Part 1 of this series was the series of events that led me to start work on creating a revolutionary new piece of footwear that might hopefully satisfy one of the most infamously picky fishing customers ever in terms of both riparian performance and financial viability (who are we kidding, Yvon Chouinard has not built a wildly successful company without a serious nod towards profitability, despite the nice idea of “letting his people go surfing”). After I returned to Ventura and told YC and my boss of my experience in the Fishing Footwear World in Portland, I had to execute.
The first phase of bringing footwear – or really, any product – to life is the design brief, and thus I created one for our contract designer, my old friend and colleague Bruce Rogers. It was pretty simple, really: make a fishing-inspired basketball shoe, while at the same time making it a basketball-inspired fishing boot, with the initial focus being the freshwater river shoe (we knew that it needed to fit with wader footies, and we needed to develop the last to account for that, which was going to take some time, so we started with that one). After a couple of clarifying conversations about the fundamentals Bruce came back to me with a few concepts, we chose one, he refined it, and very quickly the basic design was done.
In the meantime, I had been giving a lot of thought to the concept of the flats shoe. I realized that as a kayaker I was well-positioned to create a paddling shoe for Patagonia since I was able to add my own experience to the design/development process, and even with the freshwater fishing boot the demands of a North American river environment seemed pretty clear to me. But being tasked with developing a shoe with only a description of the experience of fishing in the flats made me pretty uncomfortable; I realized that not only did I not have any experience, but there was zero precedent to work from (there were no flats-specific shoes on the market), and there were a lot of challenging aspects to the activity that in some cases created potentially contradictory performance issues. Therefore, I felt that without firsthand experience there was a high likelihood that at best we’d miss the mark early and often and thus delay the project well-behind the timing of the freshwater boot, and at worst I’d be the developer of a rare failed Patagonia product. So I decided I needed to go flats fishing.
Initially I went to my boss and told her my idea; my designer and I would take a low-key trip to a flats fishing spot for a couple of days, bring all sorts of footwear types with me, we’d try them all out for a day or two, and we’d head home. Seemed like a good plan. We pitched it to Yvon, who promptly said “hell yes!” and next thing I knew not only he was going, but he wanted to have the fishing apparel designer, the fishing line product manager, the boss of all the water sports teams, the Texas/Southeast sales rep, and the owner of a Texas fishing shop that was a Patagonia dealer as well. And instead of an easy/cheap trip to Corpus Christi, Texas where the only US bonefishing was, we had to go to some tropical locale (“there’s no coral in Texas!). So suddenly in addition to being a shoe developer I suddenly became a travel agent for a trip for twelve to the Caribbean!
I also faced a bit of criticism; the word passed quickly and immediately there was a bit of louder-than-murmuring in the open halls of Patagonia about the “fishing junket” that I was organizing. I had to get a little defensive: “Look, not only have I been tasked to develop a product for a very specific activity that I know nothing about, I don’t even like fishing! This is a work trip!” I guess because this “work trip” involved doing an activity that was an indulgent vacation for others it created a bit of envy, which in turn redoubled my determination to do this “junket” right.
Thus about a dozen gringos in rental cars descended upon a tiny village a couple of hours south of Cancun, on a tiny spit that stuck out into the Caribbean almost within sight of the Belize border, ready to fish (unfortunately, without Yvon, who had to bail from the trip at the last minute).
The fishing line manager had been there before so he knew the right guys to call, and because we were at “the end” of the hurricane season (mid-November) he knew it wouldn’t be crowded with other gringos.
I had brought with me a huge duffel of footwear to try: traditional fishing boots (which is what people typically brought, which I knew would be terrible), basketball shoes (of course), our initial paddling shoe: the CFS
Some wrestling shoes:
Tevas (they had just come out)
Some Japanese rice paddy worker shoes that Yvon had found:
and even some Chuck Taylors:
Likewise, the apparel designer (the incredibly talented, personable, and hilarious Piers Thomas) did the same with lots of apparel pieces: Patagonia and otherwise.
The first morning we all paired up and got assigned our own personal panga and driver.
My partner was the Texas fishing dealer, and soon enough we were speeding over the shallow water to a nice spot (a fishin’ hole?). We coasted to a stop in a lagoon that was protected from the wind (apparently common in that post-hurricane season) and I grabbed the rod that someone had set up for me and leapt overboard with a huge splash, eager to try out the mismatched shoes on my feet on this strange sea surface I’d been hearing so much about. Mistake number one! The wily bonefish would now never come near us due to effective cannonball. Okay, we go somewhere else. The next spot we got to I eased myself over the gunwales and into the water, walked out a few steps, conjured up my best imagery of A River Runs Through It, and started casting. A few minutes went by of flinging my line in and out, in and out ala Brad Pitt when my reverie was broken by a voice behind me, in a slow Texas drawl: “Whay son, I don’ believe you ever thrown a line before!” Huh? I thought I was doing great! Those bonefish don’t have a chance!
Suffice to say, I didn’t catch a bonefish that day, nor any other day (and in fact, among our entire crew, only one bonefish was caught; the post-hurricane conditions were too challenging). But I and others did march around in the thigh deep water across the flats a lot, wearing wrestling shoes, Tevas, Chucks, paddling shoes, fishing boots, etc and learned a lot, even as I needed to do a bit of extrapolation, because apparently Belize’s flats are even harder on feet and shoes than the Yucatan’s, though it’s not far away.
And fortunately, once I got the personal perception I needed, I discovered that in addition to bonefishing in the Caribbean there was also fishing for Jack Crevalles
which involved simply driving around in a panga, drinking beer, and hauling the Jacks out because they could swim as fast as a boat to grab a big lure. I didn’t care; bonefish or Jack: they were both just fish to me, and I was fine with being a fishing boor.
Speaking of beer, I tried hard to make the trip less junket and more work, but with a dozen gringos on a fishin’ trip as the trip went on the nights got longer and the days on the water got shorter. However, the likes of Bruce, Piers, and me did ultimately glean a lot of good information that we were keen to take home and put to action in developing new products, and Patagonia’s iconic fishing line manager Bill Klyn was ecstatic that his line had gotten so much attention.
While we were there Bill kept talking about the “marl”, which was a new word to me, and he clarified it’s the actual term for the huge mat of decomposed limestone and coral that constituted the sea floor. It wasn’t much of a leap to immediately be able to come up with the product name, even before the product existed: The Marlwalker.
As it turned out, we finished our work trip a couple of days before Thanksgiving, and lo and behold I realized that in addition to bringing lots of wacky shoes I had also brought a bicycle down there, and when all the other gringos loaded back into the rental cars to blast back to Cancun, I jumped on my trusty steed and did a nice bike tour around the Yucatan, taking in the iconic Aztec ruins of Tulum, Coba, Chichen Itza, and Uxmal.
A week later I arrived back in Ventura, refreshed and ready to again tackle the development of esoteric fishing footwear.
Next: Okay….we got ideas and designs; now what?