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Preview: John Lockwood – The Building Of Pygmy Boats

December 19, 2013

John Lockwood’s life story, on the way to the founding of his company, Pygmy Boats, is as compelling as the kayaks he designs and builds.

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– This accident was just completely transforming, I became something that I wouldn’t have become otherwise. You know, I never would have gone back to school, I work not have become a computer programmer, I would not be a boat designer, Pygmy Boats wouldn’t exist. Tragedies happen and you make the best of them. As young man I had gone to Union College in Schenectady, New York and I was a dyslexic and it was not a very happy experience for me. I ended up taking off and worked an entire Winter season at a five star hotel in Aspen, Colorado and skied five days a week. That started me on four years of kind of, I would work just long enough to make enough money to basically take off to the mountains and when I ran out of money I’d go back, work some more. That was my life. I worked in nine different states, in those four years and traveled through all 48 of the lower 48 states. I had an old 1953 Chevrolet panel truck that I bought while I was working on a wheat farm in Dayton, Washington. I found another job with it where I was working on a drilling platform on, down in the snake river living out of the back of my truck and they were doing core sampling of the bedrock for what would become Lower Granite dam, God forgive me for. Beautiful place, used to catch smallmouth bass every evening for dinner with a flat rod down on the river. It was just totally wonderful. I drove into the Lowas on the weekends and the Seven Devils over in Idaho every weekend, I’d take off in this van and go mountain climbing. I climbed Mount Popocatepetl in Mexico, which is just under 19,000 feet. And by mountaineering I really mean more just being in the wilderness, I was really into fishing and I had grown up actually fishing and rabbit and quail hunting as a kid. And then two things happened to me, first thing of all I got drafted in 1964. It was not a very happy experience for either me or the army while I was in the army, I was definitely one of the people who was asking what they were doing 9,000 miles from home. But I got out, I took an overseas discharge, I was in Europe for a year and I worked in Germany, fell in love, traveled around Europe and I had a great time and then came back to the United States. I was back in the United States for three weeks, my brother was at Harvard and I went and stayed with him and within three weeks I had an accident where I fell about ten feet and landed on my side on a slab of cement and pushed the ball on the end of my thigh bone through the cup in my pelvis, broke the pelvic joint. I was on crutches for seven and a half years. One minute I was young and really healthy, and the next minute I was unable to do any of the kind of travel, mountaineering, wilderness hiking that I was totally into and I couldn’t do any of the physical work that I had really enjoyed. So I ended up going back to school because I was 100% disabled, and that’s really what it took. If I had not been 100% disabled, I would never have gotten through school. The second summer I was at Harvard, I took off the summer and made my way to Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territories, on crutches and with a Klepper T9, a collapsible down river racing kayak and I got it down into the water and got myself supplied and went for two and half months 900 miles down the Yukon river. So it got me out again, I lived off snowshoe hare, learned to set snares and fairing hair and pike was probably by volume, half of what I ate while I was on that two and a half month trip. It was wild country, you know, you got in trouble, you were on your own and you had to be careful that you didn’t cut yourself or smash yourself with an ax or just make mistakes. The thing about kayaking is it enabled me, as a disabled person, I had all my gear on my back, including my kayak and I could get all of that stuff down to the shoreline. I couldn’t think of any other way actually to get into the wilderness other than the kayak, and so I was just doing the best I could, I had this love hate relationship, I got totally into computer science, 3:00 in the morning I’d be in front of a terminal and I got really, really seriously into Anthropology. I focused on hunter gather studies. But I didn’t really enjoy academia. But, the Anthropology really changed my life, I was one of seven or eight people who were described as hunter gatherer freaks. Hunter gatherers worldwide from the arctic, to the tropics, spend an average of 18-20 hours a week on awesome system related activities, so they have the best food storage system that’s ever been invented, the best system is to leave it alive in the ground or on the boat and if they lived past the age of five, their chances of getting to be 65 or 70 years old were as good as they were in England in the 1860’s and they had a lot of leisure, they loved what they did, there’s no hunter gatherer that doesn’t like to either gather or to hunt. They’re not confused about what they’re going to be when they grow up, you know, and they have no anxiety about it and that’s certainly not the male lead that I came out of, you know had all the angst of certain modern male life of spending my productive years standing in front of a machine or sitting behind a desk. When I got out of school and I’d been on crutches for four years, I left Cambridge, Massachusetts on a bus to Montreal with a girlfriend and then took the train to Prince Rupert on the north coast of British Columbia and then jumped right on a fish boat and was dropped off on the north side of the Queen Charlotte Islands. We were carrying two big backpacks that contained a Klepper Double kayak and we spent five and a half months paddling around the Queen Charlotte’s that summer and then spent the Winter in the Charlotte’s and spent four months paddling around the Queen Charlotte’s the next summer and I was there for two and a half years. After the first summer of paddling, the next winter I designed and built a 17 foot kayak. I was carrying with me 50 pages that I had xeroxed out of the bargain skin canoes of North America from the Anthropology library at Harvard Peabody Museum and I used those classic designs to design this first kayak that I built. I followed Howard Chappell’s boat building book, I designed it then I locked it full size on the shop floor, lifted off the frame shaves, I built a strong back, I set up the stations then I put battens down the chines, planked the boat with plywood and then unbuilt it and used the plywood for a stitch and glue boat. So the boat I ended up with was a plywood boat with no interior structural support except bulkheads. I started making kayaks because there was none available, I really thought that this would give control, it would let me work with my hands, it would be a more varied thing and that it would connect me to a product that would take people outdoors. I had a strong work ethic, I was used to working when I worked. I just wanted to have a fuller life than that. I started Pygmy, I was under the poverty line for eight years. I named the company Pygmy in large part because I was trying to remind myself of both what I’d been in my youth and what my orientation was and specifically I was trying to remind myself that they old only worked 18 hours to 20 hours a week and that I was going to be self employed and control of my own fate and I would be able to structure my life, so I had something, of the fullness of their lives. At the end of like three and a half years I’d only designed one boat in three lengths, it was the Queen Charlotte. I was working 60 hours a week with a new baby, my whole life was just being a dad and working. So there was some point in there like five or six years that I really felt ashamed I was misusing their name, you know that I had been inspired by one thing and then I had started this thing that was the epitome of overwork, over focus, and I mean I did everything, I was the photographer, I did all of our ads and all of our brochures, I did all of our accounting, so it was very varied which is true of the Pygmies but it was completely overwhelming and way too narrow a life. The company’s history is that I worked my way out of debt but it took a long time to do. I do get a satisfaction out of having both a lifestyle and a product that’s really designed to take people outdoors. The first time we won the Readers Choice Award for having the best wood and sea kayak on the market, I was really proud but the truth of the matter is that what I was in love with was not building boats, or shipping them or manufacturing them, it was paddling them. I mean it’s the outer doors experience itself that I was really in love with. Now at this age I’m moving into the phase where I have physical limitations where I spend more time really vicariously enjoying, I loved to help Freya learn to roll, it was one of the high points in my whole year, was when I was standing waist deep in water, you know righting her when she was learning to roll and just seeing that whole process. I get a lot more satisfaction I think out of just selling and relating to people in the boat building business now overall just because I’m less, you know focused on wanting to be out there myself. But I just came back from a week long solo trip through the Bowron Lakes and another week long solo trip through the Nation Lakes in Northern British Columbia, so I haven’t lost it yet.



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