By Adam Traubman
3:04 AM. Bob Dylan unleashed his warbling Watchtower solo, and I hit the gas. My old friend Scott 'Toad Patrol' Winner loved his Dylan. Cannonballing up to Malibu where he used to live, I recalled the very first Northern Baja kayak fishing trip I ever guided. We jammed halfway through the night, swilling rattlesnake wine, and still paddled at dawn to catch enough fish for the small town.
Rough around the edges but always good for a laugh, Scott was one of the original modern-day kayak anglers. He kept to his roots, including his original Malibu Ocean Kayak, one of the first hand-made sit-on-tops. As Scott used to say to haughty onlookers leering at his antique ride, "Function prevails, boys. Function prevails." He was right.
In the early 1970s, after more than 4,000 years of kayak evolution, a Southern California waterman named Tim Niemier broke the mold. His sit-on-top design combined ample deck space, internal storage and a virtually unsinkable hull. It opened up a whole new world. It also added a level of safety the sport had never experienced. Having survived a near-death experience in a sit-inside kayak myself, I appreciate the sit-on-top design as much as anyone. So when I got the news that one of the first kayaks Niemier ever made had surfaced in a dusty garage and needed a test driver, I jumped at the opportunity to ride history.
"Trout. It's Paul Lebowitz. I found a kayak."
The boat was a sit-on-top, but not the plastic rotomolded design prevalent today. It was a relic of that in-between period when Niemier's theory had budded but not fully blossomed. The crude fiberglass, raw form and lack of scupper holes had R&D written all over it. This was the 'missing link' of kayaks. What a find.
"I picked up the boat today. It’s signed by Tim Niemier and dated 1972!" Paul said.
He rattled off the details like a car nut contemplating a frame-up restoration. "It’s bare bones: no seat, no paddle keeper, no rod holders. The tank well is long and skinny, maybe six inches wide. There are no anchors or eye pads to secure a seat. The tankwell hardware is partially missing. Unfortunately we can’t add hardware, we have to keep it as stock as possible," Paul told me.
Aside from the gaping holes, structural fragility and overall historical handicap, I immediately noticed that when Tim designed it over four decades ago, it wasn't for a 6'2" 185-pound paddler.
We wrote Niemier, who still designs kayaks near Seattle, and asked about the early boat, likely one of the first ten he built at his Malibu workshop.
“The thing that came back like an old memory was the way the butt and foot wells were lower volume or, that is to say, there wasn’t room for anything but feet and butt so there was very little extra water to bail out, which was good because there were no scuppers," Niemier said. "The fiberglass kayaks had three different sizes of foot lengths and only one butt size, which was smaller than some of its occupants."
6:25 AM. At sunrise, I met Paul and a group of other old-school kayak anglers at a Malibu-area beach. The birds were already working, dive-bombing hapless baitfish out beyond the breaking surf. It was time to salt and slime the old boat in its home waters.
I managed to wedge my 6'2" frame into the original Ocean Kayak and prepared to tackle whatever the sea sent my way. With 25-knot winds at my back, I watched the right point-break feather and peel across the cove as surfers were blown off the tops of the peaks. The offshore gusts were brutal, but I didn't drive from San Diego at 3:00 a.m. to turn around and go home. While our goal was to fish, our group agreed with the lifeguards it wasn't safe. White seabass, halibut and toad calico bass are certainly prevalent in the area, but so are these Santa Ana winds that can sweep away and kill even the most experienced kayakers in the world. So we scrapped the fishing plan for the moment, and I went out to test-drive history.
The goal was to run through the surf and see how the old OK handled. The long, narrow kayak with extreme "V" in the hull had just enough rocker to handle the curl of a wave, and it tracked, held speed, and flew like the traditional Greenland kayaks of old. Using the paddle and inside rail to track and control the angle, I used my outside leg to counter-balance and serve as a human outrigger. It's about adaptation. It's about sensation. It's about the ocean. How quickly I went from cringing about missing a day of fishing to completely locking into this hand-crafted kayak, made by a legend, and testing its maximum capabilities.
Inspecting the kayak on land, our crew gathered around to take a closer look. Unwrapping the thin, dilapidated hatch to dump excess water, we could see how Niemier created bulkheads in the fore and aft. There also seemed to be compartments or chambers sealed off with crude fiberglass. They were not watertight, but perhaps they originally served as bulkheads. Some of the white paint had chipped away, revealing a yellow under-coat. This made sense, as all of the very first Ocean Kayaks were yellow. But the key element – the design – was exceptional. While it wasn't the perfect fit for me the original OK's sleek shape allowed it to paddle like lightning and track like a laser beam. And that's a testament to its creator.
Kayak fishing has developed leaps and bounds over the years. Just don't forget that half the equation is the kayak itself. It's noble to respect tradition and thank those who have helped make it happen. In this case we can appreciate Tim Niemier for his contribution. And I personally thank Toad Patrol for bridging the gap between the old guard and the new.
Oh, and the wind did eventually die down enough to wet a few lines. We may have only scraped together a few bass, but the camaraderie, the history, and the original 1972 sit-on-top Ocean Kayak made it memorable to say the least.
Adam “Trout” Traubman is one of the original California kayak fishing guides and the first in Baja. Starting in the early ’90s, he has been involved in the progression of kayak fishing in California, Mexico, Hawaii and beyond.