The Life Aquatic with Skip Izon
Skip Izon has been building boats since 1973; the first boat he built was a houseboat built while a student at the University of Western Ontario. He read every book and magazine he could get his hands on and took a three-year correspondence course in yacht design from Stamford, Connecticut. He’s been building boats since, and now specializes in high-end, top-quality canoes, kayaks and rowboats; their prices range from $5000 to $7500. Raised in Port Credit, his shop is located on Highway 21 north of Grand Bend.
As told to Casey Lessard
My name is Skipper. I come from a family of sailors. I had my own sailboat when I was four years old. I’ve always loved the water and boats. That’s what I do.
I worked at the Ceeps and The Spoke and Rim at Western and we’d heard about Grand Bend. We wanted to work in bars in the summer and be near the water, so we came up to the Bend. We were thinking of renting a cottage, but then I thought I could build a little houseboat. It would be cheaper and more fun. I drew it up. We built it in our driveway in a townhouse development, and we got in a bit of trouble there. They came down and laid down the law. I said we’d be gone in a week and it was. We brought it up and moved onto it. I lived in houseboats for about twenty summers and worked the bars.
There were usually about three or four of us living on the houseboat. It’s kind of halfway between camping and living in a cottage. We worked the bars and during the days I would do my boatbuilding and designing, learning that end of things.
After I started working at Sanders, there was a band called Busker, and for fun they used to get other musician friends of theirs and get on top of the houseboat and play Herb Alpert Tijuana music. I’m not a musician, so I drove the boat.
We’d go up and down the river and past the visiting boats. There were a lot of American boats; they just loved the brass music. We’d go by the yacht club and they’d think it was great. People would hand us cases of beer, and say “Just keep playing.” As long as the beer was flowing, the band would keep playing.
Then we would go out past the end of the pier. We’d shut the band down as we went along the pier and when we’d get around the end of the pier, they would play a song called The Lonely Bull. It begins with a long trumpet solo. We had a gentleman who was very good on the trumpet and he would do this trumpet solo and everybody on the beach would just stop. It was an odd looking boat to begin with, and you’ve got this band on. When the solo was finished the rest of the band would kick in.
We would go towards Oakwood and turn around and come back and just anchor in the shallows right in front of the beach. People would be dancing on the beach in the shallows and the band would just keep playing for the afternoon. You couldn’t get away with something like that these days.
My first kind of professional boat, and the most notable, is the Olympic rowing shells. This is old news that goes back to the early 80s. A gentleman by the name of Jackson Coughlan of Hudson Boat Works had taken lines, which is a visual description of a hull, off a German boat and Swiss boat, which at the time were the two fastest racing shells for doubles rowing in the world. I analyzed those lines. I worked back through the mathematics, and I could describe the performance of these two boats from the mathematics. The description I came up with was the same as what he had seen. Stability, initial stability, secondary stability, acceleration speed, tracking all these things; no turning in racing shells. What I saw in the mathematics agreed with what he saw in the water.
You can’t have everything, so you have to decide what’s most important. He came out with a set of criteria for a Canadian boat. I worked back through the mathematics and came up with a hull shape that fit that description and Jack built it. At first no one liked it; it was kind of tippy. People would try it, but it just hung in the boathouses because people would try it and people didn’t like it. Eventually a crew was stuck for a boat and they had to use this Hudson that nobody liked and they went out and they won. It was finicky, but it was fast. Since then it’s brought back three Olympic medals over the years. I think it’s been tweaked and modified since. The basic boat is my design, but I can’t really call it my design now because it has been modified. But the basic boat is in Beijing.
We’ll have dinner when Jack comes back and I’ll find out how the boat did. The Canadians use it and the Americans have a medal with it, too. I’m not sure what other countries use it.
Silken Laumann and her sister Daniele used it, as did Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle. Marnie and I worked at the Ceeps together before she started rowing. I was a waiter and she was a busgirl. She was a great girl; lots of fun to work with. She originally got into rowing as an exercise thing and just was taken with it and took it to the Olympics. She’s an amazing girl. She didn’t know that I designed her boat until years later when Discovery TV did a thing. It kind of came full circle.
I’ve got three new designs this year. One’s an 18’ traditional looking canoe; it’s a pretty canoe. It has Ojibwa ends. It’s a very well performing canoe. The part of the boat that’s in the water I’d put up against anything on the market right now for all the different performance things. It has stability, tracking, turning, acceleration, top speed. The first one was launched a couple weeks ago up in Muskoka.
The second boat is a rowing boat. It’s kind of an exercise/courting rowboat that you can take out by yourself for the exercise part of it. It’s 16’ long. It also has a passenger seat, so you can go out for a nice row along the shore with your mate and enjoy being on the water. I’m just finishing up the first one of those, and then it’s on its way to Cobourg.
The third one I call The Little Tripper. It’s a 12.5’ open kayak, like a little canoe, but you use a double-bladed kayak paddle. You’re out in the open, so you’re out in the sun. You’ve got access to all your stuff, same as a canoe, but it’s light and fast like a kayak. So I’m trying to get the best of both worlds. The first one is nearly finished and I just got an order for a second one even though the first one has never been in the water. They are all based on boats I’ve done before, so I don’t expect any problems.
I have to find a customer that will buy one of these boats before I even design it because I can’t afford to just do stuff on spec. I’ve been very lucky running into people at boat shows, and through word of mouth and past customers. I tell them what I want to do and they say, yeah, build me one. It’s a real show of faith on the customer’s part to buy an expensive little boat that’s never been in the water, but it’s happened over and over again. I’m very, very lucky that way.
I have a piece of property for sale in Grand Bend that will clear all debts and put me in a good financial footing. I’d like to take some molds off of some of my favourite designs and see if I can build a more inexpensive, semi-production boats that would be more available to more people not just those with lots of money. It’s a dream of mine to see more of my boats out there on the water and being used.
I always say that the boat I’m working on today is the culmination of everything I’ve done before. What I learned designing the Olympic rowing shells goes into the rowing boats, canoes and kayaks that I do today. They just keep getting better, faster and better performing. This little business is not driven by money. It’s driven by just trying to build the best boats possible.