50 Years of Selling Inflatable Boats – Part 1 – The Early Years

This old, somewhat wrinkled picture shows me about to be crushed on a 10 foot wave. To get some perspective of this shot, the kayak I am on is one of our original 10′ 8″ Pyrawa kayaks. Seconds later the Pyrawa was upside down and I was headed for the beach feet first, pronto.

By Cecil Hoge

It is remarkable for any business to survive for any extended period in this age of endless changes and endless challenges. To survive 10 or 20 years is an accomplishment. To survive longer is more remarkable and to have survived 50 years borders on the mystical.

No matter. It is with great pride that I can say that I am, and our business is, in its 50th year of continuously selling inflatable boats. Given that fact, I would like to provide a kind of personal history of our company.

The Early Years

When I started in my father’s business I had no intention of working in the business. In fact, one of my conditions, in the beginning, was to work only on the night shift so I could keep the day free to seek my dream profession. The profession that I hoped to be successful in was writing. And while I have managed from time to time to get some things printed, I cannot say that I ever succeeded in my dream profession.

What happened instead was somewhat more strange and perhaps, more predictable. I began in 1968 when our business was mostly a fishing lure business. I first worked on our fishing rod production line, managing a bunch of hippies from 4pm to 10pm, Monday through Friday. Since I was a kind of a hippie at the time that was not very hard. Rod production was not our main business in those days, but it constituted a reasonable amount of sales.

This is a not very terrific picture of the product we produced – The AutoCast Rod – a fishing reel gets attached just above the black handle and a fishing line goes from the reel through a couple of eyelets into the cup, where, theoretically, it is tied to a fishing lure.

The product I was helping produce was called the AutoCast Rod – see the picture above. It was a specialty fishing rod that could cast a lure 30 to 40 feet automatically. It was not push button automatic, nor was it digitally automatic. On this product, you attached a spin cast spinning reel and a fishing line with a lure at the end of the line. Then you had to pull back a lever about 18 inches, snap into a notch and then when you were sure your lure was in the little cup at the end of the rod, you would release the lever from the notch and the cup would spring forward and cast the lure and the line about 30 or 40 feet.

This product was just one of a long list of strange mail order products that my father had chosen to sell. As such, it was pretty successful. Sold primarily to mail order catalogs that mostly do not exist today, this product was a good seller. At the time I came into the business, this product enjoyed an increase in sales from 20,000 units per year to 40,000 units per year. It turned out that although most people did not want to use it, there was a select group of people who really did like it. Those people who did like it were mostly paraplegic or physically handicapped so they could not cast or fish otherwise.

What compelled my father to get the right to sell this product I will never know, but for about 10 years it was a good seller. I remember we sold it to Madison House, a mail order company selling a vast number of quirky mail order products, Lillian Vernon, another mail order house that also sold quirky mail order products mostly for women or for the home and to several other mail order companies.

So, it fell upon me to manage a group of about 10 misguided hippies in an effort to boost our fishing rod production and meet the mail order demand from the catalogs we were selling to. During the day, my step-mother ran a production line for the same product and they were producing 300 to 400 rods a day. That was not enough to meet the demand this product suddenly enjoyed. That was because several new catalog companies had recently put the product in their catalogs.

The fishing rod production line consisted of about 15 drill presses and assorted sawing and drilling and riveted instruments, all of which had been jerry-rigged by the original inventor of this product. I have to say that the guy had been pretty smart in what he did. Basically, a rod started out as some metal and plastic parts that had to be cut and drilled and inserted or riveted and then passed further down the line. As it went down the line other parts had to be added or inserted, such as screws or springs or fiberglass rods or plastic cups. Eventually, at the end of the whole line an odd-looking fishing rod was produced.

In this production process, I quickly learned that the amount of production possible could vary incredibly. When we started out my intrepid team produced a whopping 7 rods the first night. It seemed that everything went wrong that evening. Being a competitive kind of guy and hating the fact that the day shift was producing over 300 rods while we had turned out a measly 7 rods, I quickly reviewed my production team and the process we were using. Something was wrong for sure, but at first, I could not figure it out. The next night, I was able to get the production up to 26 rods, so, something was still wrong.

Now, at first I worked on the very first drill press, but then I noticed that things quickly bogged down at the second drill press. Then I worked at the second drill press and found out that things bogged down at the third production station.

To make a long story short, I moved to the end of the line and just started to go faster than the 10 hippies in front of me. Now, my 10 hippies were actually pretty good guys and in their own way, somewhat competitive, so pretty soon the whole line speeded up. By the third night, we produced about 120 rods. I kept employing my technique of going a little faster at the end of line, occasionally haranguing some of the more lackadaisical free spirits and pretty soon we were producing 500 to 700 rods a day, thus putting pressure on the day shift, who also improved their game to 500 to 600 rods. So, within two weeks, we were producing 1200 rods per day and catching up on back orders.

All of this was a fascinating lesson for me. For one thing, it taught me something about how a real production line worked and about how different the results in running a production line could be. For another, it taught me something about working with people. I felt I got more from my guys by pulling them up to higher production then by pushing or shouting or complaining. One last thing I learned – I found making a difference was interesting. You could say that by learning how to produce a pretty good quantity of something I found the process interesting.

One of our original Pyrawa inflatable kayaks, still alive in our showroom today. I bought this one back four years ago for $100 after the customer had used it for over 40 years.

Now, as I mentioned, at that time we had two businesses, a fishing lure business, which was our main business, and a brand new inflatable boat business that my father had just bought ownership of. We started the inflatable boat business with only one product – the Pyrawa Inflatable Kayak.

When my father first told me he was going to buy this strange business two months after I started working in the business I thought it was truly strange. I had never heard of such a thing…an inflatable kayak that comes in a bag and inflates into a ten and a half foot long kayak…truly strange. At the time, one thing though was true…I loved anything to do with the water…and so, when my father told me about this strange new business, I was intrigued.

My father’s interest in the new business was simple. He thought he could sell these new inflatables by mail order for two simple reasons: there was a company called FolBot who was selling a folding kayak by mail order and, like folding kayaks, inflatable kayaks fit in a box. Now, I really liked water. In particular, I liked riding waves in the ocean. I had used a 16′ boat with a small 5 hp motor in my early years when we had a house in Bellport, Long Island. And since our house in Bellport was only a quarter mile from the Great South Bay, I could easily walk to where my little boat was anchored and motor across the Great South Bay happily at the age of 8. In addition, I had sailboat and iceboat experiences, both of which I really liked. So, you could say I was all in when it came to the question of boats.

This is me in the surf with an early version of our Sea Eagle surfmat…a product I developed around 1976 because of my long-term interest in mat surfing.

That did not mean I was all in on inflatable boats, which I knew almost nothing about, but I was certainly happy to experiment and see what these weird kind of kayaks could do. To my amazement, they could do a lot. I quickly got the hang of inflating them. I quickly got to understand their strengths and weaknesses. The Pyrawa inflatable kayak was just the first kayak we started selling.

The first thing I did was try this weird new product out on the water. To my surprise, it actually worked. It took only about 5 minutes to inflate and was pretty easy to paddle and, most amazing of all, after deflating it, it was actually possible to get it back in its bag. This further piqued my interest and made me decide to try working in the business on a more full-time basis during the day.

The first couple of years, we sold the Pyrawa inflatable kayak with considerable success. My father named the new company Leisure Imports, Inc. At the time it was thought by “the smart money” that Americans would shortly be working only three or four days a week. And while that theory did not quite work out, our business did pretty well.

We had a French partner in this new venture, a gentleman named Guy Rabion, and he was located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He concentrated on managing a small warehouse there housing the kayaks and trying to develop trade accounts.

At the same time, my father let me write ads and create brochures to sell our new inflatable kayaks by mail order. The combination of running ads and selling kayaks directly to consumers worked pretty well. Taking FolBot (a folding kayak company) as our mail order model, we ran in a number of magazines and newspapers at the time…Canoe & Kayak, The Wall Street Journal, Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, the New York Times to name a few.

Generally, we ran small ads asking for customers to mail in inquiries in order to receive a brochure. Now, this process was very slow. We generally had a telephone number in these ads, but, believe it or not, most people sent us letters requesting a brochure. Then we would send out the brochure which listed the prices of the kayak package separately and then sold the kayak with two paddles and a pump for $99. This offer proved to be successful and the advertising not only sold some kayaks, it created an awareness of Pyrawa inflatable kayaks nationwide.

It did not take too long for me to be in business before I began to really get interested in the process of selling inflatable kayaks by mail order. In particular, I came to like the process of getting photographs taken and then using those photographs in a brochure. This process had some not so hidden perks. For one thing, I would have to gather together a whole bunch of models – since I had a number of good-looking male and female cousins, they proved to be our basic models for the first several years. Because a friend of mine, Freddy Havemeyer, had decided he wanted to be a photographer, he became our first photographer. And of course, taking photographs meant we would have to be outside on the water, in the sun, working while paddling. Life was good.

After a year or so on the night shift, I moved on to a day job in the office. There I began to learn the intricacies of the two businesses that we were in. I found the lure business kind of boring and the process of importing fishing lures so complex that I even questioned whether we should be in the business. My father, who had zero interest in fishing lures, had started our fishing lure business because of an insistent accountant who loved to fish. He wanted my father to run an ad on a new lure that he had had fishing success. My father was not enthusiastic about this idea, but he agreed to run an ad that he was sure would fail. It did not and within a year, my father had sold over one million dollars of the fishing lure. That was a lot of money in 1956.

On the basis of that success, my father went on a fishing lure business buying spree. One of the companies that he bought was called Rockland Tackle and it had a lure called Panther Martin among many other products. At the time, Panther Martin was only selling $8,000 a year, but because the lure had a reputation of really catching fish, my father decided to promote it in one of his heavy copy advertisements. You may not be familiar with a what I call a heavy copy mail order advertisement. It is basically an ad with a very large headline, a few small pictures and about 750 words of advertising copy. This type of ad had done wonderfully in selling my father’s first fishing lure, which was called the Vivif. But, perhaps because the fishing stories were almost too unbelievable, even though they were absolutely true, the ad on Panther Martin failed. What the ad did do however was create some awareness of the product on a national basis and get it in the hands of some fishermen.

That proved to be enough because each year thereafter the sales of Panther Martin improved. So it went from $8,000 to $15,000 to $26,000 to $54,000 and so forth for about 10 years. By the time I came into the business, Panther Martin was selling about $250,000 of lures per year. You could say that it thrived by benign neglect because we really had not paid much attention it or promoted it after the first year. Now about all this product did was catch fish, so for me, not being an avid fisherman, that was boring. Moreover, since it was made in Italy, I found the paperwork required to import the lures very confusing and troublesome. It seemed to me we were always fighting with customs trying to get different shipments cleared and sent to us.

Today, I am quite proud of that business and I do not find it boring, but back in the late 60s and early 70s it was a different story. I was more interested in the boat business. I quickly transferred most of my efforts to that side of the business. Here was something I really found interesting…real boats that you paddle and play with, that you have to get photographed (meaning you had to organize more paddling and playing) the only real challenge was the actual writing of ads and creation of brochures.

pyrawaadlarge.jpg
This is one of my father’s original Pyrawa ads in 1971. Notice that we did not even include a telephone number in the ad and we added shipping charges if they used a credit card. That was because at the time almost all people buying things through mail order actually ordered through the mail and because credit card companies charged around 7 or 8% extra. It would take another 10 years for the telephone to be accepted as a method of actually ordering products and for people to have the courage to actually give their credit card number over the phone.

My father wrote the first ads that we ran on the Pyrawa and they proved successful. “Instant Canoe Can’t Crash” was the headline. In the first year of the business, my father created the ads, ran the ads and directed our small mail order business for boats. Along the way, he taught me his theories on the strange art of mail-order advertising. Given the fact that my father had always been a workaholic and that he ate, drank and slept advertising, I had been brought up around advertising all my life. Because of that background, writing mail order ads did come naturally to me over time.

It took me many year to learn how to write good ads and good brochures, but by small and slow steps I learned to work with layout artists, who would first create a draft drawing of what an ad or a brochure should look like. After agreeing on a layout, I would have to write the copy for the ad. That consisted of a headline, body copy and an address. Then the layout artist would take my ad copy and selected pictures, choose some type and order it from a type-setter. About a week later, the type would come back and the layout artist would paste it onto what was called a mechanical. The mechanical did not show the actual photo pasted in place. Rather a photostat of the photo was pasted into place. The whole process of making one small ad took about three weeks and two trips into New York City, where the layout artist was located. Since our office was in St. James, Long Island, about 50 miles from New York City, just the driving back and forth to the city took 5 or 6 hours, depending on traffic.

This was my first really successful ad for Sea Eagle boats. We sold over 6,000 Sea Eagle IVs from this ad. Notice that we now had an 800 number and no longer were charging extra shipping on credit card orders.

Today, this entire process takes us about twenty or thirty minutes to create an actual ad. Best of all, we can see immediately what the ad really looks like. Everything is done on either my computer or Tonya Ferrara’s computer or on Navneet Syal’s computer. Both Tonya and Navneet have been working for some time now on catalogs and ads. The only difference is that Tonya works out of our Port Jefferson office while Navneet works out of his office in New Delhi, India. Interesting, both can turn out an ad in 20 or 30 minutes. All I can say is that it is a good thing that I do not have to drive to New Delhi to see each ad Navneet completes.

So, in the beginning, I learned about the one inflatable kayak that we were selling and how to create ads and brochures to sell that kayak. As time went on, I began to visit our supplier for the kayaks in France once or twice a year. This was particularly interesting for me. Since we had a French partner in the business, he took me around France introducing me to different suppliers. At that time, we had a kayak supplier, a paddle supplier, and a pump supplier. Each was in a different part of France and that meant that we had to travel all over France seeing these three suppliers.

Since we were also in the fishing lure business and since our fishing lure supplier was located in Milan, Italy, I would always also visit our fishing lure supplier on these trips. That really meant that each time I went to Europe, the trip took 2 or 3 weeks. These trips, while always very busy with things that needed to be done, also gave me an opportunity to sample European wines and meals and take in some of the nearby sights. This was another aspect of our business that I came to love.

While we started with just one kayak, the French partner we had bought out, was also importing a whole range of other inflatable kayaks and boats from a company named Pennel e Flipo. In the beginning, my father did not try to sell these other boats, thinking to concentrate first and foremost on the inflatable Pyrawa kayak which seemed to have the most promise. After a couple of years of successfully selling the Pyrawa inflatable kayak, we decided to offer some these other Pennel e Flipo boats…they included a fairly expensive inflatable kayak and a small transom boat. This also meant that we had to add Pennel e Flipo to the list of suppliers that we visited each year.

In the beginning years, we had almost no say in how the products were made. Rather we were told by our suppliers how they made the products and why they made the products they made, but we got no real input in changing the products. We were expected to sell what we were given. That was our job. After several years we began to make suggestions about product changes, trying to change certain features to make the products better accepted in the U.S. At first, we were told that changes could not be made, but as we bought more products and the volumes of different models went up, our suppliers began to become more flexible about what they could or could not do.

One irony that occurred over time was the fact that when I went to Europe, the people that I mostly worked with were engineers. That was strange for me since I had been a philosophy major at the University of Virginia. At college, I had looked down at engineers, who I wrote off as limited, one-dimensional creatures without imagination and without a general understanding of the way things really were. The feeling was reciprocal because all the engineers I knew in college wrote off philosophy majors as totally impractical people who would never get a job and who had no practical understanding of how things had to get done. So, given this previous tension, it was somewhat ironical that I ended up working mostly with engineers. And strangely, as I got to know the breed, I came to like and truly respect engineers.

About five years into working in our inflatable boat business, a crisis arose. Our supplier for the French Pyrawa inflatable kayaks went bankrupt. Now under French law, when a company goes bankrupt, the largest creditor has a right to take that company over. Since Pennel e Flipo, the other French company who we were importing from, was the largest creditor, they exercised their rights and took over the production of Pyrawa inflatable kayaks.

We thought this crisis was huge because by this point we already were selling over 5,000 Pyrawas a year. Most of those sales went through Sears and Roebuck, but we had also managed to sell it to an up and coming customer called L.L. Bean. Sears was selling 3,000 Pyrawas and L.L. Bean was selling almost 1,000. The remaining Pyrawa sales were through our own mail order efforts. In any case, we felt that by that time, Pyrawa had become a fairly well-known name in the inflatable boat business and we were terrified by the fact that we might lose the right to sell our best-selling product.

So, Pennel e Flipo took over the production of Pyrawa inflatable kayaks and we continued selling these kayaks under the name Pyrawa. Then another shock came along. As we approached the end of the 2 years, Pennel e Flipo informed us that also under French law, if a bankrupt company was able to reconstitute itself, it could take back ownership of the company and their previous production. Dumutier Decre, the original French company we were dealing with sent us a telex (this was in the days of telex, even before faxes) saying that they intended to re-constitute their company and again produce Pyrawas. Now, Dumutier Decre was about 1/20th of the size of Pennel e Flipo and they had already gone bankrupt, so this did not give us a lot of confidence. At the same time, Pennel e Flipo told us that they would be happy to produce kayaks for us but it would have to be under a different name.

That meant we had to decide which company to go with, the smaller company that had gone bankrupt but had the rights to the Pyrawa name or the larger company that could produce kayaks under a different name. Since Pennel e Flipo was the stronger company and since they were already producing some other models for us, we went with Pennel e Flipo.

That meant that we had to decide on a new trade name. This was both the hardest thing and the best thing to do because, in the end, it meant that we would own our own trademark name. That still did not solve the problem of what name to call our boats. I came up with the idea to call our boats Eagle Inflatables. I liked birds and I thought they had a lot in common with inflatables because they both worked with air. That was my thinking.

“Now, that is a classy name.”

I called our trademark lawyer who immediately told me that Eagle was too generic a name. Worse, he said it was boring. In haste and embarrassment and frustration I blurted out “Sea Eagle“.

The lawyer said, “Now, that is a classy name.”

And that is how we came to call our boats Sea Eagles.

Once we chose the new name, I cannot say the transition was very easy. It seemed to me it took about 10 years for the name to really get some traction, but traction it did get over time. That taught me something about inflatables and trademark names. Inflatable boats get their reputation by not doing things. Specifically, by not puncturing after use and abuse, by not having seams come apart, by not having hull materials come apart or degrade in the sun, by not drowning people. That took years to prove and so it took years to establish the reputation of our Sea Eagle boats.

I have to say that was quite different than our other company. Panther Martin lures established their reputation by catching fish and conveniently an angler could catch a fish within minutes of first using one of our fishing lures. And if fishermen or fisher ladies began to catch fish on a particular lure, they were hooked on that lure. Quite simply, the most important thing in a fishing lure to a fishing person was its ability to catch fish. And yes, it was important over a long period of time that the paint did not chip off, that the gold or silver finish did not tarnish, that the lure held up over repeated use, but the most important thing was that lure caught fish. And since we had a lure that almost always caught fish, we never had much trouble establishing the reputation of our Panther Martin fishing lures.

The problem was much more difficult with our Sea Eagle boats because it literally took years for a boater to agree and recognize that they had a really good inflatable boat. And again, mostly that recognition came from things the product did not do. So not puncturing when it went down a whitewater river was a good thing. Holding up for years under the sun in all kinds of weather was a good thing. Safely allowing people to get across lakes, rivers and bays was a good thing, especially when no one drowned.

There was another pretty big difference in the two businesses we owned. Panther Martin went up 20 or 30% every year for about 20 years, year after year. Whereas Sea Eagle would have a great year followed by a lousy year followed by a great year followed by another lousy year. That was because our fortunes changed year by year based on what customer(s) we added and what things were happening in the general economy.

For example, in 1973 there was something called the Arab Oil Embargo when Arab countries literally stopped selling us gas and oil until we agreed to pay four or more times the previous price. That meant that the cost of our inflatable boats went up 87% in 1974. This was because the hull material of our boats was oil-based. We dutifully tried to pass on these price increases to our customers. At that time, it was primarily Sears and Roebuck and L.L. Bean. Well, you may be able to realize they were not too enthusiastic about an 87% price increase. But that is what we did. And you may be able to imagine when that 87% price increase was passed on to consumers, the consumers were not enthusiastic, at least for that first year.

Needless to say, sales in 1974 were somewhat more muted. Strangely enough, although they did go down about 40% that year, we did sell boats at the higher price and thereafter the higher prices were basically accepted and our sales went up the following year. I might add that the Arab Oil Embargo also created a recession and stock market collapse in 1974, so there was lots of excitement. No matter, we soldiered on.

The boat business, unlike our lure business, was like an accordion. When you stretched out your arms, it was quite wide. When you put your arms together it was quite short. So our boat business would expand and contract year to year with us never knowing whether it would be an up year or a down year. Fortunately, through the tough years, our fishing lure was always there to support us, so we were able to survive.

Over time, we went through a vast number of changes. Strangely, it turned out that our move to Pennel e Flipo was not a good move. While they were supreme manufacturers of material, they were not gifted at inflatable boat production, so sometimes our kayaks had defect problems. As soon as we were aware of the quality problems, we began to look around Europe for a new supplier. In doing so, our French partner came across an Italian company called Adamoli Sintectiche Resine. They turned out to be both a less expensive producer and, strangely, a higher quality producer.

So, we moved pretty much all of our production to them. That proved to be a great move for us because they had truly good products at very reasonable prices. In short order, our line expanded to 3 inflatable kayaks, 2 inflatable dinghies, a small transom sportboat and a number of inflatable pool toys, among them the Sea Eagle Surfmat and something we called the Floating Island. This was an 8′ around inflatable island that you could lounge on in a pool or a pond or a lake or off your boat. This wider selection of products also meant more trips to Europe for me to visit both our boat and lure suppliers, both conveniently located in or near Milan.

In the beginning, our boat supplier was unwilling to make separate products or new designs for us. but they recognized that we knew more about inflatable kayaks than they did and they knew more about inflatable dinghies and pool floats than we did. I remember that the first thing that I was able to convince them to change was the design of an inflatable seat for our kayaks. This turned out to be the same design we still use today for our SEC kayak seats. These were simple inflatable PVC seats, but at the time they represented a big step forward. The next thing we convinced them to do was put deluxe one-way air valves on most of the main air chambers. Previously, we had only simple pipe valves, which, although they worked pretty well, were a true pain to use.

Little by little, we came to change the products that Adamoli Sintectiche Resine made for us.

In the summer of 1975, my French partner got a call from a young Frenchman, a guy named Louis Michel Janny, who told our partner that he had developed a new kind of material that he thought could be used to make inflatable kayaks. Our French partner called me and I suggested maybe we meet in France. When my partner called him, Monsieur Janny suggested something simpler and quicker. He would come to the States, meet with us and explain his project. And that is what he did.

To make a long story somewhat shorter, he came, we were intrigued by his new material (a special kind of PVC material with polyester grid fibers) and we arranged to come to France that summer. So off to France we went and within two months we developed the first series of what is now our second longest continuous series of inflatable boats…our Sea Eagle Explorer kayaks. In this case, because our new supplier was not very familiar with inflatable boat production, we had far more input into the final design of this series.

The first Sea Eagle Explorer 380x.

Sea Eagle Explorer kayaks were what I called a modular design. By that, I meant that it was made up of separate components, that when assembled, became one whole kayak. Specifically, it incorporated unsupported PVC spray skirts with unsupported inside PVC floor with a supported fabric outside hull. The fabric allowed the outside hull to be quite rigid and puncture resistant while the modular spray skirts and floor provided a finished look to the kayak at a very moderate price.

Since we were able to get this new series into L.L. Bean in the first year (1976), we were able to sell over 1,000 units in that first year. The majority of the sales went through L.L. Bean, but we also sold these kayaks through our own mail order sales and through a fairly intricate dealer network that we had begun to build up. Since these kayaks were fairly expensive for their time ($599 to $699) the sales of a 1,000 units was a big deal for us.

Here I am taking one of the first 380x Explorer kayaks down Dick Creek Falls on the Chatooga River in Georgia. I and a group of friends went down to Georgia and ran the Chatooga and Nantahala Rivers for five full days to test out this new series. It was fun! Notice the classic style flat-bladed wooden paddle that was state of the art for us at that time.

At the same time, we were selling a continuous quantity of 330 and 370 Sea Eagle kayaks, which in those years were orange and blue in color. In addition, by this time we also had a couple unsupported PVC inflatable dinghies, the Sea Eagle 6 and the Sea Eagle 8. So, by 1976, we had about 7 inflatable boats, a number floating pool toys, and inflatable boat accessories.

As we made our way through various economic crises, our sales were sometimes up and sometimes down. In the late 1970s, we also began to sell traditional inflatable transom boats taking outboards up to 25hp. By 1980 the number of models that we offered had increased to 10.

In the early 80s, another recession came along with a period of fast-rising gas and oil prices. Since our boats were PVC based, an oil derivative, this meant that our inflatable boats were being affected each year with sharp price increases. At that time, the leading sellers of inflatable boats, Zodiac, Achilles, and Avon all had to dramatically raise their prices. In 1982, I made a simple color change to our unsupported PVC boats, going from orange and blue, to gray and blue, and we introduced a new improved series of motormount boats which were called Sea Eagle Heavyweights. These boats were really our Sea Eagle 6, 8 & 9, now in gray and blue and now made with a new formula PVC in a thicker gauge. Now, these boats were virtually identical to our present Sea Eagle 9, but at the time, the color change made our boats look far more serious and the heavier gauge, better quality material really changed the way these boats were perceived. It also dramatically improved the way these boats performed.

In short, in spite of a raging recession, we were able to sell 10,000 of the Sea Eagle 6, 8 & 9 in 1982. This represented a huge increase in sales for us and it allowed us to gain a significant market share of the inflatable boat business. In that year, our Sea Eagle boat business finally surpassed the dollar sales of our Panther Martin lure business. This was quite a switch for our family business since the lure business had always been the larger of the two.

Our classics in the 1970s…Sea Eagle 4 & 5 dinghies, Explorer Kayaks and tenders and, of course, our original Pyrawa inflatable kayak.

But the boat business still proved to be an up and down affair. We expanded our boat range in 1983, adding more kayaks and more transom boats and the business grew a little bit, but as the 80s continued and prices continued to go up, the sales started to fall back. At the same time, our fishing lure company was chugging along as it had always done, growing each and every year. By the end of the 80s, the lure business was once again our main business.

The two businesses continued into the 90s with some years the boat business being the bigger business and other years the lure business being the bigger business. I have to say all of these years the boat business was always a struggle, with up and down years. That period lasted until 1996. In that year, we launched SeaEagle.com on the internet. This was at the insistence of our father who kept harassing me and my brother to get a website up and running. It could not have taken place without the aid of my much younger brother, John Hoge. John had just graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where he learned to be proficient in the art of computers. Because it was the early years of the internet, we did not quite understand what we were doing, but we forged forward anyway.

I will save the story of our internet experience and further development on new and different Sea Eagle models for Part 2 of this history of Sea Eagle Boats.

To be continued…

 

4 thoughts on “50 Years of Selling Inflatable Boats – Part 1 – The Early Years

  1. Exciting read. Congratulations on the anniversary. We have both a Sea Eagle FastTrack 465ft and a Needlenose Paddleboard and we absolutely love both products. We recommend Sea Eagle to all our friends and several have already joined the Sea Eagle family.

  2. We bought a Pyrawa in 1975 from Beans and used it introduce beginners to whitewater kayaking in Georgia. It was more maneuverable than our glass boats and very forgiving if someone went over a short drop sideways. It was slow and had no room for gear, but because it fit, with paddles and inflatable life vests, in a medium size suitcase, we used it to explore islands in Bermuda, for snorkeling in the Caribbean, and surfing the south shore of Martha’s Vineyard. It began to split a seam it’s second year, but we used cement and patch to keep it floating for seven years until the split grew too wide. We have a FastTrack now, faster and more seaworthy, fitted with a sail from Sailboats-to-go.com . . . Great boat, but too heavy for our travel style. Would it be possible to use modern materials to make a new Pyrawa even lighter than the original? Thanks for this history and thanks for the
    boats. – w. beagley

  3. Pretty cool story! And I too bought a product long ago, a Sea Eagle 8 back about 1981, from an advertisement I think I saw in the Wall Street Journal, to be used while camping and fishing in Colorado lakes. And just after a year after I bought it, an entire seam blew out for no apparent reason. I returned it to Sea Eagle, and it was replaced free of charge. Used it for years, and ended up giving it to my son. Fast forward to 2015. When my wife indicated she was interested in a small boat we could take while camping, my first thought was “Sea Eagle”. Ended up giving her a SE370 for Christmas. We absolutely love it. Great product, fun to use, and I appreciate the products you produce! – Lee Hower – Sacramento, CA

  4. oh yea!!! Sea eagle user for years, Had SE8, SE12. Now Have SE320, SE370, and a 124 SMB. the former were so go and lasted many years, I ended up giving them to my children an now my wife an I enjoy the 320, 370 and the 124 SMB. And my daughter has an explorer.

    Highly recommend SeaEagle..

    David Fenton