Steamboat Springs entrepreneur John St. John is adapting Hog Island Boatworks to a recessionary economy with a new line of kayaks priced at 6 percent of his full-sized drift boats. Hog Island's kayaks are made entirely of recycled plastic resin.

Photo by Tom Ross

Steamboat Springs entrepreneur John St. John is adapting Hog Island Boatworks to a recessionary economy with a new line of kayaks priced at 6 percent of his full-sized drift boats. Hog Island's kayaks are made entirely of recycled plastic resin.

Tom Ross: Boat maker tries to stay afloat

In choppy waters, Hog Island carves out new niche

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

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— When the economy turns south, an entrepreneurial boat maker must keep a light hand on the tiller and be prepared to set a new course.

That's what John St. John has done at Hog Island Boatworks in Steamboat Springs. St. John has shifted some of his emphasis away from making $8,000 drift boats for trout fishermen to making $500 sit-on-top kayaks for trout fishermen (the price is $100 less for Routt County customers). He hopes the new price point will produce impulse buying, even in an era of frugality.

"It feels refreshing" to be marketing less expensive boats, St. John said. "The market for drift boats really dried up over the winter. Even customers who needed to buy them for professional reasons were having a difficult time making the decision."

Before the economy really tanked, the cost of fuel went up last summer, driving up the price of plastic and the steel fittings he uses to finish his boats to customer specifications.

"A year ago this month, all of the suppliers started calling and saying their prices were going up," St. John said. "We lost some orders."

Now, St. John hopes his economical fishing kayaks, priced below most competitors, will meet far less price resistance. And to make the story more compelling in retail shops, Hog Island's kayaks are made entirely of recycled plastic resin. Hog Island is one of just three manufacturers in the nation that can make that claim, St. John said.

You should be able to find the new boats at Steamboat's Backdoor Sports and Mountain Sports Kayak School in July.

St. John moved his family here from Jackson, Wyo., where he was a respected fishing guide. If you're having a difficult time placing Hog Island in the Yampa River, it's because the island is a landmark in the Snake River where it flows past the Tetons.

With the backing of 14 private investors, St. John launched Hog Island with plans to build one of the most durable versions of the drift boats that passionate anglers lust after.

Drift boats are the sports cars of rowboats. They float so high in the water that they are uncommonly nimble and easy to row. Most drift boats now are made from fiberglass or aluminum. Hog Island's roto-molded plastic resin boats (the blanks are manufactured in molds by a company called RMI) are stealthy and unusually durable.

By the summer of 2005, St. John delivered his 32nd boat and predicted he would hit 70 for the year. But even in a booming economy, those numbers didn't materialize. He has sold a total of 160 drift boats in a market niche where total national sales of the specialized craft were between 600 and 700 during the relative boom years at mid-decade.

St. John has nine big drift boats on order for customers stretching from North Carolina to Flagstaff, Ariz., and Craig. Just this spring, one of his customers made the first descent of the Grand Canyon in a Hog Island drift boat. His best customer base comprises middle-class guys who'd rather row their own boat than pay a fishing guide.

"Joe the Plumber is my customer," St. John said.

Now, St. John is looking forward to delivering 12 pre-sold, sit-on-top kayaks soon after July 1, and he hopes Joe the Paddler becomes his new best customer.

The kayaks should allow anglers to sneak up on northern pike in the lake at Chuck Lewis Wildlife Area and lure them to within several feet of the boat as they chase a lure or streamer fly over the water, St. John said.

The portability of the 10-foot, 10-inch, 50-pound kayaks makes it easy to go fishing on impulse, he added. Check out the cool videos at www.hogislandboatworks.com.

The Hog Island kayaks are dubbed Duffy Single and Duffy Tandem after Duffy Canyon on the Yampa River in Moffat County. They weren't really designed for whitewater. However, St. John says they are capable of surfing small waves on the town stretch of the Yampa between Walton Creek and Rotary Park. He's looking forward to packing a small dry bag for an overnight on the lower Yampa this summer.

Hog Island's downsized boats might be just the right idea for dedicated river rats navigating uncharted economic times. St. John is counting on it.

"I've got to do something to keep my family in Steamboat," he said.

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