthetic devices for the aquatically challenged” Niemier claims.  “The more people introduced to the water the better. I get incredible joy from that. Being on the water is like meditation. It takes you away from all the troubles you inflict on yourself.”

I get it.   

Not until 1996 did Ocean Kayak return to its roots to launch the Scupper Pro TW. Reintroducing the tankwell made it one of the gold standards for anglers and divers.

Niemier sold Ocean Kayak to Johnson Outdoors in 1998. He still designs watercraft at the Bellingham, Washington offices of On Water Designs. In 2015 he published The Millionaire Beach Bum, a good read.

Next: Part 4, The 90’s Mainstays

Previous:

Part 1, In the Beginning, Almost

Part 2, The Original

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