50 Years And Going Strong: Catching Up With Kokatat Prez Steve O’Meara

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It was the same year Disney World opened, the U.S. launched Apollo 14 and “All in the Family” debuted on television.

For paddlesports apparel and PFD maker Kokatat, which this year celebrates 50 years of being made in the good ol’ USA, it’s been all in the family ever since as well. Owner Steve O’Meara started the company, then Blue Puma, in 1971 to help get people hit the trails of Humboldt County; later an expedition to British Columbia’s Alsek River turned his attention to paddling gear, becoming the first and only paddlepsorts brand to work with W.L. Gore & Associates and its GORE-TEX fabric. Overseeing 180 employees, he’s been making his high-end gear in Arcata, CA, for five decades now, when many technical apparel brands have moved manufacturing offshore. Paddling Life catches up with O’Meara on the milestone.

Did you ever think you’d be at it this long? No, I wanted to stay in Humboldt County, which had a high unemployment rate which made finding a job difficult. I was an avid backpacker and cyclist, so I started a bike/outdoor store with a friend when I was 20 years old, and then started Kokatat in the back of that store. I went to school in the morning and opened the store at noon.

How has paddling gear changed in the past 50 years and what have been some of your biggest milestones? Probably the biggest change was our introduction of paddling dry suits as a replacement for wetsuits. We also helped develop paddling-specific PFDs, rather than the general boating PFDs of the time. But perhaps the most significant milestone was using GORE-TEX, which was much more comfortable than the non-breathable coated fabrics that were commonplace. A key component of the GORE-TEX launch was the seam-sealing process, resulting in a truly waterproof garment. We also introduced nylon and polyester pile fabrics, which dried much quicker than the early wool undergarments. And our proprietary development of full water testing procedures to ensure our garments were completely dry was pretty important also.

What’s your business breakdown between PFDs and apparel? We do business in two completely different market segments. The outdoor consumer knows us as a premium quality paddlesports brand. But we’re also selling high performance maritime, Search and Rescue, and chemical protective garments to the government/military sector. The relation between our apparel and PFD business doesn’t really reflect the complete picture of our business.

What’s harder to make? They each have their own challenges. Apparel, especially dry suits, involve many production steps and validation testing to ensure they perform and hold up under the harsh conditions in paddling.PFDs have a high ratio of labor to material and lots of steps and must pass strict third-party certification and testing requirements.

KOKATAT
“Dang, I wish I had some better paddling gear…”: A young O’Meara on the Alsek…

How has business been during the pandemic? Sales have remained very strong. But it’s been challenging to maintain our internal factory capacity due to the uncertainties of COVID. Hiring new employees has been difficult, even with deliberate COVID protocols in the factory to keep our team safe and healthy. We’ve also experienced significant and unpredictable supply chain lead time issues. Not to mention the shortage of shipping containers and port delays.

How hard was it to project for this year? It was extremely difficult. There were so many unknowns around market and supply. We have more sales than we currently have capacity for, and we are anticipating growth to continue and get stronger as we get capacity in line with sales need.

What’s the hardest thing about making paddling gear? Short answer, water! It’s really good at finding a way in. The key reason we maintained our factory here in Arcata was to maintain very strict processes to ensure our customers would stay dry.

Any one piece of gear that really put Kokatat on the map? I’m proud of all of our innovations over the years, so it’s hard to identify one single item. Back in the mid-70s, our Bear Necessity bivy sack put us on the national scene thanks to Backpacker Magazine. The Wild Water Jacket and Nylon Pile Sweater were our first paddle-specific garments. Our first dry suit was the Rear Entry, followed by the GORE-TEX Front Entry. We launched the Meridian dry suit in 1992, which has become our most popular model. In 2015, we innovated the first fully separating two-piece dry suit and introduced the Idol, featuring the Switch-Zip system.

For PFDs, the MsFit Tour was one of our original four PFDs and the first women’s cut. Our move to Gaia PVC -free foam in our PFDs was also pretty noteworthy. The Maximus Centurion became the benchmark for Type 5 PFDs. In 2018 we introduced the first softshell PFD (the Proteus and Naiad) featuring soft and durable stretch polyester for comfort. Then we introduced the Hustle and HustleR PFDs last season, which have quickly become one of our top sales performers for retailers.

Kokatat

Tell us about your new venture using GORE-TEX PRO?

This year we’re launching an entirely new GORE-TEX PRO fabric laminate, which is the most rugged and durable fabric available for paddlesports. We’re integrating it into our complete line of GORE-TEX dry suits, dry tops, and pants including our Meridian and Legacy dry suits. We tested it over two years and found it to be the best performing and most comfortable gear we’ve made. It also has a great sustainability story. Between using recycled nylon, solution dying and a new water-resistant coating, Gore has been able to reduce the fabric’s environmental impact. It uses 47.2% less water in production and its carbon footprint has been reduced by 1.6%, making it Bluesign-approved and meeting the OEKO-TEX Standard 100.

It was your trip on the British Columbia’s Alsek that got you focused on paddling gear—what’s your favorite type of paddling? If it hadn’t been for that Alsek first descent, I’m not sure we would have pursued the paddlesports category. But now I’m mainly a flatwater paddler; I’ve been a sea kayaker most of my life. For the last couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot of stand-up paddling, especially during the pandemic…

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