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Winter surf and wetsuits

A couple of us were surfing a local high tide reef the other day when a fellow surfer paddled out wearing nothing but trunks and a long-sleeved jacket. A somewhat shocking sight given the cold, winter conditions, we reflexively shuddered in unison, having already succumbed to the cold in our full suits and booties.

Apparently allergic to neoprene rubber, the primary ingredient in wetsuit construction, his options, unfortunately, are non-existent. Of course, there are many active members of the surfing community that remember the time when winter surfing meant wearing rubber caps and oil-soaked wool sweaters.

Like many innovations in our society, the wetsuit was born in the military. During World War II, the U.S. Navy was looking to develop a material that would increase the comfort and productivity of its divers. In 1951, Dr. Hugh Bradner, a UC Berkeley physicist, tested numerous unicellular polymeric substances and eventually settled on neoprene as the material of choice. A year later the military declassified Bradner’s research, sparking a commercial endeavor that would not only extend the season and geographic reach of surfing, but would grow into a $200 million per year industry.

One of the first to come across Bradner’s research was California surfer/diver Bev Morgan. Along with brothers Bill and Bobby Meistrell ,they initially began manufacturing wetsuits for divers in the Los Angeles area in 1952. The Meistrell brothers would eventually go on to found Body Glove wetsuits. In the mid 1950s, Jack O’Neill began experimenting with neoprene, specifically designing and marketing wetsuits to surfers under the O’Neill brand.

Not much has changed in the design, construction and configuration of the wetsuit. Most innovations have occurred more as a series of improvements, such as the quality of neoprene, placement of the zipper and fit.

Wetsuits keep us warm by providing a buffer between our skin and the colder air and water. Air bubbles in the neoprene, along with an inner lining made of various materials such as nylon, polyester or polypropylene together create a suit that is insulating, relatively lightweight, durable, flexible and comfortable. Wetsuits are still generally constructed by gluing, taping or stitching panels together. In what ratio this occurs will determine a wetsuit’s strength, warmth, flexibility and cost.

Rip Curl currently has a patent pending on a power-heated wetsuit. Designed to keep surfers super-warm by positioning two fiber-heating elements within the wetsuit’s actual construction, the conducting electricity generates heat and warms the blood.

Matuse Wetsuits, as well as Patagonia, are utilizing neoprene rubber made from limestone instead of petroleum-based ingredients. With a higher closed-cell ratio than other neoprene, the added airspace translates into additional warmth. The smooth skin facing found on both brands also functions as a way to eliminate evaporative cooling, working to keep the body insulated. Fewer seams and panels on the Matuse suits give rise to greater flexibility. Patagonia also lines its suits with merino wool blended with recycled polyester. This traps more insulating dead-air space, wicking moisture away from the skin.

All this being said, what really matters most is fit. Which is why people generally prefer one brand to another.

Second only to the surfboard, the wetsuit is an important investment. Its viability can be extended if a few simple steps are taken in its care. Saltwater is extremely corrosive, so rinse your suit thoroughly after each use. Water itself can also degrade rubber, so it’s important to hang it where it can dry thoroughly. Does the more than 50-year reign neoprene has enjoyed in the manufacture of wetsuits speak to its incomparable superiority or the need for a wetsuit revolution?

Just as recent events in surfboard manufacturing forced adaptation and flexibility in what we now consider acceptable materials in surfboard construction, it also ignited innovation that hadn’t been seen for many years. Diversity is a good thing. The technology is here, waiting to be manipulated. Hopefully for the wetsuit industry it won’t take something drastic, like the demise of Clark Foam.