How many outfits do any of us have in our closets that make us look cool while keeping us warm? The wetsuit was a wonderful invention! Using the neoprene fabric invented by DuPont scientists in the 1930s, physicist Hugh Bradner developed and tried out one of his first wetsuits in Lake Tahoe in 1950. His manufactured the wetsuits through his company for Navy Frogmen and others, but there was so little demand he never patented the suit. In the early 1950s the Meistrell brothers started Body Glove and Jack O’Neill started his company, both claiming to have invented the wetsuit, but what they did was improve it and publicize it.
To keep you warm in cold water the wetsuit allows a thin layer of water to enter the suit, filling the space between the suit and your body. Assuming you have a good fitting suit that allows a minimal amount of water to come in, your body temperature becomes the heat source to keep you comfortable. If you have to be in cold water for a long time there are other options – you might prefer a drysuit which is fully sealed so no water enters the suit, or a semi-dry heavy neoprene suit with thick seals at the wrists, ankles, neck and zipper – or, you might opt for a battery powered heated suit or a heated vest that can be worn under a regular wetsuit for extra warmth.
Wetsuits come in enough styles and thicknesses to accommodate just about every need – from vests, short and long sleeved jackets, shorty suits which can be sleeveless, short or long sleeved, with short or long legs, shorts, long pants, farmer johns that are styled like overalls and full suits with long arms and legs. Thickness of wetsuits is measured in millimeters (mm), higher numbers being thicker and warmer. In warmer climates and waters some people wear just skins (a lycra body suit). Rashguards, long sleeved shirts made of lycra, have become so popular that Lands End has featured them in their catalogs for several years to wear over their bathing suits as protection from the sun.
In cold weather or cold water you’ll want to cover your hands, feet and head. If you’re walking on hard or stony surfaces, the NRS hard soled wetsuit boots are comfortable, long lasting and not too expensive. Neoprene gloves are available in most dive and surf shops, sporting goods stores and online. Hats and caps are more of a personal choice item and depend on use.
How the wetsuit is made has a big effect on the price. The cheapest suits have overlock stitching – strong with a lot of needle holes allowing water to enter. Flat lock stitching is strong but it puts more needle holes in the fabric that allows more water to enter. It’s exposed stitches on the outside make it less durable. Blind stitching that is glued – no holes in the fabric allow less water to enter - but the elasticity of the glue and the fabric do not match and the suit will need repair in the future. Blind stitched, glued and fully taped with neoprene tape – little water enters, the suit is comfortable, flexible, durable and expensive.
I could see from a quick look through Amazon and other wetsuit providers online that there have been upgrades and changes in styles and fabrics since my last purchase at Surf & Offshore in Point Pleasant Beach about six years ago. I decided to have a look at what was available in local stores. I talked to merchants and other customers. The take away was the surprising number of uses for wetsuits now and how little customers knew about the fit, flexibility and care their wetsuits would need. I circulated some questions among a few people I know who have wetsuits, added a few questions after talking to them and found others willing to answer questions about what they had, their experiences with upkeep and repair and the primary uses they had for their wetsuits.
To find a mix of users – surfers, divers, commercial users, jet skiers, windsurfers, kayakers, sailors, swimmers, water skiers and SUP paddlers, I went to surfer parking areas, found jet skiers where they docked their jet skis, followed an SUP paddler to his launching destination, called Bossler & Swezey to find out who does their underwater propeller removals, called dive shops and found a kayaker in a 7-11 parking lot with his kayak on the roof of his Jeep.
Two of the people I spoke to who used their suits commercially knew what was available and what worked for them. They had more than one wetsuit and both also had drysuits. Their favorite wetsuit brand was Aqua Lung. Walter, a retired police diver, works at the Hampton Dive Shop and works on boats for Bossler & Swezey when a customer needs prop work done. Depending on the location and the weather, it’s sometimes hard to see what he’s working on, but he’s always been able to get the propellers off and back on again after the repairs are done. When he worked as a police diver his mission might have been to find weapons, jewelry, motor vehicles or bodies. To be prepared for any kind of dive, Walter has over a dozen drysuits and wetsuits.
A new use for wetsuits, shorts and long pants has been created by the use of sunscreen. People with pools don’t want the cloudy water that results from the mix of sunscreen chemicals dissolving into chemically treated pool water. Pool users are covering up instead of using sunscreen, sometimes wearing a rashguard with neoprene shorts or long pants. Swimming teachers, sailing instructors and lifeguards also use rashguards and wetsuits to avoid using sunscreen. Several of the people I talked to bought their shorty wetsuits to extend the season in their pool at both ends, spring and fall. One listed his primary reason was to find the leak in his pool.
As a group the people I talked to had quite a variety of brands of wetsuits. There were several who liked Rip Curl, several thought O’Neill was the best and others liked NRS, LL Bean, Speedo and Body Glove. Their suits were worn for surfing, diving, kayaking, sailing, jet skiing, SUP paddling, pool swimming, kayak fishing and pool repair. I asked if they ever repaired their suits and the few who did found it to be easier than they thought it would be, straight forward and simple.
What did they wear under their wetsuits? Most wore bathing suits or shorts, with a preference for Speedo trunks. One wore a vest for warmth, two wore rashguard shirts with shorts.
I asked what their best day was while wearing their wetsuits. For Brian it was racing from Moriches back to Patchogue in the fall on his jet ski and beating the storm. For Liam it was a wonderful day surfing in October. For Joe, surfing off the Cape May Coast Guard Station in New Jersey, it was swimming with dolphins all around him. Phil’s best day diving was the day he found the bracelet his sister-in-law lost overboard in their boatslip at the marina.
Thank you to the willing jet skiers, surfers, divers, sailors, kayakers, SUP paddler, kayak fisherman and windsurfer Brian, Lee, Dean, Walter, Joe, Ken, Liam, Mike, Phil, John, Tom and Marty who helped me with questions, answers, advice and suggestions. They came from East Quogue, Bay Shore, East Patchogue, West Islip, Sayville, Islip, Long Beach, Atlantic Beach, Freeport, Babylon and Hamilton, New Jersey. I had planned on some tips for people buying their first wetsuit and several suggestions came from those I spoke with.
Tips on Buying the Right Wetsuit for You
• Talk to other wetsuit owners who use their suits for the same purpose you have in mind. Ask what they like and don’t like about their wetsuit’s style and brand.
• Think about the weather and water temperatures where you plan to use your wetsuit so you can get the recommended thickness.
• Your needs should determine the quality of the wetsuit you buy. A diver or surfer will need a more flexible, higher quality suit than a kayaker.
• Go to a store and try on several brands in the style you like. One will probably be a better fit than the others.
• If you plan to use your wetsuit every day on vacation you might want to try the Rip Curl Flash Bomb, advertised as the world’s fastest drying wetsuit.
• If you have an interest in the environment, Patagonia is now making a wetsuit of 85% pure rubber produced from their own trees in Guatemala.