By Margaret Bauman
When it comes to choosing rain gear and boots for the commercial fishing season, durability, staying dry and comfort are still deciding factors.
Proven old favorites do attract repeat business, but in the competition for commercial fishing harvesters and processing workers, manufacturers are offering an increasing number of products to choose from, in everything from rain gear and thermal underwear to socks and boots.
And it’s not where they are made so much as how they are made, said one commercial fishing industry veteran, in response to a question of whether there was a demand for made in America products.
Many men and women who work in the processing sector of the commercial fishing industry purchase their gear through the processing firm, which likely buys a large supply of clothing and boots its workers will need directly from a distributor or the manufacturer. Harvesters, on the other hand, are more likely to buy their rain gear, boots, socks, gloves and other clothing needs in the area of the communities where they live, from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula to Cordova, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor and myriad other fishing communities in coastal Alaska with gear shops. It’s a matter of convenience as well as a concern for supporting community businesses.
Anchorage gear shop owners, who also sell a considerable amount of fishing gear to sport anglers, differ in their opinions of what sells best, but generally agree that the famed Scandinavian firms of Grundens and Helly Hansen draw the most sales for raingear.
The history of these two companies, as their websites explain, is a fairly colorful one.
Grundens dates back to 1926, when Carl A. Grunden started producing raingear in the small fishing village of Grundsund on the West Coast of Sweden. His goal was to produce the best quality foul weather protection for professional seamen, many of whom were hard working commercial fishermen.
Until the beginning of the 1930s, these garments were made of unbleached canvas.
They were sewn together, dipped into barrels of boiled linseed oil until saturated, and hung up to dry at room temperature for 14 days. Then they were taken down and painted by hand using large brushes with a mixture of boiled linseed oil and special varnishes, followed by another 14 days of drying. This hand painting and drying process was repeated four times per garment.
During this same decade the first rubberized fabrics were introduced and professional seamen found them more durable and comfortable than oilcloth. The rubberized fabric also allowed for faster production times.
By the 1950s, PVC-coated fabrics were introduced. While PVC coatings have changed and improved over the years, they are still a leading choice for raingear for commercial fishermen.
While over the last few years some new lighter weight, breathable fabric has been introduced, including a lighter weight PVC coated nylon fabric, many veteran fishermen say they still prefer the durability of the traditional heavier PVC coated fabric, which is less likely to rip or tear.
The Helly Hansen heritage dates back to 1877, when after many years at sea, Norwegian captain Helly Juell Hansen and his wife, Maren Margarethe, began producing oilskin jackets, trousers, sou’westers and tarpaulins, made from coarse linen soaked in linseed oil.
Within the first five years, the Hansens sold some 10,000 pieces. In 1878, the company won a diploma for excellence at the Paris Expo, and began exporting its products. In the 20th century, Helly Hansen made several breakthroughs in product development to complete the layering principle today known as the 3-layer system.
Helly Hansen’s layering story was completed in the 1970s with the development of LIFA. “This wonder-fiber, used in LIFA, kept the skin dry and warm by pushing moisture away from the body, making it the ideal baselayer fabric for outdoor and workwear use,” the company said. “The latest generation of LIFA is still used in our baselayers today.”
In 1980, the Helly Tech technology was born, using both hydrophilic and microporous technology, to make apparel that was both waterproof and breathable.
Durable socks and boots are also critical to commercial fish harvesters and fish processing workers, and opinions vary on who buys what and what works best.
There is general agreement that smart wool, from Merino sheep in New Zealand, is the best sock. At an average starting price of $16 a pair, shop owners differ on just how many commercial fishermen are willing to invest that much in a single pair of socks, but according to salesman Chris Depoe of the Army Navy store in downtown Anchorage, they are a very hot item.
Preference in boots is always a matter of debate, with XtraTufs traditionally being the most popular, with Bogs Boots also making headway in popularity.
There has been a great deal of discussion of late on the quality of XtraTuf boots, also affectionately known as Alaska sneakers. Until this year, they were made in the USA by Norcross safety Products LLC, which was acquired by Honeywell in 2008. Then production switched to China, and word on the street, some commercial fishing industry veterans say, is that the quality has drastically decreased. The issue, said one fisherman, is not where they are made but how they are made.
Both Depoe and Lute Cunningham, general manager at B & J Commercial Co., also in Anchorage, said that while they had had some production problems with XtraTuf boots, these issues have been resolved, and that sales are strong.