Dinghy and small boat Wetsuits keep you warm by trapping a layer of water against your skin which your body then warms. This original theory has been turned on its head and the new theory is that the bubbles in the neoprene actually keep you warm by retaining body temperature. Some modern suits are semi dry so there may not be a layer of water.
The second part of the equation is the seals. Seals at the neck, ankle, arms are important to keep out cold water. If cold water gets in through the seals then you have what is called “flushing”, warm water escapes and cold water comes in.
Wetsuits are very popular and are used for diving, triathlons, jet skiing, kite boarding, surfing, kayaking, windsurfing as well as sailing. For sailing you need to take into account, wind-chill, padding, and protect the fabric from harsh deck surfaces which makes the suit construction important. Bottom line buy a sailing specific suit not a diving suit or surf suit which do not have the abrasion protection.
Wetsuit Types & Styles
Steamers or Full Suits
Steamers or Full Suits / One piece / a one piece wetsuit with long arms and long legs. You can also have a short arm steamer, arms finishing just above the elbow. Steamers come in 5/3 and thicker combinations.
Full wetsuits are ideal for anyone who would like to be in the water longer in colder water temperatures. To ad warmth you can add gloves and hoods in wetsuit material.
Steamers usually have a zip to aid entry many times in the back with a long tether so you can pull it up and down.
The Gill Hurakan suit left is one example of a steamer. The 5/3mm Neoprene suit has stretchy underarms, behind knees, crotch. The main body has added material for wind protection.
There is a zip closure in the back with a long pull tape to aid getting it on and off. The collar, ankles and cuffs have low friction neoprene edges to aid pulling on and sealing. Extra padding is applied to the seat, shins and knees. These are the features to look for along with a very stretchy material that fits your body. There is even have an inside key pocket, very handy so you can unlock your car when you get in.
Long Johns, cover the torso and legs only; it offers far less restriction in arm movement and so is better for warmer temperatures and an active sailor.
Popular with Skiff sailors the protection of legs and knees, but with full upper body movement makes the skiff a great choice.
The Zhiks superwarm Skiff is very popular with Olympic sailors and Robert Scheidt, the Brazilian Gold medalist wears the long john superwarm in cold waters and the microfleece version in warmer conditions.
Long Johns may have Velcro closure on one shoulder to aid entry. the skiff version Zhik has a relief flap.
Shorties are wetsuits with short legs and arms. The idea of a shortie wetsuit is to keep your body at a comfortable temperature, during the summer sailing season.
Shortie are normally manufactured from fairly thin neoprene, often 2-3mm. Shorties have short arms, usually finishing just above the elbow and short legs usually finishing just above the knee or on the thigh.
If you are droop hiking then where the suit ends on your thigh can be critical. If the bottom of the suit coincides with the deck when you are hiking you will feel some discomfort.
The Gul Dinghy 3/2mm Shorty Wetsuit seen left features, adjustable neck closure, Breathable Airprene back panel, 2-way front zip, G-Flex side and lumbar panels, Dura-Tex seat, Flatlock seams.
Hikers are not wetsuits per se, but they are made from the same material.
Hikers offer protection for the knees and padding for the thigh and designed for droop hiking.
The full length hikers from Gul right Features: 5mm Dura Flex neoprene panels, Adjustable elasticized shoulder straps, High waist to reduce drag , Fixed heavy duty baton pads, Dura Tex seat and knees, Durable mauser taped seams, Articulated Knee
You can choose a rash guard or another top for the upper body to combat evaporation and wind chill.
Bottoms & Tops
Zhik and many manufacturers make just bottoms and tops. For some who only need a small amount of protection this choice is better for them. If you sit down (small dinghy)bottoms are good, if you just stand up (windsurf) a top may work.
Wetsuits are made of closed-cell, foam neoprene a synthetic rubber that contains small bubbles of nitrogen gas. Nitrogen is a great insulator plus it provides buoyancy.
Neoprene was susceptible to damage when pulled on and tearing was common so backing materials arrived in the form of nylon applied to one side of the neoprene. This provided strength but did not allow much stretch. Neoprene came in single backing & double backing. Single lined neoprene is more flexible than double lined.
Highly elastic fabrics such as lycra and spandex have mostly replaced raw nylon backing, since the nylon by itself cannot be stretched and makes the neoprene very stiff.
Modern wetsuits are still made out of neoprene, but many other layers are added to improve heat retention, ad warmth and flexibility etc. Some modern wetsuits incorporate Merino wool and titanium fibers into the material layers. The titanium layers are designed to reflect heat back to the body, while the wool layers ad warm in the new range of semi dry suits.
The image below shows Zhiks superwarm material.
The 4 layers of the Superwarm material are;
- WEATHER LAYER The outer layer is a hydro phobic (water repellent) nylon.
- INSULATION LAYER With a 2.5mm Superstretch neoprene
- REFFLECTIVE LAYER Titanium film to reflect body heat.
- THERMAL LAYER Superstretch microfleece for optimum thermal dynamics.
As we discussed earlier seals at collar, ankle and cuff are most important in preventing Flushing. Even if you have the best wetsuit material, if water can get in and out through your arms or legs you are going to be cold. So when choosing a suit see how the seals work on your body.
Seals for come in a variety of forms. A simple hem, plain material cut smoothly or a slippery material sewn around the edge.
Some suits have a smooth rubber finish as seals and they fit tightly and at the same time are easy to get on and off. This type of finish is virtually always around the neck seal and in the case of semi-dry suits also around the wrists and ankles.
Semi-Dry A full suit with inner seals usually around the wrists and ankles to create a more secure seal to virtually eliminate flushing. A longer seal reduces flushing
Joining the wetsuit material has also gone through several iterations. Joints and seams used to be sewn, but the holes from the stitching lets water through, despite being tapped over.
The next version of the stitch was the FlatLock stitch. The image right shows a FlatLock stitch, you can see the stitch on the inside and the outside. The stitch does go through the material also so can let in water. Due to this its only suitable for Wetsuits up to 3mm thick and summer conditions.
Blind Stitched and Glued Seams also known as GBS
does not go through the material. A blind stitch sewing machine uses a special curved needle, which is designed so it does not go all the way through the neoprene and hence is better at keeping water out. Hence the Blind stitch is better for thicker material and colder water.
The Blind Stitch is not as flat as the Flatlock stitch. You may see patches glued on the seam joints and stress points.
Liquid Seam or Fluid Seam; Also called Super Seal. Liquid taping is pretty new wetsuit invention. Special rubber is used when sewing the neoprene to seal the inner or/and outer side of the stitches. That makes them stronger and additionally closes any holes. Some Fluid seams do not have stitching. 100% waterproof stitches! so better for colder water and seen in high end suits.
When purchasing a wetsuit its essential that it is a good fit. Too tight and it will be uncomfortable and will restrict your movement. Too loose and it won’t keep you warm. Modern neoprene is stretchy so it fits and hugs better than older wetsuits. If a dry neoprene feels a little tight in the store, remember wet neoprene will be a little looser. As discussed in seals make sure all entry points fit close to your arms, neck etc.
Every manufacturer has its own size guidelines, so if you have a brand that fits you and stick with it. You can order online but sizing charts may not reflect your actual size so it is best to try any suit on before you purchase. If you do want to order online take lots of measurements and give that to the e commerce site.
The thicker the wetsuit material the warmer you will be. When choosing a suit you will see the designation 5/3 for example or three numbers like 5/4/3. This refers to the thickness 5 mm of the material for the body and the 3 mm material where flexibility is required. With modern materials a 3/2mm wetsuit can have the warmth of 1mm thicker material these days. Modern 4/3 wetsuits, for instance, may feel as flexible as a 3/2 of only a few years ago.
|3/2||summer in warmer waters||65 F and up|
|5/3||Spring in colder waters||60F and up|
|7/5||cold water sailing and steamer style||45-50 F and up||stiffer material|
|Drysuit||under 50 F|
3mm, 3/2mm; the normal thickness for warmer summer activities and for athletic sailing which requires a greater degree of flexibility.
5mm, 5/4/3mm, 5/3mm Full wetsuits & 2-3 Piece wetsuits the industry accepted standard activities in cooler waters. These suits can also have a combination of these thicknesses to create greater flexibility to provide greater freedom of movement for higher energy activities.
7mm, 7/5mm; Normal thickness for Steamer wetsuits, and activities in colder waters which require a greater thermal protection but provides a lesser degree of flexibility. For these activities wearing a hood, gloves and boots are virtually a necessity