50 Years of Selling Inflatable Boats – Part 3 – From the Internet to The Future!

Testing of new models came to be an ever-expanding way of life. Often this meant testing products when most folks would be inside sitting before a fireplace. Here I am testing our then new model Sea Eagle FastTrack. My rule for testing in the winter was, “Do not go out when the ice is thicker than a 1/4”.

By Cecil Hoge

At the end of part 2 of this history, our Sea Eagle boat business had already been in business for 30 years and gone through many changes. By 1998 we had re-built our Sea Eagle boat business and had found new ways to sell more inflatable boats through our new Sea Eagle website. In doing so, we expanded our range of products to include transom boats, whitewater & camping kayaks, fishing boats and a new kind of inflatable catamaran kayak called the Sea Eagle PaddleSki. 

From our earliest beginnings in 1968 to the present, our goal was always to produce the best inflatable boats of their kind. In doing that, we always tried to offer products that were different and better from what was on the market, whether it be a kayak, a fishing boat or a transom boat.

So, for example, when I developed the FastTrack shown above, it had several unique features not found on inflatable kayaks. Its most unique feature was the patented outside drop stitch inflatable keel. That gave the FastTrack special paddling benefits. As the name implies, it paddled faster and tracked better than other inflatable kayaks.

There were other differences in the FastTrack that made it unique: it had a drop stitch inflatable floor inside, on top of an outside fabric floor. That provided rigidity and great puncture protection. It had an asymmetric shape – tapered at the bow, wider at the stern. This allowed the kayak to go through wind and waves easier and still hold the weight of two people comfortably. It had an outside removable skeg to further improve tracking. These design features made the Sea Eagle FastTrack our best paddling inflatable kayak for open water ever.

As we moved into the internet age, the goal of the company remained the same: produce the best inflatable boats of their kind.

Unlike our Panther Martin fishing lure business, which had enjoyed continuous growth from 1958 to 1998, Sea Eagle Boats had both up and down years from 1968, the year we started in the inflatable boat business, through 1998. These ups and downs were mostly caused by external factors such as suppliers going out of business or big swings in foreign currencies or dramatic price rises in the price of petroleum. The price of oil was always a major factor in our business because inflatable boats are made from petroleum based fabrics and parts.

I have to point out that we have always worked with foreign suppliers to make inflatable boats because there has never been an inflatable boat industry in the United States. We did make two experiments with production of inflatable boats in the U.S. We had a Michigan company produce some transom boats for us for a short period and a Delaware company produce some kayaks for us. The transom boats made in Michigan were actually pretty good and almost succeeded, but we were defeated when the company went bankrupt, primarily because they had grossly miscalculated their true costs.

The kayaks made by the Delaware company were an interesting case since that company happened to produce the space suits that were used for the first trips to the moon. I assume this company was and still is an excellent producer of space suits. I believe they are still the main supplier of space suits to NASA. Unfortunately, they proved to be a terrible producer of inflatable kayaks.

The Sea Eagle Explorer Kayaks that they made for us in the late 1970s turned out to suffer from slow seam leaks. Admittedly, the leaks were so slow that it took weeks for a kayak to become soft. And it actually took some time after receiving the first kayaks to understand that there was a slow seam leak problem. We probably could have solved that problem in future productions, but another more difficult issue arose.

This particular company was used to selling to the government and within a few weeks of starting production of our kayaks, they found making kayaks took far longer than they thought. So, they did what they always did with the government. They announced to us the necessity of immediately increasing the price. They had a hard time understanding why we were unable to accept a 60% price increase mid-production during the first run of 200 kayaks. They also had a hard time calculating the time, labor and material costs involved in inflatable boat production. 

That is because inflatable boat production requires an extensive manufacturing experience and the local availability of parts, materials and machinery. The inflatable boat industry, which first arose in Europe and then migrated to Asia, has a long history of manufacturing and extensive infrastructures in Europe and Asia to support it. To duplicate a factory in the United States capable of making inflatable boats would require an inherent understanding of manufacturing techniques that are unique to the inflatable boat industry and a network of supplier companies to provide parts and materials needed for production. 

As a small family owned company, we have always wanted to produce our boats in the United States, but every time we researched what was necessary to create an inflatable boat factory here we came to the conclusion that the startup costs were far more than potential sale of boats that we could expect. 

Why is it so difficult to manufacture inflatable boats in this country? First, and this is a pretty big first, there are no real producers of inflatable boat material in the United States. Yes, there are a couple of companies producing fabrics that say their materials are suitable for inflatable boat production, but the cost of the hull material is usually 5 to 6 times a similar hull material in Asia or Europe and the actual characteristics of the material are not suitable for inflatable boat use. For example, PVC/Polyester, the most used material for inflatable boat production, the U.S. version of the material had a tendency to be too rigid to easily roll up. An interesting alternative material, Urethane/Polyester, tended stick to itself and be 10 times more expensive than PVC/Polyester.

So, problem number 1 is finding a U.S. company able to produce a suitable hull material at an economical price and as far as I know that does not exist.

The second problem is finding parts suitable for inflatable boat production. And that is also an almost impossible problem, because there are no companies making the valves, the grommets, the carry handles, the multitude of fittings you need to outfit inflatable boats. Again you need all those parts and fittings in order to make an inflatable boat. An inflatable transom boat, for example, without the molded parts to glue the wooden transom on, is not an inflatable transom boat. It is like a fishing lure without a hook.

This is also the case with inflatable kayaks, where for example, D-rings and drain valves are important parts, or inflatable standup paddle boards (SUPs), where drop stitch material is necessary in order to achieve the required rigidity of a SUP.

Drop stitch construction is a particularly interesting example. It is a relatively new development in inflatable boats, kayaks and SUPs that allow you to make flat, rectangular shapes with high pressure. This new material greatly widens the shapes and kinds of boats, kayaks and SUPs that you can make.

Drop stitch material consists of two layers of fabric with hundreds of thousands of threads going from the bottom layer to the top layer. When inflated the threads prevent the material from becoming a round shape. Without the hundreds of thousands of threads between two layers of fabric, the fabric, when glued together, will want to become a round shape when inflated, which while very useful for many purposes, limits the shapes you can make. Thus, the advent of drop stitch manufacturing technology is an important advance in inflatable boat production because it allows you to create unique new shapes previously not possible. This type of construction permits much higher air pressures making drop stitch products far more rigid than other inflatables.

This is our patented 16′ Sea Eagle Travel Canoe – drop stitch technology makes it possible to achieve shapes previously impossible.

This technology is not very new. I first saw it being used in France about 45 years ago. At that time, the technology was quite unreliable and subject to defects…so having a basketball shape suddenly appear in the middle of what was supposed to be a flat shape is not very good. In the last 10 years the technology of making drop stitch materials has advanced enormously and today it is probably the greatest innovation in inflatable production in the last 50 years. As such, it is pretty necessary to have the ability to produce drop stitch constructed inflatable products.

Unfortunately, there is no American producer of drop stitch material. If you want to use this type of material and make boats in the U.S., you must import the drop stitch material. The only countries that can make drop stitch hull fabric for inflatables are Germany, Japan, Taiwan & China. Of these countries, China produces both the best quality drop stitch material and best priced drop stitch material. Sad but true.

So, for the above reasons, we have always worked with foreign companies to produce inflatable boats and as time went on, those companies were generally located either in Korea or China.

By the late 1990s, as mentioned above, we were producing Korean and Chinese made inflatable boats made to our specifications and design. Our supported fabric boats were made in Korea – those boats use a fabric re-inforced PVC/Polyester material. Our unsupported PVC boats were made in China – we use a special formulation, extra thick PVC material we call PolyKrylar™ for our Sea Eagle 330, 370, 9 and PF7.

By the late 1990s, because of the advent of the internet, our inflatable boat sales assumed a steady and growing pattern of increases year after year. So unlike our early sales from the 60s to the mid 90s, where sales on any given year could be up or down, sales from 1997 on went in just one direction: Up.

Our website, SeaEagle.com, and the internet introduced many new possibilities. As mentioned in Part 2 of this history, we started very simply on the internet in 1996. Just a few display pages and an 800# that customers could call. It did not take us long to realize that having an order cart was important, both for orders during the day and for orders at night. By 1998 we had an order cart and internet sales, along with overall sales, were growing rapidly.

The internet allowed us to also explain products in ways previously not possible. Not only could we put far more content on the internet about a given product, but we also could show videos. This was a giant jump for us because for the first time customers could actually see our boats in motion.

Previously we had made various videos, but they were to show on a TV program or in TV 60 second commercial or on a TV screen at a boat show. There were limited places we could use these videos. But now that we had a website, we could post videos permanently on the website and those videos would stay up as long as we were selling the product. And, given our history, that turned out to be a long time.

The background of increasing sales was a new and wonderful aspect of our business. It meant then that we could introduce many new models, put them up on the internet and have sales of new products pretty much as soon as they arrived in this country. And, because we still were making and printing catalogs showing the same products, this in turn supported the new and additional side of the business coming from the internet.

Nick readies for a day of fishing adventures with his Sea Eagle FoldCat. In the background -- the breathtaking Grand Tetons.
This is our patented Sea Eagle FoldCat – a roll-up fishing boat that you can assemble and inflate in less than 10 minutes. In the background — the breathtaking Grand Tetons.

So after successfully introducing transom boats (our Sea Eagle 10.6, 12.6 and 14 models), we went on to design and introduce FoldCats and PaddleSkis. These were two truly unique boats. The FoldCat being a patented two man fishing boat that could be set up in less than 10 minutes and the PaddleSki being a catamaran kayak that could be motored, sailed, paddled or rowed. Each of these new models did extremely well, selling hundreds and then thousands.

In addition to introducing new models, we also were able to bring back older classic sellers such as our Sea Eagle Explorer kayaks. These were great whitewater, camping, all around kayaks that I had first developed in the late 1970s. Because our Korean supplier had access to better materials and new manufacturing techniques, we could remake this series, improving both the original design and the original materials.

By the 2000s, we had fallen into what I would call a “virtuous circle”. We could grow sales of our products with print advertising, catalogs and the internet and when we added new products we could add new sales to existing sales. This meant that in those years we basically quadrupled our sales.

Through these marketing techniques, we were able to become the first company on Google when you typed in “inflatable kayaks” and generally in the first five companies when you typed in “inflatable boats.” All of our marketing efforts were tied together, so print ads listed an 800# and our website, catalogs gave our in house order telephone # and our website and our website also gave our in house order telephone number and had a place to request printed catalogs.

So you can say our success was a combination of constantly introducing interesting and unique new products and then using print advertising to tell the public about those new products, and then using the internet and catalogs to show those new products and being able to take orders night or day on the internet and being able to answer any and all customer questions or take orders on our in house 800 phone number. It was indeed a virtuous circle.

As we got into the 2010s, things got a little more muddy, a little more complex, but basically the same situation pertained. Sales grew. We advertised and promoted products and sales grew more. We introduced new products, some patented, some not, but all unique and filling what I would call holes in the market.

For more information on the FastTrack, visit http://www.seaeagle.com/FastTrack.aspx
This was the first shape we developed for our patented Sea Eagle FastTrack – that took me 5 years to come to the symmetrical shape shown above.

Some of the new products took a lot longer than others. It took me about 5 years to develop the first FastTrack kayaks and I tried an ungodly number of experiments to make better tracking, better paddling kayaks. For example, I made a kayak with an aluminum frame inside instead of an inflatable floor. I found that to be heavy, hard to assemble and a general pain, even if it did paddle pretty fast.

After making and selling a few thousand of the original shape FastTrack (shown above), I decided it could be improved. So I made a slimmer and more tapered version. See below:

3 years later we changed to an asymmetrical shape to paddle even faster!

Another really difficult kayak to develop was our Sea Eagle RazorLite, which is surprising since the final product is so truly simple. But not for me. I went through 14 prototypes and 5 years of testing before I ended up choosing the final product, which, in the end, was quite simple. Along the way I had tried a lot of weird and wonderful solutions, none of which worked the way I wanted. I made it into a fabric covered kayak with two side zippers so you could use the kayak enclosed or open. It worked well, but there was not enough room for your feet to be upright, something I thought pretty important. I made a drop stitch top deck for the RazorLite – that looked great, but was heavy, 3″ thick and also did not allow enough space for your feet.

This was an early prototype of the RazorLite – I loved the zipper spray skirt even if I could not get my feet comfortably under it. The spray skirts could be rolled back and secured for easy access to bow or stern cockpit areas. This was also before I added sharp bow and stern molds. The new bow and stern molds greatly improved the speed and tracking of the Razorlite.

I knew of course that I could increase the height of the sides, but that would make the kayak more susceptible to high winds. I can say modestly that I went through about 6 prototypes deciding on just how high the sides had be – my choices ranged from 5″ to 12″ before settling on 8.5″ for the solo 393rl model and 10″ for the tandem 473rl. Most sides were either too high or too low. If it was too low, water would come in over the sides. If it was too high, the sides would act like a sail, allowing the kayak to be blown around.

I tried the kayak without bow molds and with bow molds. It quickly became apparent that the bow molds made a huge difference in the paddling performance.

Such a simple shape, but not so easy to come to – 5 years & 14 prototypes!

In the end the solution was simple and elegant. An open kayak with 8.5″ high drop stitch inflatable sides at the center and sharp pointed molds at the bow and the stern. And the result was great, we created a true high performance inflatable paddling kayak. I am extremely proud of the RazorLite kayaks. Recently, thanks to a design my brother made, we were able to add adjustable footrests for both our 393 and 473 RazorLites. Those footrests provide really secure footing and adjust to most humans on the planet. Sometimes, things that look simple are the hardest to develop.

In the last 20 years, we have developed many new inflatable boat designs. Our 285 Frameless Pontoon Fishing Boat for one angler, our StealthStalker fishing boat for two anglers, and our Sea Eagle PackFish 7 for one angler. All of these small fishing boats had distinct differences and advantages over other inflatable craft on the market. 

Here is our Sea Eagle FishSkiff 16 rigged with a canopy, a solar panel and an electric motor. Used this way, the FishSkiff will automatically recharge the battery whenever you run down the battery. This is the first inflatable skiff in the world to use all drop stitch construction. With a 6 hp gas motor, this boat will propel one or two anglers at 15 to 17 mph.

As time has gone on, the design of boats has become more of a collaborative activity. Today, my brother shares with me many of the design responsibilities. He is fluent in a design application called Fusion 360, allowing him to make very precise 3D drawings for new products. I make my drawings on iPad Pro using Graphic, a simpler, but very fast and easy drawing program.

In the case of our Sea Eagle FishSkiff 16, Dan Dejkunchorn, one of our employees and a fanatical fisherman, came to me and showed me a 14′ solo fiberglass skiff that was made to take a 5 hp motor. I had seen this particular boat a couple of months before at a trade show. I had thought it was an interesting design, but had done nothing about it.

Dan thought this kind of a boat had a number of advantages for fishermen and it would be great if we could come up with some inflatable alternative. After all, a fiberglass skiff, even one just 14′ long, is quite heavy and does not fit into a car trunk. So, we embarked on an effort to create an inflatable fishing skiff that had the good features and advantages of a small fiberglass skiff without the weight and difficulty of transport.

Dan knew what he wanted as fisherman and I knew how to make an inflatable boat with the features he wanted. Dan is my go to consultant on anything to do with fishing. It took only 6 months to develop the FishSkiff and unlike some other products we were able to come to a final design with a minimum of prototypes (3) and within a year, this skiff became our second best selling product. 

So, developing new products can be fast or slow. Perhaps, the fastest example of developing a product is our Sea Eagle NeeddleNose Standup Paddle Board. I was at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City. We had already developed a couple models of Standup Paddle Boards and I happened to pass by a booth with a rigid fiberglass board using what they were calling a “wave piercing” design – it had a straight pointed V bow. I thought that was an interesting concept and I wondered how we might make a inflatable SUP with the same abilities.

I went back to my booth, pulled out my iPad and made a drawing in about 20 minutes. I realized a round bow at the front would not work, so I drew a drawing of a sharp wave piercing bow mold that could fit over the rounded inflatable bow. That was to achieve a “wave piercing design”. It so happened our Korean supplier was present at the show. A few minutes later, when he came by the booth, I showed him the design and asked if he saw any problems with the idea. He said he thought it was all practical. Accordingly, I e-mailed the drawing to him and the production manager of the company immediately.

The Sea Eagle NeedleNose was an example of fast product development – just 3 months from concept to selling products.

Within 3 weeks they made up a prototype. Within two weeks of that we had received, tested and approved the prototype. Within 3 months we were in production and had started our first NeedleNose SUPs. Within 6 months we had sold our first several hundred units. This is not the typical case of design, but sometimes things do work right from the first moment and sometimes things do go smoothly.

As we got into the 2010s, the internet began to change the world around it. Print advertising, and generally the small or medium size print ads that we used to explain the virtues of a new product, began to work less and less. Simply put, people began to read magazines less and less. This caused something of a crisis for us because print ads had been our best medium to explain and introduce new products. Now that medium was being closed off to us or at the very least becoming less and less effective.

This meant pursuing other avenues of promotion, but nothing immediately replaced the function of being able to explain a new product in print. Of course, we could still explain new products in our catalogs and on our website, but that was limited by the number visitors to our website and by the number of people we sent catalogs to. That universe was not so small. We have over one million visitors to our website each year and we mail 50,000 to 70,000 print catalogs 3 to 5 times a year. Nevertheless, this is still a limited universe.

We are, like many other companies, active on Facebook and Instagram. We use different search engines such as Google and Bing. But there is a downside to all of the channels of media that we use and that that is that each is fundamentally limited. The world does not necessarily beat a path to your website or request a catalog or find out about you in Google, Facebook, Bing or Instagram, even if you do have a better mousetrap. This caused us some hard thinking and has resulted in us making many marketing experiments, many of which failed.

Of course, advertising, marketing, multi-channel promotion is always a mixture of failures and successes. The trick is to have more successes than failures.

Today, as we are entering the 2020s, I can say that we are finding new ways to present and explain our products…through FaceBook, Instagram, Google, Bing etc. We are also finding new ways to use e-mails, digital ads, catalogs. And I can say there are still some print media that are effective. For example, some of the coastal fishing magazines, some RV and Motorhome magazines are still healthy. Those publications have dedicated groups of readers and some people still respond positively to print ads.

It seems to me for a company to be successful, there are many important pillars to a business and they must all work together. A method of promoting and explaining products is important, but that is totally meaningless unless your products do not live up to your promotional abilities. And having good promotion and good products is also meaningless unless you have a good system to buy, receive and ship the products you have. Many businesses have good promotion, many businesses have good products, but if they are not able to deliver those products, it serves them nothing.

I can say that because of our family background in previous businesses, we understood from our very beginning, the need for good promotion and for having good products and for having inventory of those products and for shipping promptly. Our father, Cecil C. Hoge, Sr., had a long history in business that dated back many years before he had gotten into the inflatable boat business. Those businesses covered a wide array of different kinds of products. To name a few…art painting courses, dance lessons, pocket adding and subtracting machines, paint brushes, fishing lures, fishing rods, fishing reels, garden and lawn fertilizer, TV repair books…the list goes on and on.

When I first started working in the business, my father had just bought an inflatable boat company that had been failing. At that time, we were still selling pocket adding and subtracting machines, paint brushes, fishing rods, etc. It was still the early years of our Panther Martin fishing lures, but that business was gradually growing while the other businesses were gradually failing. By this time, my step-mother had married my father and she, being German, had instilled into our little business the importance of earning a profit on all goods and the importance of shipping goods precisely and on time.

So, by the time, I came into the business, we had already established a culture (if you can say that a little business of about 25 people could have a culture) of good promotion, good products, of keeping all goods in stock and of shipping all orders out precisely and on time. So this was already the history I and my brother inherited.

After I came into the business, I added a few weird products myself…good luck bracelets, outdoor hats, exercise equipment, fly and mosquito repellent and several other kinds of products, many of which failed, but some of which we sold hundreds of thousands of. In every case, it was always important that the product was good, that we had excellent methods of promotion, that it was in stock and that we shipped it out promptly.

As I have mentioned in Part 1 of our Sea Eagle History, early on, my father stepped back from the business and gave full ownership of the business over to my step-mother and me. In 1971, my brother John was born, and ultimately he would become my partner. But that was in the future. What I can say is, from the very moment I came into this business, it was always important to have good promotion and good products. And it always was important to keep goods in stock and ship products out promptly.

In my time at this business, we have seen multiple recessions, multiple booms, stock market crashes, new stock market highs, weather calamities, oil crises, inflation, deflation, new highs in unemployment, new highs in employment and various epidemics. Through it all we have survived and thrived. That is not to say it was easy. It was not.

As mentioned at the beginning of this blog story, our goal is to make the best inflatable products of their kind in the world. The world is too complex, I think, to produce or claim you can make the best of everything, but it’s still obtainable to make products that really are the best of their kind. So, whatever model of inflatable boat, kayak or standup paddle board we make, I would like to think it is the best of its kind. 

This is our new Rescue 14 – a special model, made heavier and re-inforced to make it super tough – it features a re-inforced drop stitch floor to be able to take a 30 hp outboard motor.

I cannot say what the future history of Sea Eagle shall be. We are trying to branch out into new fields of endeavor. For example, one of our new focuses will be flood control boats. We have already sold 500 or 600 boats for use in fire/rescue/flood work. Now we are developing new models to to be used specifically as flood rescue boats. We think these boats will be, yes, the best inflatable boats of their kind. Those products are shown on Rescue.SeaEagle.com.

I am also thinking of new kinds of inflatable transom boats…new kinds of fishing boats… new kinds of paddle kayaks…new kinds of standup paddle boards. Products that will be lighter and easier to assemble, boats that will motor faster, boats that will have a smoother ride through waves, kayaks that will be easier to transport or paddle, paddle boards that can be better used in the surf.

One of the great features of inflatable boats is there is not a huge mold cost to pay for before you can make something. With inflatable boats you can start with an idea. That idea may be good or bad, but it does not cost a lot of money to find out. And sometimes, just sometimes, you create something truly great.

So, we start and end with that dream and we hope to provide many more unique, different and great Sea Eagle designs in the future.

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