Drysuits for the Rest of Us January 10 2014

"So why are you creating a new drysuit business?"

I get this question all the time. Of all the startups I could launch, and of all the products I could make and sell, why concentrate on something so obscure that most people don't even know what it is?

Except that paddlers know.

And paddlers often don't have a ton of ready cash hanging around.

And I'm a paddler, so I know.

I'd been relying on a wetsuit for years but, last spring, while spending a long day poling down a stream in Maine, I got fed up with it. The water was cold enough to need some kind of thermal protection if I fell in. But the air temperature was high, and the thick, black, rubbery farmer John became hot to the touch -- and that was just on the outside. Inside, I was roasting. Enough, I thought. Time to bite the bullet and buy a drysuit.

So I started shopping. Kokotat, Stohlquist, NRS, Amazon, Google, Google, Google...damn! I just couldn't find anything I could afford. Most suits seemed to start at around $600, and $1,400 wasn't even the ceiling. The lowest price I found for a paddling drysuit was $450, and that was for a discontinued model, from a retailer I'd never heard of.

Current drysuit choices from one of the biggest paddlesports gear companies range from a low of $585 for a closeout (!) to well over $1100 (!!!) for "Expedition" and Search-and-Rescue models. Nice stuff, truly, but not within everyone's price range.

 

I pondered: why are drysuits so expensive? And as I read and re-read the product descriptions of all those admittedly fine drysuits on the market, it occurred to me that they were way better than they need to be for most people. They all feature fancy, brand-name fabric. They all have extra layers of a different fabric on the knees, elbows, butt -- just about every place where the suit might possibly touch something else. Expensive latex socks or ankle gaskets where nylon socks would do the job just as well. Pockets. Hoods. Retro-reflective, SOLAS-approved tape. And enough color choices to satisfy a carnival clown.Or Lady Gaga. (But I repeat myself.)

No wonder those suits are so expensive! With all that quality and all those features, you'd feel safe taking one on a two-month expedition across the Canadian Shield, a North Sea crossing, or a first descent of some obscure Chilean Class V rapid that can only be approached via 175 km of continuous Class IV.

Most of us don't need a suit that good. Most of us fall into a spectrum that ranges from "casual" or "recreational" paddler to "weekend warrior" and what we need is really pretty simple: a suit that will keep us warm and dry. Period.

Picture an automobile market where the only choices are Mercedes and BMW. Yeah, nice cars! But I can't afford them. How about a Camry, or even a Corolla? True, I won't get the leather-lined, mahogany iPod holder, but I can live without it, thanks.

 
"Must be nice" vs. "what we can afford"

 

Maybe I'm just cheap. But so are a lot of my fellow paddlers. I figured that if I wanted a cheap, basic drysuit, maybe they would too. (I'm not afraid of the word "cheap." I've had business consultants tell me not to use it -- "cheap sounds cheap" they say. I disagree. "Cheap" is honest. You, I, and everyone else knows what it means. And I sure did a lot of Googling for "cheap drysuits.") So I started looking for suppliers who could understand what I wanted to accomplish and were willing to think creatively and shave their margins to help me get there.

Working together, we found a good, economical fabric that's waterproof and breathable -- maybe not as breathable as an $1,100 drysuit, but good enough is good enough, right? We looked for other ways to cut costs without compromising basic functionality. Pockets, hoods, and reflective tape? Gone! Reinforcement patches? Ditto. Color choices and custom sizing? So sorry: you'll have to go to our competitors for those.

We kept what's needed to make a drysuit work as it should. The fabric is waterproof and breathable, and it has a nice supple feel too. The zippers and the gaskets came from SCUBA equipment suppliers: they're not just waterproof, they're especially rugged. The nylon socks are more durable than latex socks or gaskets, and you can wear nice bulky socks inside them so your feet stay warm. We went into production with just two models: the base-model Sobek (the "cheapest" drysuit in America) and Enki Relief (identical to Sobek with the addition of a relief zipper, making it the cheapest relief drysuit around).

As a paddler on a budget, these are exactly the suits I would buy. Decent quality, fantastic price, no bells or whistles.

Safe, comfortable paddling shouldn't be the exclusive prerogative of people with a lot of money to spend. And that's why I got into this business: to help paddlers like myself get the kind of thermal protection they need at a price they can afford. 

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