Tom Johnson, the Prophet of Polyethylene

Johnson at home in Kernville with one of his creations. Photo courtesy the Johnson family.

"One word, just one word. Are you listening?

“Plastics."

That career advice-turned-movie-catchphrase debuted with The Graduate in 1967, the same year a 49-year-old L.A. firefighter named Tom Johnson became the U.S. national wildwater kayak champion. In real life, Johnson was already well ahead of Dustin Hoffman’s fictional Benjamin Braddock.

"Twenty years earlier, I'd predicted that someday there'd be a material we could smear inside a mold to create a one-piece boat," says Johnson, now 91 and living in Kernville, Calif. By 1972 that material—cross-linked polyethylene—had become a reality, and the rotationally ("roto-") molded plastic kayak that Johnson designed turned paddling on its head as surely as Mrs. Robinson did poor Benjamin.

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This story first appeared as part of our Innovators feature in the Dec 2009 edition of Canoe & Kayak.

Ever the tinkerer, Johnson had built what may have been the world's first fiberglass canoe in 1942 and later helped develop the first foam-filled fiberglass gunstock. He also was one of the country's leading whitewater paddlers who would soon be tapped to coach the 1972 Olympic slalom team. So when a Tennessee company that had pioneered the art and science of molding plastic trashcans turned its attention to kayaks in 1971, they called Johnson.

Johnson was thrilled to help. He stopped by the Hollowform factory en route to Europe with a group of American slalom racers, and returned to a fiberglass kayak mold awaiting him in Kernville. Recognizing that Hollowform's creation "was the wrong type of kayak," he immediately set about carving a new mold, adhering to International Canoe Federation specifications. The result was the River Chaser, a 13-foot-long, canary-yellow kayak that revolutionized the sport.
Though quick to credit Hollowform's Elmer Good for formulating the kayak's Zylar cross-linked polyethylene, Johnson isn't bashful about how it affected boating.

"I knew it would take off," says Johnson, who put the boat through its rock-pounding paces on his hometown Kern River. "I knew it was going to change the entire world of paddling."

Expert paddlers used the durable "Tupperware kayak" to open up routes no one dared attempt in fragile fiberglass boats. "It let you go into holes and get shot into the air, like today's hot-dog boats, without worrying about hitting the rock at the bottom," says Johnson. (In an early promotional video, Eric Evans and Cully Erdman back over a River Chaser in a Jeep, throw it over an embankment, drop a boulder on it, and then paddle away.)

Hard Knocks: Johnson putting one of his creations through its paces. Photo courtesy the Johnson family.

Johnson was soon back in his garage, shaping the next stage of kayak evolution, a mold 26 inches shorter than the River Chaser. While the new design never reached production, other companies quickly caught on. Hydra produced the smaller Taurus and Centaur C-1, and Perception founder Bill Masters designed a rotational molder and oven to mass-produce plastic kayaks with an unprecedented one- year warranty. Johnson's impact was felt far beyond whitewater paddling. His work made the modern rec kayak possible, and that brought hundreds of thousands of new people to our sport.

"He always had something going, from the first fiberglass paddles and the first engineered river features on the Kern in 1972," says Kent Ford, whose film
Call of the River documents whitewater's evolution. "You didn't get the full impact of his contribution until later." — Eugene Buchanan

This story first appeared in the Dec. 2009 edition of Canoe & Kayak, as part of our feature The Innovators.

Canoe & Kayak Innovators: 14 Visionaries Who Changed Our Sport Forever
Fun Brothers Jim and Jeff Snyder // Paddling Provocateur Corran Addison // The Prophet of Polyethylene // Warriors of the Self-bailing Revolution // Aluminum Canoe Guru Bill Hoffman // Sit-on-Top Visionary Tim Niemier // Open Boat Bomber Nolan Whitesell // Sea Kayak Savant Frank Goodman // The Bublik // Air Bag Revolutionary // The Royalex Miracle // Videographer Wayne Gentry

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