Details to Look for in Drysuits for Sailors

Drysuits join the list of key gear for temperate-region sailors.

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Details to Look for in Drysuits for Sailors
Based on the US Coast Guard requirements for cold water apparel, the Mustang Survival EP 6.5 Racing Dry Suit is part of clothing system designed for cold water boating.

As more cruising sailors take advantage today’s technology to extend their sailing season in winter or to push into the higher latitudes for new summer adventures, sailing apparel makers have followed suit—as in drysuit. Over the last decade we’ve tracked the rising popularity of drysuits for sailing, spotlighting products from Gill, Mustang, Ocean Rodeo (recently acquired by Mustang), and others. Now it seems like every sailing clothing maker offers their version of the sailing drysuit (Gull, Helly Hansen, Zhik, Musto, to name a few). Many of these suits, which cost between $400 and $2,000 are borrowed from designs that have long been used by river runners, search-and-rescue professionals, kite boarders, and ocean kayakers. In fact, some of the best deals in drysuits can be found at kayaking outlets.

As the popularity of drysuits continues to grow, we can expect more competition in this category. Already, a web search yields nearly a dozen different brands with a huge range in prices. This significant price variability is similar to what has been the case for foul weather gear for decades. As in the foul weather gear market, some lower quality, lower-priced products that aren’t fit for the task will wind up on the market. However, as we have seen in our testing of foul weather gear (or of any cold weather gear for that matter), price isn’t necessarily a perfect indicator of quality. So how can you determine value?

Surely, if you can afford a top of the line drysuit of the sort used in the Volvo Ocean Race, or by the U.S. Coast Guard, you can be assured a good suit, so long as it fits right. However, in our drysuit testing, some of the mid-range drysuits delivered outstanding performance. As with anything you expect to last, it is important to consider the details–and of all the details worth examining seals and fit are the most important.

Drysuit details

For prolonged cold ocean sails, it is hard to beat a drysuit. Fabrics and construction are very similar, generally with fewer pockets and no hood (some have hoods). Water tightness is complete, providing better protection from hypothermia if you go overboard. Tech editor Drew Frye once spent 6 hours in 32F water (US Coast Guard standard for an immersion suit) in order to test drysuit performance compared to that of an immersion suit that meets the USCG standard.

Look for styles that focus on watertight integrity and function rather than pockets and gadgets. The down side of a drysuit is reduced breathability, limiting its use to temperatures below 55F unless it is very wet. Fitting can be difficult for people outside typical athletic body size and shape.

Good seals. Tight seals at the neck and wrists are essential for good drysuit performance, but seals with rough seams that pinch can be irritating over the long haul. In really wet weather, bad seals will lead to the slow drip-drip of water down the neck, or the sudden rush of ice water to the arm pits when you reach up. For this reason, we like dry suits for extreme conditions and even sustained cold rain.

Traditionally, dive suit seals were black latex and were always supplied too tight, with tapered openings that the wearer could trim to fit snugly, but not too tight. Some drysuits are now offered with adjustable, Velcro cuffs and seals. Although we’re sure these will work for some people, we prefer simpler latex seals, the same material used in the suits preferred by most Volvo sailors.

Although quite thin, the latex material is very stretchy and provides a perfect seal with minimum pressure. Compared with scuba dry-suits, which are very snug at the neck and cuffs, sailors require only minimal pressure- enough to keep out the rain and prevent leaks while swimming on the surface.

To ensure the right fit, wear the top or suit for a few days to break in the latex seal, then store them for a few weeks with something relatively large stuffed in each opening (a two-liter soda bottle fits the neck and smaller sports bottles will fit the wrists), and then trim very carefully along the provided guidelines with sharp scissors. If the seal has been trimmed correctly, you will hardly notice the seals after a while. Someday they will tear, but they are not difficult to replace.

Reinforced latex. Reziseal, a type of reinforced latex used at the seals of Zhik dry suits and others, offer the promise of longer life, but at the cost of reduced resilience and a less watertight fit.

Adjustable neoprene. Similar to wetsuit material but thinner, adjustable neoprene seals last longer than latex, but they are less comfortable unless fitted so loosely that they leak just a little. They generally last the life of the suit, but are not easily replaced or repaired.

Dry suit fit. To check fit on a dry suit, squat in a tight ball before zipping the last inch to expel excess air; this is how they are worn. A drysuit typically fits more closely than traditional foul weather gear.

Details to Look for in Drysuits for Sailors
The water proof TIZIP zipper on the Rodeo Soul drysuit. (photo by Ralph Naranjo).

Dry suit zippers. Drysuits use the TIZIP, YKK Aquaseal, or similar waterproof zipper, and we’ve not found any of them to leak in our testing. Check to see that they can be used with gloves. Also, because many suits are designed for activities like surfing in which a front zipper would be uncomfortable, the zipper is on the back. For sailing, the front zipper is not only more convenient, it makes it easier to find relief when nature calls.

For a broader look at cold weather sailing apparel, Practical Sailor Technical Editor Drew Frye’s cold weather sailing report offers a great overview. If there is a specific piece of clothing you are interested in (Christmas gift perhaps?) use our search bar for the topic you are interested in (gloves, socks, base layer etc.).

 

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on marine products for serious sailors for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising or any form of compensation from manufacturers whose products we test. Testing is carried out by a team of experts from a wide range of fields including marine electronics, marine safety, marine surveying, sailboat rigging, sailmaking, engineering, ocean sailing, sailboat racing, and sailboat construction and design. This diversity of expertise allows us to carry out in-depth, objective evaluation of virtually every product available to serious sailors. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser with more than three decades of experience as a marine writer, photographer, boat captain, and product tester. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

3 COMMENTS

  1. For higher risk situations I wear a 3ml wetsuit underneath the drysuit. A drysuit should be carefully inspected and maintained while not in use. 303 protectant works fine for the latex seals. Left alone they will dry, crack, then rip. It’s worth having spare seals/glue for the entire suit. It’s also worth the extra $100 for an installed pee zipper. Ladies will need the ergonomically correct pee bottle for this. A pee zipper means you don’t have to exit our of the suit so often, saving that all important main zipper.

  2. I left something important out from above. I could go on for pages about dry suits I suppose, but let’s look at the zipper. The ingress/egress zipper. Having owned four dry suits over the years, a brass zipper works best. My current one is a YKK. Suits are designed and built around the main zipper. Plastic zippers will often wear out and fail before the rest of the suit. Replacing this zipper is both time consuming and expensive. Many companies will not do it and recommend that you get a new suit, which is why I recommend going with brass. They are not as flexible as plastic and a bit harder to close that last one inch, but will generally last as long as the rest of the suit. Some say a salt environment will corrode the brass. If properly maintained, it will not corrode. I use Nik Wax zipper care, and I don’t mind swimming in saltwater, which I do once in awhile to test everything. Just be sure and rinse off in fresh if you can spare the water.

  3. one of the unmentioned pluses of dry suits is the bouancy proved by the entapped air,no PFD required. Of course if you have a puncture you’re SOL! The double potection suggested above would be the ultimate in extreme conditions like a capsize. In canyoneering a common practice is to wear coveralls over the suit to protect it.

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