By Eugene Buchanan
Tim Niemier, 64, has always thought outside the box — or cockpit. In 1971 in his Malibu, Calif. garage, he reworked an old surfboard into the world’s first sit-on-top kayak, with the goal of getting more people out on the water. It worked. 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-five years later, his brainstorms still burn at his Wild Designs firm in Bellingham, Wash., and now he’s put his life’s tale – which includes overcoming Attention Deficit Disorder – out there for all to see in his new book, The Millionaire Beach Bum: Turning A.D.D. into Passion and Profit.
“There are a lot of beaches in the world, so I had an inkling that they’d do pretty well,” he says of selling his first 30 sit-on-tops along a stretch of local beach. By 1978, he opened the first Ocean Kayak factory in Hawaii, and 10 years later established an operation in Malibu. Growing 30 percent a year, he added factories in New Zealand, Australia and France before selling to Johnson Outdoors in 1997. By then, nearly every kayak manufacturer worldwide had a sit-on-top in their line, for everything from fishing to casual floating. “Tim has to be near the top of anyone’s list when it comes to people who have had major impact on paddlesports,” says Dagger founder Joe Pulliam.
We caught up with him for some insight into his new sit-on-top book that you’ll want to sit down and read.
Canoe & Kayak: When and why did you come up with the idea of writing the book?
Niemier: I wanted to put all of my memories into something that made sense from a time scale perspective. I also wanted to group my memories together regarding different things I did, like going out to that remote island in Canada, and to understand my evolving relationship with ADD over the years and tell others about how I used it to my advantage. And I like challenges.
When and where did you do most of your writing?
I did most of it in overnight sessions where I didn’t get disturbed. Holding thoughts together is difficult for me.
You’re known as a super creative person. Was it hard to transpose that to writing?
It was difficult at first because I often see things in pictures. However, if I work at it long enough there is a composition that happens with words that is not unlike pictures.
What will people discover about you in the book that they might not otherwise know?
The book is laid out in a logical progression for the struggles in my life and how I failed and won a few of them. I still fail at most of what I do, but the successes make it all worthwhile. In the end, the failures are interesting stories that are all we are left with in the end.
How did having ADD affect your approach to designing boats?
The creative process is sort of what I call organized distraction, because it’s coming up with something new which is off the beaten track and not on it. Being able to organize and direct chaos means that one is in semi control. It also brings one into the present like surfing. In that state of being present, novel, new ideas just present themselves. In some ways very organized people are distracted by organization. Lemmings do this.
What would you equate sit-on-tops to in other sports?
Early sit-on-tops are like the early mountain bikes in that they were more simple and let people do more things. They may not go as fast as road bikes, but they’re more adaptable and are generally easier than serious road biking.
What are your thoughts about the state of the paddling industry today?
The first kayaks were fiberglass and very hard to get, or you would just build them yourself so very few retailers even carried them. With rotomolding came larger, medium-sized companies like Ocean Kayak who made them for mom and pop outdoor specialty stores as well as medium box stores like REI. The price range for these kayaks was $500 to $1,000, with a few fringe sea kayaks being made out of fiberglass at higher prices. Now we have giant blowmolding companies that can deliver product to the big box for a $100 to $500 price point. If this is like the beer industry, I see a lot of craft kayak makers that can compete with the big companies without the shipping and inventory problems the larger companies have.