TopKayaker.Net: Designers of Sit-on-top Kayaks

In the beginning photo by Tom Holtey Tim NiemierTim Niemier - "In the beginning..."
Many of the photos provided by Tim or JWA Inc.

Tim Niemier was the Malibu teenager who made sit-on-top kayaks the most revolutionary innovation in the kayak industry.

However influenced by boat builders like Northern California's Mike Creps of Royak, and the plywood craft of New Zealand lifeguards, it was Tim, who as a young man in the 70's, teamed up with his best friend and neighbor, Dan DeVault, and fashioned out of fiberglass what is now the rotomolded, open cockpit, self bailing boat that has gained the recognition of manufacturers and respect of kayakers all around the world.

In this interview we share Tim's own words as he recounts his beginnings on Malibu beach building the Ocean Kayak Company and the designing of it's popular models. He relates the difficulties resulting in the sell of Ocean Kayak to Johnson Worldwide and shares his insights into what has since become the future of kayaking. Photo: by Tim Holtey, Tim & his polyethylene Scupper Pro in Hawaii 1992


"In selling the company it was a big life change... kind of like having your daughter get married... they don't want you on the honeymoon. But on the other hand, they're living by themselves, which is really a big relief knowing that this thing is going on without you."

that 70's truckTim's story in his own words:

Malibu, California: The Late 60's

Dan Duvault, my next door neighbor and good buddy, got a kit in the mail for about $25. We were about twelve or thirteen and it was a real simple squarish kayak: four one by ones in pine; and then a bunch of little one by ones. You strap them together at the ends and separate them apart with these other little one by ones. The cross section of the thing was sort of like a one foot high by 2 foot wide rectangle. Then you put canvas over it and painted it with Sears weather beater paint.

Tim's Designs

Scupper Classic
scupper classic

Scupper Pro
scupper pro




Dawn Tracker
dawn tracker

Ambush ambush



Zest II / Zuma

We took it out into the ocean, taking turns, and it was like magic!

Shortly after, I made one that was a more sophisticated shape and it turned out to be almost exactly the same lines as some of George Dicens boats...you know, Aleut boats...the length, width and lines. That was really cool. I remember paddling that thing when I was in Junior High up the coast.

I went by myself about 15 miles. It was neat! There were tons of whales around and one must of come up right behind me. At first I couldn't figure out what it was as it sounded like someone blew off a shot gun.

But I came in through the surf because I saw all these whales all over the place. I didn't quite make it to my destination, coming in about three miles short. In the beginning, I did lots of trips like that, but the only problem with that kayak was the big hassle to get through the surf; it filled up with water.

In California you always have about a two or three foot surf, just enough to get you completely wet. To solve the problem I took a tandem surf board and made a little butt well and heel well and a place to put dive stuff; not really a tank, but just skin dive stuff; and then took that out and I thought "That's it, this is all I need".. to go through the surf with a wet suit; you can dive and even have a little lunch or something. I thought: "I've arrived!"

Diving In: The 70's

At that time I was into sculpture and I learned about molds and shaping with different materials. I began to think maybe I could make a shape that was a little bit better. So I created one out of plaster and made a mold.

Using that as our guide, Dan and I started making them more like a kayak out of fiberglass. We had two of them and one day in 1971 when we took them down to the beach, somebody asked "How much are those?"

I kind of looked at my friend and said "$150 bucks!" $50 for the materials and we could make $100. In the 70's that was like $1000 in one day! I was just out of high school.

So I've gone through an evolution with these things. It went kind of slow, but we had a great time. We started making and selling a few of them; then started to really expand our horizons.

I think we could put at least two, if not three, (dive) tanks in the original fiberglass one; and you could do some pretty serious diving. You could paddle out beyond the kelp; otherwise, without a kayak, you could use a whole tank of air going out to the edge of the kelp.

Zest IIWith the kayaks, in 10 minutes you could be out there completely refreshed and ready to go and could get out to the really good spots.

Sometimes we would surf with them on big waves (we called it "dive through surf") and when the surf got really big we were the only ones who could get out, between the sets; and the surfers would have a really hard time getting out because these big sets would come in and wash them back.

With big waves it is hard to be in the right spots, but these original 14 foot boats we had were pretty good all around boats; they would semi-plane; they would cruse at a really decent speed and you could put enough dive stuff in them.

We would also cruse or tour, taking them over to Catalina Island. We just went 20 miles from Palos Verdes. Some of my friends went the 40 miles from Malibu. We'd do that every year. That was fun but I told people it was kind of boring to go that far. I really discouraged it but one time Rebecca and I went from Santa Barbara to San Diego. We actually got to LaJolla and one of the kayaks got stolen because we had to stuff them here and there (at put-ins). The main thing was that it was just so neat being out on the water.

We made three fiberglass designs, 16' with a scuba tank. They were sort of experimental things. The Mark 1, 2 and 3. They had hatches and a tank well. Mark 1 could be made in about 4 or so hours. They were unique in that you could lay the two halves up, and put it together before they hardened over night. It was sort of a high production model.

In that time period between 1971, from when I first sold the first kayak to 1986, I experimented around and made an outrigger canoe. I designed a version of a Malibu Outrigger which was a wooden boat, a really great boat. But I made it a lot lighter because they were made for sailing, not paddling. The original Malibu Outrigger weighed about 500 lbs, and this one was about half the weight of that.

My outrigger wasn't that fast but it would move along just fine and was a very comfortable cruiser.

During that period of my life, late 70's early 80's, I spent my summers up on Vancouver Island and then go back down to California in the winter time when it got cold up there. This really taught me about being on the water because the place in Vancouver has no roads to it so everything you do is on the water. You end up using a lot of kayaks or skiffs because it is 20 miles to the nearest store or restaurant I'm so glad I did that at that time in my life. Then I did bodywork in California. For a part time job it was really great.

Ocean Kayak: The '80's

Tim's first production facilityThere is one mile of beach in Malibu, between a place called the Sea Lion, called Duke's now, and Moon Shadows. They were about two miles apart. When we first started making the boats we sold 22 kayaks over about three or four years on that one little beach.

I thought "Man if you could sell that many to one little beach imagine what you could do with all of California or Hawaii?"

So I realized that there was a potential, but the matter of making them with fiberglass made it hard to keep the quality up. Or if we tried to get other people to do it sometimes they couldn't.

So I went through struggles like that and then in the early 80's someone told me about rotational molding. I kind of knew about it before because I was in this Malibu yacht club. Hoyle Switzer was in that and he started the Wind Surfer International. They used this rotational molding process and you know that took off like crazy, and I thought maybe I could make a windsurfer I could paddle. Because, I thought: "Who would ever want to buy a plastic kayak!"

So in 1986 I talked myself into making these things out of polyethylene. I made my own molds; made my own machine; and started production.

One of the things that happened was that windsurfing got too technical and the sit-on-tops moved right in on that. The timing was absolutely perfect. There was a whole sales force already in place. We sold one tenth of one percent, the population of Santa Barbara, the first year; and after you do that something magic happens. It is the critical point. That is why the whole kayaking thing is taking off because it reaches that level of awareness.

We made 459 boats. After about two years in California learning about the process. Then we (my wife & I) packed up the machine and everything on a truck and trailer and moved up to Bellingham near the Canadian border, and in January 1988 started Ocean Kayak. We chose Bellingham, Washington because we loved Canada.

Although my wife and I had immigrated to Canada and our first son was born there, we left California with this whole rig packed up: I think it was Christmas Eve and I think we ended up getting there the day after Christmas so we delayed Christmas a day and actually moved into this place Jan 1 and then made the first boat.

It was April Fools day, April 1st it came out of the mold. Six months after, Rebecca was pregnant when we moved, we finally got a house and had kids then it was just sort of craziness for 12 years. Doing that and having kids was kind of intense, but at least you get it done all at once.

It was really a struggle. It was the most intense thing I've ever done. But it was kind of fun because you realize our minds are designed to run at that speed. They say you only use about ten percent of your brain. In The end it was sort of difficult because the price I paid for all this success was a divorce and having to sell the company; the two things I really valued the most was my family and the company.

So it is kind of ironic that I lost both of those but...well you know they give you a lot of money, but in hind sight I probably would have done the same thing. I like starting companies. When you get one growing fast like that you can't throttle it back. It also changes as it grows.

But I really enjoyed the challenge, I did things I never would have thought myself capable of. It showed that if you believe in something enough it can come true. What happens is you believe in it and then it becomes a reality. Anything that people can imagine is possible. The hard part is imagining it. Making it a reality is sort of an afterthought.

What I learned though in that time is, well you ask yourself what business are you really in? and because I really like to step back from something and say "what's the bigger picture here? Are we here only to make a profit? No."

I figured out that we are here to make people friendly with the water. And kayaking to me was the best way to make people friendly with the water. It's inexpensive, it's a beautiful experience. That's where they whole thing "water friendly" came from. And I thought if you do a good job at that, then all the other successes will come. And it seemed to work because if we focused on that; because that was our mission, to make people friendly with the water.

But then someone asks you "How much?"

The Selling of Ocean Kayak

Ocean Kayak founder In 1997 Johnson Worldwide Associates purchased Ocean Kayak from Tim which required him to sign a standard "non-compete" agreement; but not without some reservations. So he arranged to spend two years working for Ocean Kayak as a consultant. Tim continues:

The sell was really quick. Nice and relatively painless. One of those things. Not everything is perfect but you have to move on. In selling the company it was a big life change. Kind of like having your daughter get married. You know, they don't want you on the honeymoon; but on the other hand, they're living by themselves, which is really a big relief knowing that this thing is going on without you. So that has been good.

It is kind of like a marriage; and if you aren't careful these companies will do all the stuff and make all the numbers look right but the passion evaporates. Sometimes these kind of companies get so big they can't move or change very well.

I had trouble getting them to understand what I was talking about because they are kind of run on the left hand side of the brain. The passion in the designs gets diluted, and this is what you are really selling. Passion. You can tell when you see a boat on the showroom floor whether there is a passion behind it. That is what you are selling. Not just this piece of plastic. You are selling them the possibility of this love affair with the water. They don't have to be expert boats; they can be entry level. Mozart said he wanted his music so that the person who was the least educated to the most educated would be able to appreciate his music. And he did it. It is simple but it is beautiful.

A lot of people are definitely afraid of the water ...don't feel comfortable by themselves, others want to be independent. Some people feel comfortable in large groups. Who would ever think you could get the Chinese into paddlesports? But we have. For example, there is a big beach operation in Guam with a kind of a day program where they put 1.2 million people into our kayaks per year for 20 minutes, or more and they are all Asian.

Twenty minutes is a quantifiable thing! ...And then there are some people who spend a whole life time paddling. Extrapolating from that, I think we put close to 200 million people in Ocean Kayak boats and that is probably just a percentage of SOT's. I think this is an important part of what you are doing at TopKayaker.Net. I have to say that I really think what you are doing is great. That is actually the biggest reward of anything...it is kind of like having kids...it get people out there on the water.

What's the big deal about getting people out there for 20 minutes? For a lot of people it's the first time they have that perspective shift. On the earth we are the dominant species. We've paved everything to death; but you go in the ocean at it has different rules; it's still wild and that's what's so great about it; you can sense that. It's in charge.

I used to take people out on the beach in Malibu...you know it's crowded and everything. I used to take people out a hundred yards off shore and they would say "Woe! It's different out here." Sometimes you could see the bottom.

Tim On His Designs

Tim in BoliviaI really got turned on about making something and then using it. Just really direct and simple. Make it out of different materials available to everybody.

Big companies are focused on the noun and not the verb. But what we are selling is the verb not the noun. Yea, it's comfortable and all that....but after you get this noun all down...engineers etc...you can get preoccupied with one or the other. It can have all the elements but not the passion. I have tons of kayak stuff designed in my head. I have a whole line of sea kayaks in my head.

I designed the Cabo, made a model for that just before I sold the company. They took it and made a boat out of it, but didn't test it. Fortunately it worked. I took it on the Bolivia trip. There are a few things they could have changed. Minor things like sharper keel edges so it would handle a little better.

Take a prototype of these models on a trip. Then you find out what does and doesn't work. It's a matter of quality. Everything has to work. So that is one of the things I think should happen in the design process. What that would do is expand the horizon of the whole sport creating a new experience with the water. SOT's end up being shared a lot more than the sit in side boats which makes the whole industry grow.

Paco/Kia is a copy of the scrambler, designed by a French designer, to be a kid's boat. The Ambush I actually did shape out. I had the original concept. Way before we sold the company. I thought the fishing market was big....after Ocean Kayak sold I became a part of a design team and I did what they told me.

The Rrrapiddo: Ocean Kayak got Mike Johnson to make it rotomolded. They listened to some of my stuff and not to other stuff. I accentuated the hull on the bottom to make the poly more ridged.

My favorite Design? The Scrambler was really interesting because it was a whole redefinition of the kayak. Before the Malibu came out it was probably the most copied. It was light, practical and it pretty much was fairly fast... you could get from point A to point B pretty good.

The other was the Malibu because it fit everyone and was perceived as the family boat. I liked the shape of it because it was a great family kayak.

Tim designing stillThe Future of Sit-on-top Kayaking

One of the concepts we had before selling the company was to go off into 4 or 5 directions. One of the directions would be Diving. I wanted to make a dive kayak, but the boat had to make the experience work. It should allow you to go off for a few days...sort of dive backpacking. Catch your own food and cook it. You could free dive or scuba. You could do it for two hours, two weeks, two years.

Another area is Sailing. - developing a sail outrigger. For cruising you can go a lot faster. If you use the wind as your friend...in a sea kayak the wind is your enemy: "If it doesn't blow it sucks" is what sailboarders say. The right sail rig would provide a way you could operate even in high winds.

The outrigger is really an interesting thing; with the right rig they are really interesting boats. You wouldn't think an OR would be good for the surf.....if made out of the right materials...Oh there are just endless amounts of ways to enjoy the water! They have to start looking at different materials, though. Polyethylene is heavy. More durable and manufacturer friendly materials are coming available.

Another thing I see in the future, is training. Like the diving industry, a 1.5 billion dollar self regulating industry...one of the ways they do that is with training. Dive travel is or was 1 billion of the 1.5 billion total industry gross.

Those easy rental lessons...they are actually the more important ones because they teach you your limitations and tell people the whole world about what's out there to experience. And it's good for liability.

I think this is the difference between the dive industry and the paddlesports industry is that at least in the dive industry it's uniform and their are rules beginners can measure their skill level by. Then people know which areas to avoid. A few simple things like that would make it safer. A few people have been killed...but many many more people have been saved. If you could do something to make people more aware and save even one life, that makes it worth doing.

I would couple this with travel....and kayaking is easier than diving. We are starting to see this thing take off on its own but this thing could be way bigger and I don't feel that it's a bad thing. I think for the amount of resources the kayak uses up it's a good deal environmentally; so I don't feel guilty that way, starting this "social revolution" because when you get people out on the water they see that all of a sudden that they are this grain of sand. I think this is really good for our soul.

Since this interview, Tim has been designing again. To keep up with his innovations visit

Tim's Website: http://www.wilddesign.com


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