By: Eugene Buchanan
There are a few people in the paddling industry so dedicated to their products that it dictates their life. Workplace and home become one, business partners become friends, and personal and paddling lives blend like two rivers converging into one.
Bomber Gear's Rick Franken, who passed away in mid-March in his sleep from respiratory failure while camping with his son, Kai, at the Alabama Mountain Games, was one of them. The news hit the paddling community like a wave in the chest, as everyone who knew him realized they had lost a great friend and innovator in the industry.
Franken co-founded Bomber Gear, which specializes in the design of performance whitewater skirts and technical paddlesports apparel, in Durango, Colo., before moving the company to Steamboat Springs, Colo. Known for his fun-loving, rally-on-a-moment's-notice personality, paddling skills and apparel design expertise, he was also an accomplished mountaineer, climbing K2 in the Himalayas as well as other major peaks.
Franken moved from Steamboat to Easley, S.C., in January 2011 when Bomber Gear was sold to Confluence Watersports in late 2010. With Confluence's resources and commitment, the move finally allowed Franken to help Bomber Gear reach its full potential. The company immediately began churning out new designs for each of the past two Outdoor Retailer Summer Market tradeshows while adding a crucial product line to Confluence's holdings.
His passing rocked the paddling community, no less the leaders of the whitewater boating industry. They share their thoughts regarding Franken’s passing.
Thoughts from the Industry:
“We are shocked and deeply saddened by the news of Rick Franken's passing. Rick was such an important and well-respected part of our team, and we will greatly miss his creative spirit, infectious passion, inspirational drive and fearless leadership as our head designer for the Bomber Gear brand. Our thoughts, prayers and hearts go out to Rick's loved ones, and right now we are focused on supporting his family and helping our own team grieve during this difficult time."
—Confluence CEO Sue Rechner
"I was shocked and even more saddened when I heard the news he was on trip with his son. As a father—I couldn’t bare the thought. I certainly admired the start up with Bomber Gear and the explosion of whitewater in the ’90s we were all part of. The direction Bomber Gear was going, combining style and function, motivated Level Six to push the barriers and ride that wave. They also had some pretty funny advertising, making light of themselves and making it fun. We're all in this industry because we were paddlers first and loved what the sport had to offer our lives. Our thoughts are with his family."
—Tyler Lawlor, co-owner, Level Six
"It’s rare to meet a guy so amazingly talented yet so humble and easy going. I never got to paddle with Rick but we’d been on the same Class V run of entrepreneurship since the 90s. Since then, we shared a lot of beat downs and victories with one another. Rick was core, no doubt, and I already miss him big time.”
—Philip Curry, president, Astral Designs
"Rick started making paddling gear about the same time we did in the mid ’90s and went on to trace an almost identical arc through business—from home sewing machine to industrial sewing machines to hiring a couple of sewers, running a factory, and moving production offshore. He did this with literally none of the resources available to almost every other outdoor industry. He had to figure it out as he went along, like an alpine-style expedition: lean and tenacious. We lost a member of an elite club of business person who loved the river and paddlesports, and strove to improve it despite the endless financial and technical obstacles. Every time I ran into Rick at industry events we would share a laugh at the absurdity of what we were doing. Who’s to fill these shoes? No one. They’re un-fillable. Paddling will never see the likes of Rick again. His enormous skills as a designer and relentless desire to make kayaking a cool and functional sport with a unique style and identity were special enough on their own, but were matched in a time in kayaking’s history when one driven person could change the look and feel of an entire sport. Rick seized that opportunity with both arms and ran with it. His influence is immeasurable."
—John Weld, president, Immersion Research
Franken’s family is planning a celebration of his life that will take place at the Animas River Days in Durango in June.
Read the complete tribute to Rick: A Tribute to Rick Franken
Support his kids and family: Support for Franken Family