Evergreen couple invent a place in nautical history

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By Stephen Knapp

Celebrated know-something Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously declared that, if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.

What Evergreen residents Art and Sharon Onweller invented isn’t a mousetrap, exactly, but it’s a mighty step forward in the art of confounding rodents, and the nautical world has definitely begun to take notice. It’s called the OFFBoard Vermin Shield, a deceptively simple white disc that’s giving modern seafarers a needed edge in the 4,000-year-old fight to keep mice and rats on shore and out of the galley.

So how did a couple of folks in landlocked Colorado become champions in the fight against rodent piracy?

“We’re longtime Lake Powell boaters, and anybody who goes there knows there’s a problem with packrats and field mice using the mooring lines to come aboard,” Art explains. “Nobody makes vermin shields for private watercraft, so people normally cut a hole in a paper plate and try to attach it to the line. But rodents chew right through those; they’re hard to get on the line, and they don’t stay on very well.”

One day about five years ago, after wasting the better part of a sunny morning chasing a particularly pesky pocket mouse around their cabin cruiser, the Onwellers decided they’d had enough. Using tin snips, a 9-inch tin pie plate and a modest hunk of hardware-store spring, Art built a better vermin shield.

“The spring is what makes it better,” says Art, glad to explain his flash of inspiration. “You just pull open the little hatch, slip the disc onto any size line, and snap it shut. It’s quick and easy to attach, and it holds securely onto the rope.”

Buoyed by the genuine admiration of their fellow mariners, the Onwellers launched Foothills Products Inc. and began fighting the scourge of disease-ridden stowaways on a national scale. Instead of tin, OFFBoard vermin shields are fashioned of durable plastic and equipped with a tough, stainless-steel spring.

“We decided right away that everything would be made in Colorado, and we’d only use ‘green’ companies,” Art says. “We found a company in Thornton to make the springs, and the discs are made in Boulder using a lot of recycled plastic. Needle Mountain Design in Conifer sews all our nylon storage bags. We felt we could make it just as efficiently and cheaply here as anywhere else, and we can.”

Always inventive, Art had applied for and received three separate patents during a long career with US West. Getting the official nod for OFFBoard turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

“It usually takes at least two years to get a patent, but ours only took seven months,” Sharon says. “There was nothing else like this on the market for private watercraft.”

Once OFFBoard shields started showing up in harbors and marinas across the country, sailors with more substantial vessels started demanding a product suitable for more substantial mooring lines. Today, the Onwellers manufacture a trusty 10-inch model for ropes up to half an inch, a solid 15-inch shield that accommodates all larger sizes, and recently — at the specific request of a Fort Lauderdale yacht broker — started producing a regal 17-inch disc for pleasure-craft longer than 100 feet. Except for a little marina store on Lake Powell in Page, Ariz., OFFBoard products are available only online. So far, that’s more than enough.

“We’ve sold vermin shields in Colorado, Utah, Kentucky, Florida — anywhere there’s boats, and that’s pretty much everywhere,” Art says. “A woman in San Jose, Calif., actually bought one to keep rats from coming into her attic along the phone line. It worked perfectly.”

And if the Onwellers were happy when Hawaii’s Department of Fish and Wildlife started buying their shields, they were just plain stunned when the U.S. Navy called.

“They turned the aircraft carrier USS Midway into a museum, and it’s now permanently moored in San Diego,” Sharon says. “They’re going to use our shields on the Midway! We’re pretty proud.”

And, as if that weren’t enough to be proud of, the Onwellers may have single-handedly cornered a previously unsuspected market.

“I think we can say we’re probably the world’s largest manufacturer of marine rat and mouse shields,” Art says. “Our motto is, ‘You invite guests on board; we keep pests off-board.’ ”

To learn more about OFFBoard Vermin Shields, call 303-674-9559 or visit www.offboard.com.

Contact staff writer Stephen Knapp at stephen@evergreenco.com or 720-261-1665.