History of the Dry Suit - An Interview with Steve O'Meara, Founder and CEO of Kokatat

Tuesday, 17 May 2011
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Kokatat LogoAnybody into paddling knows that Kokatat is one of the market leaders in the development of solid, well designed paddling gear. For 40 years now they have turned out paddling jackets, PFD’s, dry suits and paddling apparel which is used by both beginners at the local lake and pro’s in the far off reaches of the wilderness.

A short while ago I had the pleasure to sit down with Steve O'Meara, Founder and CEO of Kokatat. I wanted to learn about the history of dry suits as well as talk about some of the many technical hurdles they had to overcome during the initial product development.

What I discovered along the way is somebody who was clearly a forward thinker in the very early days of paddlesports but is also somebody who is not interested in riding the coattails of past success and always push forward and continue innovating.

 

Kokatat Expedition Woman's dry suit. Image credit: KokatatKokatat Expedition Woman's dry suit. Image credit: KokatatWhen did you start making dry suits and how did you come up with the idea to develop them?
We started making dry suits in 1986. Dry suits have been used both in diving (though much different then the ones used in paddling) and sailing but not really noted in watersports in general. It was a logical progression from a dry top which we had been making pretty much from day one.

As the sport became more popular people realized that winter/very early spring (especially in whitewater) often had the best water so they started going earlier in the season and of course this ran into all kinds of issues. Just having a dry top worked fine if you were staying in your boat but you ran into problems if you came out due to really cold water. The need for a full suit became more important.

What was out there in sailing was kind of one piece suits. It was more like a coverall with a zipper and a hood. There were survival suits but they were insulated and very awkward to move around in. They kept you warm but but not very practical for paddlesports.

What was being used up until dry suits came along were neoprene wet suits but they also had issues. When you were above the water with the blowing wind you got a lot of evaperative cooling. In the water you move around so you pump a lot of cold water in and warm water out so you are circulating it. You don’t stay warm as long in a wet suit and with dry suits you can layer and adjust to the air/water temperature.

Were you the first ones to commercialize dry suits and take it to the paddling market or where there others doing this already?
We were definitely the first to the paddling market. The whitewater market was the one driving sales for dry suits at the time. When we started; whitewater was the major market. You were starting to see touring but it was really more whitewater driven market at that point.

Is it still that way?
No, not any more. Whitewater is still a big part of it but recreational and touring are much bigger markets now.

What early challenges did you have with some of the initial prototype designs?
The biggest issue with dry suit is the full suit. Its easy to make a dry top but when you start putting it together and dealing with getting the full suit waterproof it gets much for difficult.

When we first started the seams weren't glued and the consumer had to seal the seams to make them fully waterproof. Then we started taping which was a big innovation but also very tough to do in a full suit configuration compared to just tops and bottom. Then we started using Gore-Tex which had it’s own issues being three layers rather then urethane (which our original suits were made from). Urethane was nice to work with as the tape sticks to the material very nicely. When you go with Gore-Tex you have different issues with the glue and the tape. The combination of heat and pressure to make the tape stick can be tricky to get set-up correctly.

Was the problem of long term durability? The seam tape coming off down the road?
Yes, exactly. It’s something that you need to pay a lot of attention to. Small things like temperature and humidity have a big influence on things. If the temperature changes throughout the day you need to adjust your settings on the machine. It is a pretty technical thing and that that's why not a lot of companies do dry suits while a lot do dry tops.

Is it still that way? Is the glue and manufacture process still that sensitive to temperature and humidity?
Yes it is. The glue and tapes have gotten better but it’s still very sensitive so we need to test regularly throughout the day to make sure that the taping machines are set and calibrated correctly.

Was it a bit hurdle to figure out the actual process of how to assemble the suits?
Yes but a bigger issue was more trying to come up with proper sizing. When you attach a top and a bottom together, it’s going to fit differently then that top and bottom separately so figuring out sizing and patterns was an initial hurdle.

It’s also much tougher on operators. You are dealing with more material and bulk in the sewing and sealing process. It isn’t just a problem of the sewing or tape machine getting at certain parts. As the product gets bigger staff have to be able to manipulate a larger amount of material now.

Coast Guard dry suit ready to be assembled. Image credit: KokatatCoast Guard dry suit ready to be assembled. Image credit: Kokatat

What about zippers and gaskets? How did you source them and how did you come up with solutions to those types of problems?
Sourcing for products in those days was basically Kokatat’s R&D department. There wasn’t a lot of people who really knew a lot about it especially seam sealing because before that (at least in the outdoor industry), it was the consumer who sealed or taped the seams (similar to tents today).

Another complexity we had to overcome was that the material and seams had to deal with water under pressure as opposed to rainwater in a regular raincoat. It took some time and a lot of trial and error to work that out as well.

Fortunately we had experience with Gore-Tex before we started doing dry suits. In the very early days we were using Gore-Tex in our bivi sacks and some rain garments so we had some experience working with the fabric which definitely was a plus in trying to do develop the dry suit.

Now was anybody else using Gore-Tex in an immersion environment like you were?
Not at the time. We worked together with Gore-Tex to develop that product.

Is the Gore-Tex immersion fabric a whole different fabric then the typical Gore-Tex that gets used for raincoats?
I wouldn’t say a whole different fabric but it does have a different membrane and scrim (inner reinforcement layer) and it has a different testing procedure in the manufacturing process so it is a different material then what you would find say in a North Face jacket.

And that’s to overcome the water pressure of somebody floating in water?
Yes. The material is also more durable. The need to have a stronger membrane to prevent pinholes is much more important. You hardly notice a pinhole in a rain jacket and you probably won’t get wet but you will notice a pinhole in a dry suit while you are underwater or in a hydraulic right away. You will get wet for sure.

Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Trooper (left) and Coast Guard Petty Officer (right), inspect a recreational fishing vessel in the Willamette River.Kokatat suits in use: Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Trooper (left) and Coast Guard Petty Officer (right), inspect a recreational fishing vessel in the Willamette River.

How did you come up with the idea of using latex gaskets? I’m guessing you borrowed the technology from dive suits?
Yes, we saw what they were doing and borrowed the idea from them. When we first started we used to glue them on to the end of the sleeve but now they are taped on. The manufacture process has evolved but what hasn’t changed at all is the fact that latex is still around.

Like other dry suit/top manufactures, we have been looking at other materials to keep the water out but as of yet there is nothing that works as well. The advantage to latex is that you can have a seal that is very very thin and doesn’t have a lip where water can pool and work it’s way in. Latex is also very stretchable and has good size memory so you can get it over your head yet still provide a seal around your neck. It’s been very difficult to find another material that holds it’s size memory over time and is as thin.

The problem with latex is that it’s so fragile. It would be great to have something that is more durable but we have looked at everything with potential but so far haven’t found anything that would really work as well as latex.

Were you worried at the time there would be no market for such a high end product as a dry suit?
No, there was demand for them right from the start. The thing is that in this part of the US [Northern California] the whitewater paddling season is only a couple of months. By June you were done so you had to paddle in winter/early spring if you wanted to maximise your paddling season.

When did you start to notice the spike in dry suit sales? What do you think were the factors to it’s rise in popularity?
We started to see large growth in sales about 10 years ago and that’s when the market was growing considerably. Over the past three or four years growth has tapered off but it was late 1990’s up until 2005-2006 or there abouts.

In the last 4-5 years people have really started to understand the comfort and factor advantages with dry suits. Most people who are serious about paddling have a dry suit. There has been much better education about the need to dress for the water temperature as opposed to dressing for the air so people saw the need.

Do you still build products for the US Coast Guard and the military?
Yes we do. We build suits that almost any Coast Guard station would use while out on the rescue boats.

Kokatat Completed Coast Guard Suits. Image credit: Kokatat.comCompleted coast guard suits ready to go. Image credit: Kokatat.com

Are those suits designed differently or are they more of an industrial version of the consumer dry suits?
They are different in a couple different ways. They Gore-Tex membrane is the next level up so it’s even more durable. They both have a lot of the same bells and whistles but the Coast Guard suits have a high neck collar and have a leg cuff that allows them to wear their deck boots. Some of those kinds of things that are specific to the Coast Guard and their needs. A kayaker would never wear those types of thing mainly because the big boots wouldn’t fit in a kayak.

The Coast Guard are hoping not to go into the water so they wear the suits as a safety precaution. They have a matrix of air and water temperature and when it crosses into the range and they are out on the boats they are required to wear a dry suit. It’s strictly from a safety standpoint and they wouldn’t be wearing them if it wasn’t required from a safety standpoint.

When you are building military versions, are they similar but just a black version?
They are very similar as they have gaskets and use the same face fabric that we use in our consumer suits. The sizing is the same and they are sewn and sealed the same as well most of the pieces of the suit are the same. It’s more the design and colours that are slightly different. For example the Coast Guard suit is orange and black which isn’t available on the consumer suits.

More information: Kokatat, Gore-Tex Immersion Fabric Care Instructions
Coast Guard photo credit: Multiagency boarding / Coast Guard / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

David Johnston

David Johnston

David Johnston has been introducing people to the sport of sea kayaking for the past 15 years. He is a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada and teaches for several paddling schools in Ontario, Canada. Full Bio.

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