Compeau’s: A Family Tradition


Even After 70 Years In Business, Innovations In Shallow-water Boating Continue At Compeau’s Marine In Fairbanks

What does a 1940 Chevy Coupe have to do with the ultimate shallow-water jet boat? Plenty.
In 1938, Bob Compeau Sr. went “north to Alaska” from his childhood home of Everett, Wash., to take a job in Fairbanks as a machinist. An avid hunter and fisherman, Bob had always dreamed of Alaska, having read stories about the thousands of remote, shallow rivers and over 3 million lakes. In a lucky break, his wife, Helyn, won a brand new Chevy Coupe in a church raffle, and Bob promptly made plans to use it to move his family to Fairbanks, where he began planting his roots and building a name for himself in the marine industry. Bob Sr. possessed extraordinary mechanical and engineering skills, and he spent almost all of his spare time working on boats or fixing outboard motors for his new friends. Outboards were becoming incredibly popular among river runners, and Bob used his talents to repair props, rebuild engines and keep those early “kickers” chugging along  Interior Alaskan waterways.
By 1945, soon after the war ended, Bob determined that he had enough informal customers to start his own marine business, and in October he opened the doors of Bob Compeau Sporting Goods.
Much of Bob’s early business revenue involved rebuilding the brass props that his customers brought to him after grinding their way up the ankle-deep rivers that weaved throughout the region. As a machinist, Bob continued to envision a more effective approach. He begun developing and building specialized spring-loaded lifts that he mounted between the top of the transom and the outboard motor itself. These lifts had an additional handle, and were positioned on the opposite side of the existing tiller handle, so the boat operator could lean on it with his right hand and elevate the motor, thus lifting the precious prop above danger. This way, the boater could avoid a collision with ragged river bottoms, submerged logs or any other objects that could damage the prop, the lower unit – and the wallet.
Interest in Bob’s innovation, along with his business, soon exploded. His son, Bob Jr., now a teenager and who shared his father’s “shallow water fever,” always accompanied Bob when testing new and improved designs of the transom motor lifts on local rivers.
By the late 1950s Compeau’s marine business was in full swing. Outboards were getting larger and more powerful, and the motor lifts that Compeau’s built to accommodate them became increasingly stronger and more sophisticated.
Bob soon decided it was time to take shallow-water boating to the next level, so he and Bob Jr., who now worked at the store full-time, decided to build a new prototype using more “outside the boat” thinking. The pair bolted a 35-horsepower Evinrude powerhead to a crude hand-fabricated jet unit, which they affixed inside a small riveted aluminum hull.
By the time they had the new contraption rigged and ready to river test, winter was closing in fast, so for a full week they ran their newly outfitted boat on the Snohomish River near Seattle, tweaking the new design as they went. While there, they learned about a California businessman named Dick Stallman who had just developed a jet unit that bolted directly onto the bottom of an outboard. The Compeaus decided to travel further south, where they met Stallman and test drove the prototype.
Bob figured that the outboard motor-style jet package had enormous potential, thanks to its simple design and versatility. So he encouraged Stallman to move forward in developing the new propulsion project, offering a 100-unit order to “kick-start” the inventor’s business.
It wasn’t long before the new outboard-jet-powered riverboat became the most popular method of traversing small and shallow rivers throughout Alaska, Canada and the Pacific Northwest. And it remained that way for nearly 40 years.
Fast forward to 1998. By that time Bob Jr.’s own son, Craig, also an avid river rat and innovative thinker, was deeply involved with the sales and marketing of the family business. In September of that year, Craig and an Idaho boating buddy, Steve Stajkowski, who had started his own boat-building company a few years earlier, were on a moose-hunting trip together when the conversation turned to “what’s next.” Craig suggested they collectively design and build something never seen in the marine industry: an inboard-mounted tunnel-hull jet boat. Mercury had just developed their V6 Sportjet package, featuring an extremely efficient jet pump that lost only 9 percent of its crankshaft-rated horsepower versus 30 percent or more with competitive jet units.
By the following summer, the prototype was ready to test. They had developed a 21-foot fully welded boat with a 6-foot bottom and 6-degree dead rise. The tunnel had been fine-tuned repeatedly, until it carved hard corners with zero cavitation or slippage. The excitement level after seeing this boat perform was off the scale. Everyone involved with the project knew that this revolutionary boat was about to change all the rules, as well as the limitations of navigating shallow waters.
Over the next decade, with the introduction of Mercury’s direct-injected Optimax power plant, advances continued to accelerate. With its fuel-efficient power plant weighing only 375 pounds (engine and jet combined), Craig knew his biggest problem would have nothing to do with engineering and everything to do with meeting demand. And it proved true; once the public learned of the innovative new boat, Compeau’s rarely had a backlog of orders less than 12 weeks.
The SJX jet boat has become the company’s flagship product, not only in Compeau’s huge Alaskan backyard, but in all corners of the world, from Alberta to Texas and from Fiji to Barcelona. Craig sells the boats at his store, direct from the factory, or delivered anywhere around the globe.
According to Craig, now president of the 70-year-old, four-generation family business, “We just like to keep innovating. It’s what we live for.”
Who knows what the next few years will bring for river runners who live to pursue the furthest most rivers where oftentimes no one has boated before. Actually, Craig knows. But when you ask him, he simply smiles mischievously and says, “Stay tuned.”
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