UNFILTERED: Tim Niemier

The Boatman

The following originally appeared in Canoe & Kayak‘s March 2011 edition.

Tim Niemier has always thought outside the box, or cockpit. As a young man he took a secondhand surfboard into his parent’s Malibu, Calif., garage, and emerged with one of the world’s first sit-on-top kayaks. He made a few more and sold some to friends and neighbors. He learned to mass-produce them in roto-molded plastic, and by the time he sold Ocean Kayak to Johnson Outdoors in 1997, beaches all over the world were adorned with plastic sit-on-top kayaks. That’s precisely the point, says the 59-year-old Niemier, who tirelessly pursues his professed goal to “put a billion butts in boats.” These days, the visionary’s midnight oil burns at the Bellingham, Wash., workshop of his latest company, Wild Design, Inc. (motto: Small boats, big dreams). One recent brainstorm, the “Eight-week Kayak,” takes private-label boat designs from spec to production in two months. Another, a blow-molded kayak that sells for less than a hundred bucks, is a pure expression of the old waterman’s lifelong obsession: getting more people out on the water. — Eugene Buchanan

 

Photo: Rebecca Bolte
Photo: Rebecca Bolte

When I was 11, my next-door neighbor bought a kayak kit for $20. It was just a bunch of sticks and canvas, but we took it through the surf and suddenly I could look back and see where I had always lived. It was my first real perspective of where a kayak could take you.

 

I made my own boat soon after that, but I got sick of getting wet every time I went through the surf. So I got a big tandem surfboard from a pawnshop, made cutouts for the heels and butt, and even put a hatch in it. My father was a commercial artist and I did a lot of sculpture. Building the boat was sort of an expression of that.

 

We took those early sit-on-tops out in some really big surf in Malibu, sometimes in 15-foot waves. Surfers didn’t know what to think of us. The kids would always yell, chatter and swear at us, but the guys on the outside liked us because we could bring marijuana out there. We had dry storage, which they’d never thought of.

 

I loved spearfishing and free-diving. We could carry three tanks out to the edge of the kelp and then have lunch and dive all day. We’d get bass, sheepshead, abalone and crab, and lash them on deck and barbecue them on a sheet of plywood at my house or cook them at the Malibu Yacht Club. It was a great life.

 

I made a camper out of a green, 36-horsepower VW Bug. It was the ultimate diving machine. We’d load it with boats and take it from Mexico to Canada. One person could sleep while the other one was driving. We even got six people in it for a party once.

 

In 1971 someone asked me, ‘How much for one of those?’ I answered, ‘$150.’ The materials cost $50 and it took a day to make so I netted $100. Then somebody else wanted one. The guy who ran the UCLA dive club sold 50 kayaks in one year from people just seeing them on top of his truck.

 

There were nine failures for every one victory. We made one boat really light out of fiberglass, but it leaked; we called it the Sieve-Yak. But I don’t remember those as much as the things that did work.

 

I made my own mold and machine and started making kayaks out of polyethylene. We ended up making 200 a day before I sold the company to Johnson Outdoors. I sold it for $6.5 million, a third of which went to my ex-wife, a third to the government and a third to me.

 

I never thought the company would be worth that much. I was just a beach bum with a funny VW.

 

Paddling offers the biggest bang for the buck for having a wilderness experience. Get 20 feet off shore and you’re in a different world.

 

And it changes people’s lives. A girl with a mental disability affecting her ability to focus got into one of our $99 kayaks and it was the first time she was able to actually control her life. It brought tears to my eyes.

 

Blow-molding is a very cost-effective way to get people onto the water. I recently developed a $99, 6-foot kids’ kayak with a company called Lifetime. 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.

 

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.