By Conor Mihell
Achieving his objective of getting “a billion butts on boat and butts” means Tim Niemier is most interested in making paddlesports accessible to Joe Public. Niemier got a head start on his mission in the early 1970s in Malibu, Calif., where he started building and selling sit-on-top kayaks in surf. In 1988, he founded industry giant Ocean Kayak, and is credited with launching the recreational kayak genre.
Since he sold Ocean Kayak in 1997, Niemier has continued to push the design envelope—always with the familiar intention to inspire more paddlers. “The people I sold my first boats to in California just wanted to go and see the sunset,” says Niemier, 61, from his home office in Bellingham, Wash. “The kayak to them was a gateway. Once they’re hooked on paddling, they may go on to the next level.”
Niemier’s latest brainchild is the Origami Paddler, a collapsible standup paddleboard that folds down into three pieces to fit inside the backseat of a car, using rotomolded plastic construction he hopes to soon replicate in a kayak. Niemier took a cue from online retail giant Amazon to develop a no-middleman approach to distribution. “One of the design parameters was that I could sell direct using undersized UPS,” says Niemier. “So that became the first question: Does it fit within regular UPS dimensions [length and girth under 130 inches] for low-cost shipping?”
The first generation of Origami Paddler SUPs was “crowd funded” by 28 online buyers. Now with a mold in place to build the 11-foot, three-inch polyethylene SUP, Niemier says he can “be in the black” after selling another 15 boards—not bad for something that’s completely designed- and made in the U.S. He expects the stable, swallowtail-shaped board to compete favorable with inflatable SUPs that are made in offshore factories. He envisions the process expanding to include individual retailers working with Niemier to develop their own molds and producing their own kayaks and SUPs specific to local applications, like “the 100-mile diet for kayaks.”
Meanwhile, Niemier says the folding technology—from which he borrowed design cues from Sweden’s Point 65, which launched its own take-apart three-piece plastic rec kayak in 2009—is easily transferable to kayaks. The Origami Paddler SUP features two hinges on the top of the board that lock in place with cam straps. Folded down it measures 46 inches by 32 inches by 10 inches. The volume distribution of a kayak would allow him to make longer, narrower boats—including fishing kayaks, tandem sit-on-tops and light-touring sit-insides—that still fit within UPS dimensions.
For Niemier, whose On Water Designs are produced by big box specialists like Lifetime Products (which now owns Emotion Kayaks) and single-outlet specialty retailers like Texas’ Diablo Paddlesports, it all amounts to more people on the water. “Why not set a goal of a billion people?” he says. “Many of the rec boats out there are so identical to my designs they’re basically copies. And since sit-on-tops are more often shared than sit-inside kayaks, I just put one billion out there for a goal. My estimate is that I’m 30 or 40 percent of the way there.”