Home to one of the largest commercial fishing ports in the country, Cape May is full of fishing culture. From whale watching excursions and charter fishing boats, to loads of fresh seafood and plenty of local fishers —both commercial and recreational—we’re a community of people whose livelihoods and hobbies often rely upon the ocean itself. To make that happen, of course, we need supplies.
Enter Sea Gear. Established in 1986 by Chuck and Renee Barto as a full-service marine supply store catering to commercial fishermen, Sea Gear has grown to encompass both the original store, Sea Gear Marine Supply, as well as Sea Gear Outfitters, which was established in 2015 to address more recreational needs, and most recently, Atlantic Divers joined the Sea Gear family. Between the two locations (Atlantic Divers is located within Sea Gear Outfitters), Sea Gear is absolutely stocked with recreational and commercial marine supplies—it’s basically a boater’s paradise.
“The main store is commercial fishing and work-gear based. They say the guys work and fish and buy things over there,” says Kathleen Barto of the original store. “And then they come over here whenever they want to play with their toys. It’s a more fun, leisure-oriented place.”
As the Retail Manager of the stores, Kathleen handles a lot of purchasing and sourcing new products. She’s one of many family members who help Sea Gear run so smoothly
“We have Lisa, who is my mother-in-law’s sister, upstairs doing the books here, and then we have Aunt Carol and Cousin Val at the other store,” says Kathleen. “It’s a family affair.”
Of course, there are also Chuck and Renee’s sons, Sean (Kathleen’s husband), and Pete, who along with Kathleen, opened the Outfitters location. Though plenty of Barto family members can be found in both locations, customers can expect to see Sean (at Sea Gear Marine Supply) and Pete (at Outfitters) in the center of the action, fielding questions, offering expertise, and handling customers from their respective counters.
“I’ve tried to move my office away from the counter,” says Pete. “But it’s hard for me not to be there.”
To an outsider, “hard” seems like an understatement. In fact, it seems impossible for a Barto to step away from the front. On any given day, the front counters of each store are full of customers, phone calls, and people needing information. The counters are customer service, information station, and checkout area rolled into one, seven days a week, year-round.
Though there’s a slight decline in out-of-town customers during some of the winter months, particularly in the Outfitters store, there are plenty of locals that fill in, looking for birthday or Christmas gifts, or just hitting the store during less busy times. And as the biggest rigging shop between Massachusetts and Virginia, they are always busy on the commercial side of things.
“You could say we chase the seasons. The main store would be the commercial fishing end of it, the work seasons, like the landscaping, the public works, the municipalities, and then here we have the dive shop for the summer months and when you’re on vacation,” says Kathleen. “We have the firearms department for when you’re hunting and sports shooting, and then we have the boating and coastal activity accessories for the remainder of the year.”
And while fishermen and recreational boaters can find things they like and need at both stores, the original store handles things like the manufacturing of wire rope swagging for commercial fishing vessels, with dedicated areas for fabrication as well as an enormous rope room, while at Sea Gear Outfitters, you’re more likely to find tow ropes and towable flotation devices for tubing, and boat caddies and Yeti coolers among the fresh water pumps, life jackets and dock lines. Between the two locations, there is a vast array of merchandise, with plenty of backup in the storage areas.
“My father-in-law’s motto is ‘You’re only as good as what’s on your shelf’ so we always make sure we have tons of stock and inventory,” says Kathleen. “We have a lot of products on our shelves because we listen to what the customers want and research and find new products for them all the time. And it’s all word of mouth. So, if one product’s not working, we’ll hear it from a customer and find an alternative. The customers are very transparent with us.”
In addition to a huge array of products and commercial fishing services, Sea Gear, via their Atlantic Divers, provides diving classes and training, as well as diving adventures.
“They’re big into wreck diving, because there’s tons of wreck diving around here,” says Kathleen about Gene Peterson, who runs the diving courses and Captain Chuck O’Donnell, who runs the boats for diving trips and training. “We also have a couple other guys that run the boats, but inside the store, you’re going to talk to Chuck or Gene about stuff you need and the trips and all that kind of stuff.”
Peterson and O’Donnell provide NAUI Scuba certifications as well as refresher courses, advanced and introduction wreck diving, enriched air nitrox, rescue and advanced rescue diving, spearfishing and TDI decompression procedures in classroom space at Sea Gear Outfitters, the pool at Cape May County Special Services School District, and then of course, the open water for open water certification.
“Gene also has pools that he uses in Atlantic City and Brigantine for people who live closer that way,” says Kathleen.
Customers can get everything they need for diving at the dive shop, including wetsuits, goggles, flippers, spear guns, dry bags and more. And since the dive shop is smack in the middle of Sea Gear Outfitters, they can round out their visit by picking up a new pair of flip flops, a filet knife, and boat paint while figuring out what they’ll need to winterize their vessel. Between all of that and the famously funny Sea Gear t-shirts that are available in both stores, Sea Gear Marine Supply and Sea Gear Outfitters have just about everything you can think of for a life on the water.
It’s one-stop shopping—albeit in two locations—for all your marine needs. ■