Would you believe the story of the modern fishing kayak starts along a beachside highway?
On a spring day in 1971, a young Tim Niemier was standing with a friend along Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.
Tim had just paddled to shore on one of his home-built, sit-on-top fiberglass kayaks.
The design was long and lean. Initially derived from a longboard, Niemier’s craft had a high volume, gracefully lifted nose, a tadpole’s tail and a shallow seat carved out of the deck.
A man walked up and asked to buy the kayak. Niemier was momentarily taken aback. “We’d never considered selling them,” Niemier tells me from his present-day home in Bellingham, Washington.
At the time, the materials to make one of the boats cost less than $50. Niemier made a few quick calculations and asked for $150.
“My friend and I split the $100,” Tim laughs.
The humble beginnings of Malibu Ocean Kayak, later called Ocean Kayak, founded in 1972
Niemier sold more boards and continued to develop his design. He named it the Scupper, for the self-bailing holes in the deck. A tankwell sprouted in the stern, a hatch added to the bow.
This was the mother boat that set the enduring sit-on-top template of an open cockpit, bow hatch and tankwell. Since then, there have been many variations, but the founding DNA remains strong.
“It’s gratifying the original design is still the basic default for a sit-on-top kayak,” Niemier marvels.
He was looking to spread world peace with a paddlecraft. “If we could make people friendly with the water I felt the world would be a better place.” Paddling, he says, forces people to “get out of their head and find a happier place.”
The Scupper was born with a hunter’s heart.
Niemier used his kayaks to scoot past the surf out to the local kelp beds, where he’d dive in with a spear gun. Niemier’s kindergarten classmate, the late Scott Winner, saw the potential and brought fishing rods along.
“We both fished in the same area. Scott would drift along the edge of the kelp where the big ones hung out. He could out fish me quite a bit,” Niemier admits.
Where did Scott put the rods? He probably stashed them inside the expansive bow hatch; the early Scuppers didn’t feature rod holders.
The seminal moment was yet to come. Building kayaks out of fiberglass was slow and expensive. There had to be a better way.
In 1986, Niemier decided to switch to rotomolded plastic to mass produce his kayaks.
Niemier got some help making the mold, but soon discovered that he had to build his own oven. The mold was too big. In truth, it was a strike of golden luck. “My rotomold machine only cost a few thousand dollars,” he says.
Ocean Kayak thrived. Cheaper, stronger and lighter, the plastic Scuppers flew out of the factory. The original model evolving later into the Scupper Classic and the Scupper Pro TW.
Soon there were competitors selling rotomolded kayaks, and nearly all had the same basic deck plan: bow hatch, cockpit and tankwell.
In the years since, Niemier sold Ocean Kayak and opened a watercraft design bureau—On Water Designs
His design work, more artistry than engineering, helped several kayak brands get off the ground. He’ll even build you a one-off custom kayak.
In Niemier’s world, form follows function. “You just know when it’s right,” he says. Niemier’s full story is captured in his book, The Millionaire Beach Bum: Turning ADD into Passion and Profit.
As for the venerable Scupper, mother of all sit-on-tops, and progenitor of all modern fishing kayaks, it’s still around in newly modernized form. There’s Swell Watercraft’s rotomolded Scupper 14, just now coming onto the market. And soon, the ScupPro from On Water Designs will be available in carbon fiber, fiberglass or polyethylene.
The new Scupper designs were conceived by Niemier to set a modern standard for performance and construction, direct descendants of the roadside transaction almost 50 years ago.
Kayak fishing pioneer, Paul Lebowitz is a former editor of Kayak Angler. Roots is a new column celebrating the early years of kayak fishing.
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