Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Humble Wet Suit--Safety, Seamanship and Maintanance in a Bag

For those of you sailing in the tropics, please return to your regularly scheduled margarita; I don't want to hear about it.


For the year-round, or even extended season sailor, some manner of safe cold water immersion system seems as basic to me as a PFDs or VHF. In my case, I have a farmer john wet suit from my beach cat days, a shorty that's great for surfing Jersey beaches in summer, and a Gore-Tex paddling jacket. If it's cold enough I'll pull on all three, an additional fleece top layer, and matching neoprene boots and socks. That's enough to make anything comfortable for 20 minutes, and anything that will keep you from shivering at 32F through 20 minutes of moderate activity is enough; a real cold water divers suit is overkill unless you're in year around cold water territory.

Why even go in cold water?
  • I had a rudder fall off my Stiletto in February once. A little ice was clinging to the jetty, and unfortunately, the wet suit was at home. It was a very brisk experience. Yup, I did that alone, violating every safety rule. Unfortunately, with the tide flowing as it was, I had only minutes. I was wearing wind-blocker fleece, which is a big help. Not too safe.
  • Ever snag a crab pot line on the prop or rudder?
  • Scrubbing the bottom before the water is pleasantly warm?
  • Rendering assistance. I helped right a capsized keel boat (yup, stable inverted). I got pretty wet helping the hypothermic sailors out of the water, and later, had to swim over to get the last one, since she wouldn't release her grip on the boat.
  • Snapped lifting line on outboard.
  • Outboard jammed lowered.

Each of these would have been either inconvenient, expensive or dangerous without a wet suit. In some cases, an inconvenient problem (line around rudder and prop) can become life threatening, with the approach of night, bad weather, or a lee shore. Seems obvious to me.

Yes, a dry suit is a great alternative, but they are $$$ and perhaps less versatile. You can horse around in a wet suit with less risk of tears and swim more easily. There are no finicky hand and neck seals to tear. On the other hand, a dry suit is more likely to fit if your size or shape changes; I still wear the one I bought 25 years ago, but if I eat too many doughnuts, it lets me know. The fit of wet suit is quite unforgiving. Too loose--any wrinkles at all--and it's not warm. Too tight and your eyes pop out. Mostly I see this as a good thing, a little reality check from a judge unmoved by pleas for leniency.


  1. I have Jane pour some warm water down the neck of my wetsuit just before I slide off the dock - this helps incredibly to lessen the shock of the cold water. It virtually eliminates the trickle of ice water down the back of the neck...

    s/v Eolian
    Seattle (where the water is always cold)

  2. Good idea! I've simply learned to descend the ladder very slowly, warming as I go. It's much different than ordinary swimming, where jumping in is best.

    The Chesapeake varies from 85F (to warm for pleasure) in the summer to 32F (harbors with fresh water feed freeze, but not the main course) in the winter.