A Legend Passes

Tom Johnson's innovation ushered in a new era of whitewater

Tom Johnson sits among some of his boats and boat molds which he has made and stores behind his house in Kernville, Calif. Photo:  Dan Ocampo

Tom Johnson sits among some of his boats and boat molds which he has made and stores behind his house in Kernville, Calif. Photo: Dan Ocampo

Tom Johnson, a legendary kayaking innovator, U.S. Olympic Slalom coach and member of the International Whitewater Hall of Fame, died Aug. 23 in Kernville, California. Johnson was known as the father of the plastic kayak for his central role in the development of the durable polyethylene kayaks that revolutionized river-running in the 1970s. In tribute to this humble river genius, we offer this profile which first ran in our December, 2009 “Innovators” issue. RIP.

By Eugene Buchanan

“Plastics,” Mr. McGuire told Ben Braddock in 1967’s The Graduate.

No one needed to tell that to Tom Johnson. The L.A. fireman became the National K-1 Wildwater Champion the same year The Graduate came out. Six years later, his rotomolded plastic Hollowform kayak turned paddling on its head as surely as Mrs. Robinson did poor Benjamin.

“Twenty years earlier, I’d predicted that someday there’d be a material we could smear inside a mold to create a one-piece boat,” says Johnson, now 91 and living in Kernville, Cali.

Ever the tinkerer, Johnson had already built the world’s first fiberglass canoe in 1942 (“I won’t brag about that,” he says). Later, he helped develop the first foam-filled fiberglass gunstock. Remembering his role in that project, colleague Don Carmichael called him for help with a project by trash can manufacturer Hollowform in Tennessee.

Johnson was on his way to Europe to coach the U.S. slalom team. He stopped in Tennessee and shared some ideas with Carmichael. When he got home to Kernville, a mold for a plastic kayak was waiting for him. Recognizing that the shape “was the wrong type of kayak,” he carved a new mold for the River Chaser, adhering to International Canoe Federation specifications. The result: a 13-foot-long, canary-yellow kayak that revolutionized the sport.

Though quick to credit Hollowform’s Elmer Good for masterminding the kayak’s Zylar cross-linked polyethylene, Johnson isn’t bashful about how it affected boating. “I knew it would take off,” says Johnson, who put it through its rock-pounding paces on his hometown Kern River. “I knew it was going to change the entire world of paddling.”

Indeed, former U.S. Team member Eric Evans quickly embarked on an around-the-world Odyssey with the trend-setting kayaks, taking them from South America to the Alps. An old video clip even shows him running over it with a Jeep and watching it pop back into shape. Expert paddlers, meanwhile, used it to open up new routes everywhere, bidding goodbye to the days of patching fiberglass. “It let you go into holes and get shot into the air, like today’s hot dog boats, without worrying about hitting the rock at the bottom,” says Johnson.

While it never made it into production, Johnson later shortened it by cutting 26 inches off the length and rounding the ends. Other companies quickly caught on, with Hydra producing the smaller Taurus and Centaur C-1 and Perception founder Bill Masters designing a rotational molder and oven to mass-produce plastic kayaks with an unprecedented one-year warranty.

But it all owes itself to Johnson, a member of the International Whitewater Hall of Fame who still has the original pattern in his garage. “It’s still there if anyone wants to see it,” he says. “I got the mold, too.”

Tom Johnson holds a picture of him holding a fiberglass River Chaser that was taken in 1972. Photo: Dan Ocampo

Tom Johnson holds a picture of him holding a fiberglass River Chaser that was taken in 1972. Photo: Dan Ocampo

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  • Eric Ogden

    amazing life, tremendous contributions

  • OutsideJay

    Thanks for the great write-up and history lesson. Hope the mold makes it into a museum of some kind. RIP Tom. Paddle on.

  • Obomber

    He also popped the first fiberglass Malia mold off of the Malia (Koa Canoe) while it was waiting for transport back to Hawaii after the first Catalina Race, Some of Hawaii’s Old timers are still mad at him for not asking permission. Paddling in California changed that next year.

  • Dan Henderson

    Tom impacted our sport in so many ways,
    not just with plastic boats. He was a
    pioneer in completely immersing paddling into his life. He was a great paddler, teacher and
    coach. In Kernville, he created a
    whitewater park – on of the first in the world, so we could learn and train and
    race. Tom spent countless hours with us
    setting up gates, helping us learn to work current lines to have fast and clean
    runs. He had the ability to dissect even
    the smallest detail of a move and help us understand even the smallest aspect
    of how water moves and how could interact with it. He thought about every detail. That’s where I learned to be an analyst.

    Tom was the Manager of the first US
    Olympic Slalom Team in 1972 and athletes that he coached were represented on
    that team.

    As a leader in instruction, Tom helped
    pioneer the ACA Moving Water program, teaching annual classes in
    Sacramento. We spent countless hours on
    Lake Natoma and the American River developing our paddling, analyzing, teaching
    and coaching skills.

    Tom was one of the greatest story
    tellers of all time. He would tell a
    story over and over, but it was always a pleasure to listen.

    Tom Johnson lives on in those of us he
    touched in more ways than we can recognize and understand. I will always be one of Tom Johnson’s kids!

  • puffin

    Arriving in Kernville from Montana in spring 1969, my paddling friend and I showed up at Tom’s doorstep. There weren’t many boaters then, and all boats were fiberglass. Tom took us under his wing and we had an amazing month, paddling all over southern California in what was an extremely high water year. My friend went on to win the national C-2 championship a few years later.Thanks, Tom, you were a wonderful teacher and great companion for a month we’ll never forget.

  • John Dye, Rivers for Change

    We made the trek to Kernville from Northern CA as often as job and family allowed, especially to race slalom in the spring on the course Tom designed and got built.

    Tom was still paddling in the late 90′s, probably longer. He didn’t like to sit in the boat for more than about 15-20 minutes though. He’d worked through a lot of injuries as a firefighter, was missing most of his pectoral muscles due to a accident on the job.

    One race there was an especially long line of boaters waiting to run the course, we were all milling around warming up, killing time. Tom just paddled to the front. We immediately chastised him, told him even he had to wait his turn. He quietly paddled back into the que. That didn’t last long. Pretty soon he started telling jokes. Real stinkers, 2nd grade potty humor stuff. We quickly realized he had an unlimited collection, and this was going to go on for 1/2 an hour if we didn’t do something about it. In less than a minute we were all helping him forward into the starters gate as quickly as possible, hoping to avoid the next fart joke. The scheduled paddler happily traded their spot for some longed for piece and quiet. “Get him outa here, PLEASE!” We pleaded with the starter. Tom shut up, got his “attention please, GO!” command, and headed off toward gate #1, smiling to himself.

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