Wetsuits for boating and sailing
Alex Smith clarifies the core issues to consider when buying a wetsuit
A wetsuit is a key item in the wardrobe of any watersports or dinghy sailing enthusiast. With frequent extremes of temperature, humidity and movement, the marine environment puts enormous demands on the equipment we use - and that remains just as true with clothing as with boats, engines and electronics.
We all use thermal layers and foul weather gear to keep ourselves comfortable while boating, and in particularly cold or exposed conditions, some of us even go as far as to don a drysuit. But when a day out is likely to involve a significant amount of time in the water (for instance, when driving a personal watercraft, doing a little diving, enjoying some towed watersports, windsurfing or dinghy sailing) a wetsuit is often the best way to go.
What is a wetsuit?
A wetsuit is a skin-tight neoprene bodysuit, designed to keep your body temperature stable while exposed to the water. As the name suggests, it does this by allowing a limited quantity of water to come into contact with the body, which then warms up to provide insulation. In essence, this trapped water creates a temperature gradient, which reduces heat loss and extends the length of time you can operate comfortably when immersed.
These thermal insulation suits tend to be used for a variety of active watersports and to help cater for that, they come in several forms. You can get a shorty (with short arms and legs), a full suit (with coverage right down to the ankles and wrists) or a hybrid version somewhere between the two. You can also get Neoprene thicknesses from 2mm (for light summer use) to 6mm (for cold weather use), with prices ranging from as little as £50 for a basic lightweight warm weather suit to more than £350 for a professional quality, full winter wetsuit from a top manufacturer.
Wetsuits in brief
- Wetsuits come in a variety of thicknesses from 2mm (for light summer use) to 6mm (for cold weather use).
- A shorty is a wetsuit with short arms and legs designed for warmer climes.
- A steamer is a wetsuit designed for colder conditions, it has full length legs and arms and is usually thicker.
- Some wetsuits are 'convertible' - with removable arms for warmer days.
- Many modern suits are designed to combine with thermal layering tops for colder days - eg you can combine full-length arm neoprene top with a short-armed suit on cold days.
- A good fit is essential for a wetsuit, there are plenty of gender specific suits available, leg length can often be trimmed to fit.
- Remember a wetsuit also provides useful protection, particularly for knees, which is worth considering if you are torn between a short and full-legged suit - also remember you can get a severe tan line with short suits if you wear them regularly.
- Rash vests are useful undergarments that add sun protection to short sleeved suits and also improve your comfort as they are a lot nicer against the skin than neoprene.
- Remember you get what you pay for, cheaper suits will generally feature lower quality fabrics, fewer panels, which mean a poorer fit, and lower quality stitching.
Size definitely matters
The warming process of a wetsuit works best when the insulating neoprene fits close against your body. This keeps the flow in and out of the suit to a minimum, allowing the water trapped inside more opportunity to get up to temperature. If the suit does not fit closely, particularly around the feet, hands and neck, you get flushing of cold water in and out, cooling the body and causing substantial irritation to the skin.
What you need then is a suit that is as tight as possible, while still being comfortable to wear. The trouble is it can be tricky to gauge exactly what a good fit is, as a suit that feels peculiarly tight in a changing room can feel much more comfortable once you get into the water. So to maximise your chances of the right fit, take your measurements over nothing more than very light clothing and measure your wrists, ankles and neck directly against the skin.
What features should I look out for?
The human body is not designed to cope with long periods in cold water. We lose heat 25 times faster when we’re wet and a well chosen wetsuit can certainly help with this, but what happens when you’ve done your session of wakeboarding and you’re back in the boat, wet through and travelling at 25 knots?
To help with wind chill, some wetsuits offer a substantial rubberised back and chest panel, which radically reduce heat loss through evaporation, thereby keeping your vital organs at a serviceable temperature. If you plan to spend significant amounts of time above the surface at speed in a damp suit, this is certainly a useful asset, but if in doubt, it is always best to take a little time either to dry off or to change into some fresh clothing. Some suits will use specialist fabrics with added heat-reflective technology.
In addition to picking the appropriate size, type and thickness of suit, you should also consider the use of flexible panels to aid movement in particularly vigorous watersports, as well as strategically placed reinforcing pads to help improve protection in common wear areas like the knees, elbows and backside. You will find some suits are specifically designed for certain sports and marketed as such - although they may carry a premium price tag for this.
Wetsuit stitching and seaming
While you’re considering the finer details, take a closer look at the seams, as they tend to give a fair indication of a suit’s general calibre.
At the bottom of the seam spectrum, overlock stitching is the least expensive but also the least comfortable method, as it creates an internal ridge that can dig into the skin and allow water to penetrate. For most, a better bet on a basic summer suit is the flatlock stitching, which substantially reduces water penetration. However, at the upper end of the product range, blind stitching is a more expensive, more sophisticated and more comfortable method of construction. It involves gluing the neoprene pieces, before ‘shallow’ stitching them to keep the seam watertight. Naturally, most winter wetsuits are made this way, but so too are the better quality summer versions.
As well as stitching, glue and tape improve the waterproof nature of the suit. With glued seams, the wetsuit's panels are glued together before stitching. Spot-taped seams use tape glued to the inside of a seam in critical areas of the wetsuit. With fully taped seams, tape (usually neoprene) is glued to the inside of every seam. The ultimate seam seal is liquid-taped seams, where a special rubber is applied to the inside seam to make it 100% waterproof.
Handy wetsuit accessories
Plenty of modern winter wetsuits come with built-in head protection, but if yours doesn’t, a separate neoprene hood is a good idea. Some are now available with a small sun-deflecting, cap-style rim above the eyes, but whatever you go for, a hat with a cord to stop it flying off is a great idea.
Hands and feet also need protection but make sure you consider grip as well as warmth for both items - and as with the suit itself, look for a perfect fit and a neoprene thickness that is well matched to your intended usage. You can get neoprene socks to improve the warmth of boots on colder days.
Rash vests and thermal neoprene or composite fabric tops can add comfort as well as increasing the versatility of your suit between colder and warmer conditions
Caring for your wetsuit
A good wetsuit will last a very long time but you need to look after it properly. It should be rinsed with fresh water directly after use and then left to dry before you put it away. This is particularly true if you operate in seawater, as salt can speed up the corrosion process, damaging the glue on wetsuit seams and choking the zip.
After rinsing, turn the suit inside-out and hang it up to dry. Then turn it back the right way to avoid causing unnecessary stress and make sure you use a thick hanger to prevent the development of any stretches, creases or cracks that might compromise the suit’s performance. Sunlight can also cause discoloration of your gear so when you put it away, make sure you leave it in the shade - and I don’t mean in a dirty, greasy corner of some damp, forgotten shed. Treat it to somewhere dry and clean, with adequate space to avoid having to fold the suit.
If you get a graze, snag or hole in your wetsuit, you need to repair the damage before it worsens. Seam damage in particular can spread at a frightening pace, so it should be repaired as soon as possible. You can either repair it yourself with a readily available wetsuit repair kit or send the suit back to the manufacturer. Even if it’s no longer under warranty, wetsuit companies tend to charge only a small fee for a professional quality repair.