Kayak maker, a pioneer in Northwest, closing

One of the pioneers of kayaking in the Northwest is closing this week, a victim of poor timing and changes in how people spend their recreational dollars.

Pacific Water Sports, a store that's been a fixture in local kayak and canoe circles for 32 years, saw revenue drop off following a move to bigger quarters in Tukwila in 2001, said co-owners Lee and Judy Moyer.

Just as important, though, was growth of the recreational-outfitting industry.

"When we started out, it was all people who got into the business because they loved paddling," said Judy Moyer, surrounded by bright liquidation-sale signs in the store yesterday. "Now they've sold out to bigger companies. There isn't that personal involvement any more."

The couple started building fiberglass kayaks in the basement of their Burien home and launched the business with little more than a letterhead just ahead of the 1972 Olympics, the first to include river kayaking. They moved the fledgling business into a building by the airport in 1972 so their cats could have more space in the basement, Judy Moyer recalled.

Over the years they helped spread the sport by sponsoring kayak festivals, kayak trips and learn-to-canoe programs. But unlike Recreational Equipment Incorporated, which started as a group of amateur mountaineers and grew into the international chain known as REI, the company remained specialized.

Pacific Water Sports had annual sales of about $1.25 million by 2000, said Lee Moyer, who has designed several models of kayaks and canoes.

But customers increasingly turned to the Internet to purchase accessories, and the kayak market changed as sports-hardware companies bought out makers of niche brands. Larger manufacturers make kayaks with less-durable materials, Lee Moyer said, and can sell them for a fraction of the price at G.I. Joe's and other large-scale retailers.

"The big makers just think about getting more units out the door," said John Meyer, owner of Northwest Outdoor Center, a kayak sales and rental store on Lake Union since 1980. "Just like what happened to windsurfing: The big boys got in, oversold and then bailed."

In 2001, Pacific Water Sports moved to Tukwila, nestled next to the Duwamish River and among industrial buildings near Boeing Field, after their SeaTac landlord decided to build a parking lot where their store stood. They underestimated the cost of the move and were slow to lay off their 12 employees when the recession hit, said Lee Moyer. "We were slow," he said. "Suddenly people didn't have to buy a kayak to live."

Meyer said he's trying to figure out what the closure means for surviving independent retailers like himself. "I'm sad to see them go. It's a loss for the industry."

The Moyers, who divorced four years ago, plan to go their separate ways after Pacific Water Sports' liquidation sale, which starts tomorrow. Judy Moyer, 60, plans to go back to school to become a nursing assistant. Lee Moyer, 61, who has written widely about kayaking, said he hasn't decided.

"I dream of being an hourly employee," he said.

Bradley Meacham: 206-515-5066 or bmeacham@seattletimes.com

Pacific Water Sports

Founded: 1971

Location: 11011 Tukwila International Blvd., Tukwila

Owners: Lee and Judy Moyer

Sales: $1.25 million in 2000; down 20-30 percent since then

Number of employees: 5