Meet the Godfather: A Tribute to Tom Johnson

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Impressed with all the whitewater innovations you see out on the river today? Whether it’s a paddle, kayak or even spray skirt, chances you can trace its origins back to a tinkerer named Tom Johnson, one of the godfathers of gear in the sport.

Many innovations in whitewater sport can be traced back to this fireman from California, who experimented with countless contraptions to better the sport of whitewater paddling. His credits include everything from building the first whitewater park in the country in downtown Kernville to early designs for fiberglass paddles—at first from electric company linesman poles and later from pole vault shafts. He also dabbled in neoprene pogies and sprayskirts. But he was perhaps most well-known for his boats, from handmaking ultralight 14-pound kayaks to introducing the world’s first-ever plastic kayaks.

Johnson, a member of the International Whitewater Hall of Fame, passed away in 2019.

As the story goes, Johnson went to visit a local trash can rotomolding factory and saw the potential the technology might have for kayaks. Borrowing from this “trash can” technology, Hollowform Kayaks produced a Tom Johnson design—a boat that started as polyethylene pellets and as then poured into a mold and baked in industrial ovens. The result was a durable, low-maintenance boat that changed the face of kayaking forever.

“Tom is certainly deserving of highlighting,” says Dagger Kayaks founder Joe Puliam. “Tom and a guy named Elmer Good, who I think was from the plastics business, were the first to do rotomolded boats. He was also one of several who claimed to be the first to do glass boats and also to use Kevlar in kayaks, but I suspect the truth there will never be clear.  Regardless, he was a great innovator, plus he coached to help get new people into the sport.”

TOm Johnson

Perhaps no one can attest to his contributions as well as Kent Ford, of Durango, Colo.’s Performance Video, whose “The Call of the River” video pays tribute to Johnson. As a  fireman in his hometown of Kernville, California, says Ford, Johnson had “lots of time to experiment and  invent for his paddling hobby.”

“Johnson is credited with many innovations—early designs for fiberglass paddles, neoprene pogies and sprayskirts,” says Ford. “In fact he was arguably the earliest successful promoter of rotomolded kayaks. He went to a rotomolding factory, saw the indestructible trash cans they made, and saw the potential for whitewater boats.  Borrowing that technology, Hollowform kayaks produced his design that quickly started to replace fiberglass as the material of choice.”

He also did his best to promote the sport and get people out on the water. “He was also was the instigator of the first whitewater park in the US, in his hometown of Kernville,” says Ford. ” And when he saw you by the side of the river, he would show off some sort of rope trick—snapping a rope just right in order to create a knot.”

Watch Video Here

Tom Johnson Tribute from Kent Ford on Vimeo. Footage courtesy of “The Call of the River.”
For more on the history and birth of whitewater kayaking, visit performancevideo.com/The_Call_of_the_River

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