What was the first boat you built?
It was a 17-foot Cedar-strip tripping canoe. I built it in my dad’s garage in high school. My friends and I mapped out a trip on some old Indian trade routes. We bought an old car, put two boats on the roof and drove up there. We sold the car for 20 bucks and started paddling back.
At that time I was still working at the grocery store, and he wouldn’t give me the time off, so I quit. I’ve never had another job since. I made my way through college building boats and fixing a few canoes. After college I decided I could maybe make a living out of this. That was the beginning of Wenonah canoe.
How did you start paddling? Boy Scouts got me paddling. A few years ago they made me a Distinguished Eagle, which is an honor given to Eagle Scouts who attain prominence in their chosen field. Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg and all the astronauts who were Eagles are Distinguished Eagles. Cliff Jacobson is a Distinguished Eagle.
Describe your design philosophy. It’s always about efficiency. A boat that can cross the North Sea in a gale is going to be different from a recreational kayak, but whatever the category we want to make the most efficient boat for the job. And sometimes you need to be out of the box. Henry Ford once said, ‘If I would have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have wanted a faster horse.’
What’s your process? It’s like planting a bonsai tree and making the branches go where you want them to go. We watch it grow, and make little changes every day. And we’re in the water all the time, playing with the boats and making adjustments.
Closing thought? Years ago a gal from a magazine asked me to describe myself in three words. I thought about that, and I’d seen other people’s answers—you know, trustworthy and so forth. And I said, ‘Here are my three words: born to paddle.’ It’s what I started with, what I still do and what I still enjoy. That’s kind of what I am.