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In case you're still paddling a Dancer and haven't heard, kayaker and film producer Steve Fisher recently joined Jackson Kayak as the company's newest sponsored paddler, bringing together EJ and Fisher, two of the industry's most flamboyant characters and best paddlers. We caught up with Fisher for his thoughts on joining his one-time on-water rival, his recent marriage and what's next after the Grand Inga project.
"I'm very careful not to try to one up myself every single time I do something; I think that's a path to catastrophic failure."
PL: Who were you paddling for before and for how long?
Fisher: Aside from my early sponsors in Sprint, Marathon and Slalom, my first whitewater kayak sponsor was Riot. In '98 Corran Addison and Jeff Rivest invited me on a kayaking tour of the U.S. I wasn't paid, but it was free, which was something I could hardly turn down. I continued to work with Riot all the way through to 2010 - 12 years. After the company went bankrupt, moved production to China and came under new ownership, the focus on whitewater was gone, and with no path toward new boat design or athlete support, it was time to move on. I then had a crack at Fluid kayaks but last year decided that I wasn't happy in the boats and really wanted to paddle for Jackson, so I gave EJ a call.
PL: What do you like about Jackson?
Fisher: Some of the things I like about the boats themselves are: 1) The hulls are all centered around a planing hull. From play to creek, there's just a variation in the ratio between planing and displacement - with more of a flared or rounded section in creek boats for edging while sliding over rock. Over the years, we've learned that a planing hull is better. Period. It turns better and tracks better... and those are pretty important features. 2) No thigh braces. Just as with Riot, Jackson boats use knee pockets. This places your knees in direct contact with the boat and also provides a higher and wider knee position, which I find more comfortable. 3) Hull Rigidity. They call it Tony's Track - a thermoplastic beam that is actually welded to the hull of the boat, with rigid fiberglass rods within the plastic that further reinforce it. While it obviously makes a big difference in playboating, something that nobody else is doing is ensuring that the hull of a creekboat is completely rigid, which improves things like boofing and prevents oil canning. 4) What they call the 'unity shock' bulkhead in the creek boats uses foam to fill the void better than most, and I particularly like the fact that it's connected in the middle of the bulkhead rather than on either side. This prevents the possibility of a paddler slipping past the bulkhead, which is one of the most dangerous features of most other creek boats. 5) The Karma Unlimited - If I was forced to only have one boat, this is probably the boat I would choose. It's a lot of fun.
More importantly, I like the fact that I can pick up the phone and call the top decision maker at any moment, EJ, and that's something that can't be said about many other companies. Sure he has investors to answer to, but EJ is the head of the company and being an old friend, who paddles, he has plenty of time for me, and that is worth a hell of a lot to me. Did I mention that another venture capital corporation recently bought Confluence (again)?
PL: You and EJ used to be adversaries, now you're on the same team? How will that work out?
Fisher: Kayaking competition is friendly competition. EJ and I used to be big competitors on the water, but off the water we've always been good friends. As I veered off and focused more on expedition kayaking, we kind of lost touch with each other, but now it's actually awesome to be working together towards the same goals in the kayaking industry.
In the whitewater scene, we've typically had quite different followings. For example, on Facebook, there was very little overlap. Indeed when I announced my switch to Jackson, I had a fair number of Jackson haters leave my page (go figure), but they were replaced by even more people from EJ's following. There is now an increased overlap on both our pages. Is Facebook a measure of our success? No, but it's a pretty good indicator of whether you're on track with the image you're portraying.
From a marketing standpoint, I think "two adversaries now combined on the same team" is very beneficial, and from a personal standpoint it's just a lot of fun. I think we're both in a stage in our career where we see a bigger picture than who wins the next rodeo.
PL: What's next now that Grand Inga's behind you?
Fisher: That's the most common question. The Inga Project was always my Holy Grail expedition. Does that mean that now that I've done it I'm not looking for cool expeditions? Of course not, but I'm very careful not to try to one up myself every single time I do something; I think that's a path to catastrophic failure. My goal now is to shift my focus more to film production rather than my athlete role. In the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy kayaking, and a part of that is looking for new and cool things to do. And it's even better if we can go film it.
I also have other priorities in my life, which was one of the reasons I became impatient with the Inga. Those priorities include my marriage, and the prospect of creating a home and having kids, and I didn't want to have the Inga Project looming over my head. I'm very relieved that I'm not trying to plan it now, because I probably wouldn't do it.
PL:Speaking of being married, how's that going?
Fisher: Lauren and I got married in Burlington, Vermont, in June 2012, so we're approaching two years. Things are going great. We've moved into a sweet pad in Asheville with good Occupational Therapy work options for her, and great paddling for me. It's easy when you get married to the right person at the right time.
PL: What are your thoughts on the state of whitewater kayaking today?
Fisher: There are always polarizing opinions in the whitewater industry but if you simmer it down I think the industry and sport itself is growing, albeit slowly. There are a pretty significant number of newcomers to the sport, despite what some manufacturers may believe. There are currently more first-time buyers than repeat buyers of new boats. Some are not seeing that growth reflected in sales, and there are a few reasons for that depending on which company you talk to: used kayaks have always hindered boat sales; the boats last forever; and changes in design year to year aren't as radical. Another reason is because one or two companies are seeing good growth...companies like Jackson, companies whose owners paddle and personally design the boats and support a team to test and promote them, which takes market share from others.
EJ employs a principle I've always believed: "If you're not dominating, you're not making any money." A first-place kayaker will make money, second might take home enough to pay for the trip, and third will probably lose money. The same applies to the new long boats. The one that sells the most will do great, the second best seller might break even on the mold, and the third best seller will probably have a net loss. That's how the successful people will roll within this industry, and those who do well will do quite well, and those who don't will grumble. And you'll also find that those that do well will be the most active to helping the industry grow.
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