Spotlight: Ocean Kayak Founder Tim Niemier

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Tim Niemier, 59, has always thought outside the box…or cockpit. It was in his garage in Malibu, Calif., in 1971 that he indented a surfboard hull to create the world’s first sit-on-top kayak. By the time he sold Ocean Kayak to Johnson Outdoors in 1997, nearly every kayak manufacturer worldwide had a sit-on-top in its line. Forty years later, the visionary’s light bulbs still burn at his Wild Designs firm in Bellingham, Wash. His latest brainstorm — the “Eight-week Kayak” program – takes private label boat designs from spec to prototype to production in two months. Throughout it all, the sport-changing waterman’s motive has remained the same: getting more people out on the water.

Niemier, coming clean in his own words

I introduce experiences.

Blow-molding is a very cost-effective way to get people onto the water. I recently developed a $99, six-foot kids’ kayak with a company called Lifetime. It proves that price-point doesn’t have to be a barrier and is getting a lot of kids involved, which is our future.

A lot of young kids think sea kayaking is an old-fart’s deal. They wouldn’t he caught dead in one. In expanding people’s experiences, I’m also big on paddleboards. We’re on the verge of another sit-on-top revolution with them. They’re easier to use and have a cooler image. And young people really like them.

Paddling changes people’s lives. I talked to a mother whose daughter had a mental disability affecting her ability to focus. Getting into one of our kayaks was the first time she was able to actually control her life. It brought tears to my eyes. It reminded me of why I’m in the business. If it wasn’t for that $99 kayak, her daughter wouldn’t have experienced that.

Getting on the water gets people into the present. You forget about everything else. I’m reading Eckert Tolle’s The Power of Now. We drive ourselves nuts with all our thoughts. On the water, you don’t think about anything else. All your little problems go away the minute you step off shore. It gives us a holiday from our own stupid thoughts.

A lot of the word’s problems stem from people letting their pasts control them. If they were just out on the water more everything would work out; they’d live in the present and their problems would disappear.

Making a kayak takes the equivalent amount of energy of 15 gallons of gasoline. You can either burn that up on the freeway, or take that same resource and turn it into something that lasts forever. It’s a much more cost-effective use of that resource. If we can use less of something and get more enjoyment, the world will last longer.

Paddling offers the biggest bang for the buck for having a wilderness experience. Get twenty feet off shore and you’re in a different world.

A kayak is a kayak, but a fresh design is like having fresh fish. An old design is like eating old fish. You can still eat it but it doesn’t taste as good. I’m trying to improve the experience.

I have a place up on Sea Otter Island on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It’s great because there aren’t any roads; you have to either paddle or motorboat everywhere.

My addiction is designing new boats. My wife told me I have to get rid of some of my boats, because I keep making prototypes. I have over 50 in the back of the house.

I have a silly goal of putting a billion butts in boats or boards. A concessionaire we sold kayaks to in Guam says a million people use his sit-on-tops per year. They only use them for 20 minutes at a time, but it’s a standard.

I’m a very good starter, but not a very good finisher. I started a bunch of companies like Ocean Kayak, and now they’re accomplishing that goal for me.

I want to introduce as many people as I can to paddling. Blow-molding should help. It’s the same feeling I had when I got into roto-molding 40 years ago. We made a quantum leap in the availability of watercraft. This will too. And so will paddleboards because they’re so simple.

I have a few ideas about propelling yourself…something that lets you run on the water. I also have a few ideas on portability that I want to explore.

Club ownership is a great idea. You could have 100 locations throughout the U.S., where for one fee people could access boats and boards anytime they want. This would let them have different experiences at different locations, all super-affordably.

It seems like I’ve lived five or six lifetimes. Each one would have been completely fulfilling if I hadn’t gone on to the next one.

When I get on the water I get the exact same feeling as I did 40 years ago.

The social aspect of the sport, especially for women, isn’t being utilized enough. But it can be more valuable than the activity itself. To go and talk about it afterward is very empowering.

Paddling can offer fitness, adventure and community. Getting those three things together greatly enhances its value and truly makes it magic.