Saturday, January 10, 2015

Dry Suit. The Ulimate in Foul Weather and Survival Gear?

Better than a Survival suit? That is the question Practical Sailor Blog asked this month. Conventional survival suits are so ungainly that sailing is impossible and they are not donned until the boat is headed down, often too late. A dry suit, on the other hand, offers the same or better agility and livability than conventional foul weather gear, with complete cold water protection (except for the head and hands). Since it can be worn while sailing, it offers protection you are more likely to have on.

But that isn't why I bought mine. Kayaking is one of my favorite activities, and once the water temperature drops below 60F, it become more and more difficult to dress safely. While I have never capsized (other than white water) on open water, there is always a hypothermia risk. Additionally, a dry suit makes reboarding from the water easier, because you avoid heavy, soaked clothing. Instead, you gain significant all-over buoyancy.

Not me. I'm much better looking.
Demonstrating the conversion from stand-by mode to fully sealed.

A favorite feature, and one that makes this suit (Ocean Rodeo Ignite) particularly suitable for sailors, is the standby mode. The pants are supported by suspenders and fit well, with attached socks. As shown in the above photo, the pants can be pulled up and the jacket zipped without put the head through the neck seal and zipping in, giving great ventilation. Converting to full seal takes only moments.

There are wrist seal, lotsa pockets, and a fly. The fabric is like a heavy duty 3-ply Gore Tex and seem very durable. The entry zipper is across the shoulders and doable alone (many drysuits require help). They are cut for athletic builds; if you've been hitting the pasta a bit too much, have very large shoulders, or shoulder mobility problems, go up a size; I am near the upper limit of height and weight for the medium (5'8" x 165#) and the fit was spot-on with my typical cool weather dress (long johns, fleece pants, shirt plus fleece sweater). With 2 thin fleece layers, 32F water is pretty tolerable (but the fit through the shoulders is more snug), and I've even done a little bottom cleaning like that. However, I strongly recommend trying the suit with the layers you intend to wear. Fortunately, getting out is easier than getting in, so you won't get stuck!

Note on trimming seals: the wrist and neck seals on dry suits tend to be one-size-fits-all, which is to say they are probably too tight unless you are built like a stick. In fact, over tight neck seals can inhibit blood flow to the head, which is bad.  I found the wrist seals fine, but the neck seal was miserable. Trim one ring at a time with very sharp scissors, leaving no jagged areas that could stat tears, until the seal is snug but acceptable, your adam's apple can move, and blood flow seems normal. Divers keep them tighter than kayakers and sailors should. Seals are replaceable, but with care last a long time.

And when you peal it off... You're dry!


Note: A lengthy, blow-by-blow review and comparison to immersion suit performance requirements--including me spending hours in the water with ice flows testing it in February--is scheduled for publication in November 2016, Good Old Boat Magazine.