Modern foul weather gear is better than it has ever been, with a combination of waterproofing, breathability and fit that is far removed from the shapeless oilskins of yesteryear. But for protection in extreme conditions or for prolonged runs on open boats, there is still nothing better than a drysuit.
What is a drysuit?
A drysuit is basically a waterproof body-shaped bag that leaves only your hands and head exposed. Most often built from a combination of Neoprene, latex and Goretex, they are sealed by means of a heavyweight zip with a thick rubber lining. These zips tend to run either diagonally down the front of the suit (in which case, you can easily dress and undress yourself) or across the width of the shoulders (in which case a little help is sometimes required to ensure that the zipper has been drawn all the way to the rubber stop).
Drysuit manufacturers often have different styles of suit aimed at specific sports, so consider what you intend to use it for. Long periods helming a boat require lots of protection but little flexibility. If you ride a personal watercraft, you will probably require extra flexibility so the protection factor can perhaps be slightly sacrificed to cater for this. And if your chosen boating pastime is particularly energetic, you should look for decent breathability to help keep you comfortable when the activity pushes up your heart rate.
Aside from finding a drysuit that matches your intended activity, your sense of style and your budget, some useful features to look out for include harness-connecting points, light-reflective patches, dry pockets and toggles for sailing accessories like handheld electronics, knives and lights.
Wearing your suit
When you put a drysuit on, make sure your shoes are close by, as it is all too easy to damage the delicate rubber foot pieces often found on basic leisure suits. In particular, avoid standing on gravel or concrete without shoes on your feet. A generously sized pair of wetsuit boots will enable you to keep a pair of socks on underneath your suit and will also provide excellent grip and comfort.
There are usually internal braces to help keep your suit in position, so make sure you put these over your shoulders and adjust them to your satisfaction before you attempt to put the rest of the suit on.
The neck and cuff seals are usually made of either neoprene or rubber and when you buy a new drysuit, these can often be trimmed to size, so do this very carefully, ensuring that they still provide a nice tight seal. When it comes to putting your arms into the suit, make sure you remove your watch first or you risk either getting stuck or tearing the seal.
Once the suit is on, with the zip fully done up and a pair of shoes protecting your feet, there will be lots of air trapped inside. It is important to remove as much of this as possible, otherwise when you enter the water, your centre of buoyancy may see you forcefully inverted, which is far from ideal. You can rid yourself of the air by crouching down into a tight ball and releasing the air from your neck seal by pulling the rubber slightly aside.
As regards staying warm, you should be aware that most drysuits offer virtually no thermal protection, so your warmth will be dependent upon what you wear underneath your suit. Regular everyday clothing is fine but try to avoid bulky buttons and toggles as these can cause pain or friction over long periods on a bumpy boat. And if you need lots of thermal protection, either for diving or for winter conditions, you might want to consider a ‘woolly bear’ undergarment - which is basically a big warm all-in-one suit, often made from fleece and designed specifically for use under a drysuit.
Finally, once you are warm, waterproof and ready to go, don’t forget a suitable personal floatation device. A drysuit makes you more buoyant than you would otherwise be, but a proper PFD will keep you floating the right way up with comfort and confidence.
The maintenance regime
Some drysuits come with reinforced panels on the seat, knees and elbows, and while that can help improve the useful life of a suit, a proper maintenance regime is still required. The flexible rubber seals are particularly prone to perishing and although they can be replaced, it is not a job you want to be doing too often.
A drysuit should be rinsed with fresh water and left to dry on a broad, heavyweight coat hanger before you put it away. This is especially true for use in seawater, as zips can become choked with salt deposits, causing major problems when you next come to use them. If necessary, you can use a very mild soap to clean off any dirt.
Once the suit is clean and dry, store it on a broad hanger, with the zip about 70 per cent closed. This will help retain the suit’s shape and take the pressure off any seams, while allowing plenty of air to circulate and reducing the prospect of dampness or mould. If possible, hang it full-length and crease-free in a clean, dry environment, away from direct sunlight, as UV rays can bleach the colour from your suit. If you do damage your suit, don’t abandon hope. It can usually be repaired very affordably, either with the use of a home repair kit or by taking it to a specialist.
The modern drysuit market provides everything from £200 budget suits to £1,000 offshore garments, in a range of colours, styles and shapes, and for a range of activities from diving to dinghy sailing, so your options are almost endless. But if you find a suit that matches your intended activity and then establish a proper routine of care and maintenance, your new drysuit will be your best boating friend for many years to come.
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