Drysuit vs. Survival Suit for Offshore Sailing

Posted by Darrell Nicholson with Ralph Naranjo at 11:25AM - Comments: (12)

photo by Ralph Naranjo
photo by Ralph Naranjo

A Gill drysuit undergoes cold-water testing in icy conditions on Chesapeake Bay.

My recent post about cold weather apparel for sailing neglected to mention one of the more interesting ways that some offshore sailors, particularly racing sailors and delivery skippers, deal with the cold and wet. Foul weather gear remains the primary means that sailors rely on to stay dry and warm, but our field testers are becoming more and more impressed by the advantages of dry suits—those stretchy, sealed, often breathable suits worn by surfers, kite boarders, and that twisted breed of winter sailors known as frostbiters. The topic of drysuits came up again, recently, as out report "Sailing Clothes for Cold Weather" took a broad look at cold-weather apparel for sailors. In that report, dry suits again were highly rated.

We’ve done a couple reports on dry suits: one a full blown comparison between wetsuits and drysuits from various manufacturers (accessible to subscribers); and two single-product reports on suits from Ocean Rodeo, one called the Soul, which we reviewed in 2012, and another called the Ignite, which we tested in late 2014.

photo by Ralph Naranjo
photo by Ralph Naranjo

Testers were able to use a standup paddleboard unencumbered while wearing the Ocean Rodeo Ignite drysuit.

One of the key advantages that a dry suit has over foul-weather gear, is that in extreme conditions that you find in the higher latitudes—especially fall through spring—a drysuit will stave off hypothermia, increasing your odds for survival in case you or your boat go over.

The potential benefits of a drysuit were highlighted in the recent Cheeki Rafiki tragedy, in which all four crew members aboard a Beneteau First were lost at sea when the boat lost its keel and capsized. Post-accident reports suggested that one or more of the crew might have survived long enough for a rescue if they had better protection from the cold. Although an EPIRB or personal locator beacon (PLB) can direct rescuers to persons in the water, even in horrific weather, such efforts are in vain if the victims can't maintain a safe body temperature. For decades, cold-water sailors and fisherman have kept survival suits on board, but these relatively bulky neoprene suits, which we tested in 2007, make it difficult to carry out the basic actions required to operate a boat, so they are seldom donned, except in dire circumstances. And those sailors who have enough time to don a survival suit suddenly find their mobility sharply reduced, both on the boat and in the water—as was the case with the survivors of the Bounty.

The problem with survival suits is that there’s no telling when the big wave or brutal wind gust will hit, and there might not be time to don a survival suit. Some survival suits have sewn-in gloves that make it almost impossible to turn on the radio or deploy a personal locator beacon. That’s why wearing a comfortable, breathable drysuit makes sense. It leaves you much more ready to manage the boat in heavy weather. And should the unexpected happen, your odds of survival in the water are better than they would be in foul weather gear. The nice thing is that if the situation calls for a survival suit, you can still don a survival suit while wearing your drysuit.

What do you think? If you were crossing the North Atlantic next week, would you be looking at a survival suit, drysuit, both—or none of the above? If you have had experience with either a drysuit or a survival suit, I’d be interested in hearing your comments, either below or by email at practicalsailor@belvoirpubs.com.

Photo by Ralph Naranjo
Photo by Ralph Naranjo

Survival suits provided plenty of warmth and flotation in the water, but inhibited movement on the boat.

Comments (12)

When a dry suit is not available and unrestricted movement is essential, a 7 mm. thick neoprene diver's head/neck cover followed by at least a 5mm thick shorty dive suit is worth considering. It's affordable for almost any sailor's budget, covers the essential areas that lose body heat the fastest and requires very little time to put on before donning a foul weather jacket & trousers w/ an off-shore self-inflating Type V PFD. It can be donned quite rapidly before stepping out onto deck.

Posted by: Tayana 37 | December 4, 2018 9:58 PM    Report this comment

I really like my Kolkat Dry Suit. It was developed for kayakers, so flexible yet sturdy. A relief Zipper allows you to take care of business without getting out of the suit. This was a wife mandated acccessory for my solo sailing.
Les

Posted by: LeslieTroyer | November 29, 2018 4:23 PM    Report this comment

For decades US, Canadian and countless other Coast Guards and Naval Personnel in Artic waters routinely wear Mustang Survival Work Suits. As do countless frost biters and cold weather sailors. Like certified Life Rafts they are "essential crusing gear" for serious sailors who value their lives and those of their crew.

And copies of the Mustang Survival Work suits are worn by European, Russian, Chinese, Japanese Coast Guards and Navies. Pretty good recommendation !

Peter I Berman
Norwalk, CT

Posted by: Piberman | November 29, 2018 11:50 AM    Report this comment

I cruised dinghies and other open boats on trips up to 6 weeks in remote cold waters. A good breathable dry suit is comfortable to wear all day and makes open boat cruising in cold climates a reasonable thing to do. I have a Kokotat suit with feet and relief zipper. There are better choices now no doubt.

Posted by: George VS | November 29, 2018 11:38 AM    Report this comment

I have used my Mustang Survival Deluxe Anti-Exposure Coverall and Flotation Suit MS2195 since 1994. I wear it when sailing and fishing in cold conditions, particularly when the water temperature goes below 70 degrees F. I have worn it sailing and fishing on Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico. My sailing and fishing has been within 50 miles of shore. I have worn it in air temperatures as low as 2 degrees F, not factoring in wind chill. On a few occasions, I have slept for a few hours during my off-watch in my suit while sailing when temperatures are below 65 degrees F. I have worn mine for up to 16 hours at a stretch.

I have found the suit warm, comfortable, waterproof, wind proof, and relatively easy to put on and off. It does not have breathable fabrics, but it has large zippers that can help vent heat. I think it has been a good addition to my sailing gear.

Posted by: mark2 | November 29, 2018 11:20 AM    Report this comment

I have used my Mustang Survival Deluxe Anti-Exposure Coverall and Flotation Suit MS2195 since 1994. I wear it when sailing and fishing in cold conditions, particularly when the water temperature goes below 70 degrees F. I have worn it sailing and fishing on Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico. My sailing and fishing has been within 50 miles of shore. I have worn it in air temperatures as low as 2 degrees F, not factoring in wind chill. On a few occasions, I have slept for a few hours during my off-watch in my suit while sailing when temperatures are below 65 degrees F. I have worn mine for up to 16 hours at a stretch.

I have found the suit warm, comfortable, waterproof, wind proof, and relatively easy to put on and off. It does not have breathable fabrics, but it has large zippers that can help vent heat. I think it has been a good addition to my sailing gear.

Posted by: mark2 | November 29, 2018 11:20 AM    Report this comment

It was first suggested to me by an extremely experienced sailor -- the guy is my first source for information on "how should I do this" on my boat. He went from regularly racing offshore one design (where he dominated the fleet) to dinghy racing, but still did some port to port races of significant length. He said when foul weather is imminent, he just puts on his drysuit. When my old foulies needed upgrading, if one considers the cost of first rate offshore foulies against the cost of a first rate drysuit -- say a Mustang Coast Guard crew specification drysuit (civilian version with no insignia) -- it appeared the total prices are fairly comparable. This model drysuit has additional features like a zipper and added pockets on the sleeve, for pencils and glasses, and on the leg, suitable for a sheath knife and has feet so yours stay dry, so no seaboots needed. We did one overnight port to port race where one shipmate was hypothermic (still learning about personal gear at the time) and had to stay below, while I slept on deck, with fleece, drysuit, PFD with harness and tethered on a short lead. On another race on a different boat, a different shipmate was hypothermic because of an all hands call when he wasn't ready. The drysuit takes a bit longer donning and doffing, but it's on at the onset of foul weather and typically, off only when weather turns fair. Looked weird the day we came in from cold and fog offshore to 80 degrees F ashore, but I stopped worrying about how I look long ago. The only trick is making sure you have enough insulating layers underneath for conditions. The survival suit, I think, has insulation for a planned abandon ship. The drysuit relies on layers underneath for warmth. Winter North Atlantic, have both. For less demanding conditions, a dinghy racing drysuit has advantages and is price competitive with medium duty foulies.

Posted by: DaveChicago | November 29, 2018 10:30 AM    Report this comment

If you're interested in the Ocean Rodeo Ignite, make sure to also check out the Stohlquist Shift drysuit which is almost exactly the same design, with some slight detailing variations. They are so close, in fact, I strongly suspect they are originally made by the same overseas manufacturer. I was able to find the Shift for several hundred dollars less.

Posted by: Collin H | January 10, 2015 6:24 AM    Report this comment

Some drysuits (yes for the Ocean Rodeo on some models, but not all) have a fly.

Posted by: Drew Frye | January 8, 2015 2:53 PM    Report this comment

I searched the web on this and could find no additional info

in a survival situation, what is the recomended procedure for urination and defication needs in either a dry suit, a survival or flotation suit?

Posted by: navegar@gmail.com | January 7, 2015 7:16 PM    Report this comment

I think the dry suit is probably the best choice, but what about something of a hybrid type such as a Stearns Flotation Suit? It is not as bulky as a Survival Suit, but does allow a lot of movement ant the option wearing whatever type gloves you desire. Its more designed as a work suit I believe, but is in my opinion kind of a 'tweener'. Again, I think the drug suit with the proper underclothes (wicking and wool) is the best.
Ed White
CAL 35 Caliente

Posted by: Ed White | January 7, 2015 4:47 PM    Report this comment

A nifty feature of the Ocean Rodeo dry suites is that they can be worn very comfortably in "stand-by" mode with the neck open. The pants are supported by internal suspenders, making for a comfortable, agile fit. The shoulder zip is designed so that the neck can be left un sealed, but the integral hood and jacket fully closed up for rain. Thus, you have a breathable, vented suit which can be sealed up in seconds. Appropriate shoes, gloves, and a neoprene cap (or diver's hood) are appropriate companions.

I wear this suit kayaking and find this feature very handy. I can paddle for many hours without getting wet with sweat, so long as the under layers are chosen properly.

A perfect replacement for a survival suit? Perhaps not. But I could sail for days in terrible conditions in the drysuit with better agility than typical foul weather gear. Certainly the dry suit is better all-around if a life raft is available.

Posted by: Drew Frye | January 7, 2015 8:41 AM    Report this comment

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