Wetsuit Guide

Wetsuits are required during "Hazardous Weather" conditions from November 1st to May 1st. Here is a helpful guide on how to choose one.






The short version

  1. Fit is the most important. There should be no airspace between your suit and your body, especially your torso, thighs, and shoulders.
  2. Thickness of the material, suit length (short, full, or bibs), and construction depends on the intended season of use and personal preference. Most common choices are full-length, 5/3mm or 4/3mm with waterproof seams for the cold season (November 1 to May 1) and 3/2mm shortie, full or bibs with any seam type works for the shoulder seasons (May 1 to July 1, September 1 to Nov 1).
  3. Durability and priceSailing is hard on wetsuits and even a well-cared for wetsuit will suffer tears from deck hardware. Avoid 'smoothskin' neoprene in the lower body and look for reinforced knees, butt, and groin panels. Wear a windbreaker and some board shorts to increase warmth and protect your wetsuit. Neoprene cement can repair tears to a limited degree. Expect to pay $80-170 for a well-made wetsuit. Price depends heavily on its thickness, length, and construction.
  4. Features like pee zippers and entry gaskets should be considered last as they add to the price but not necessarily to the functionality.
  5. Caring for your wetsuit is important if you want it to last. Rinse with cool water in the shower inside and out after each use. Hang to dry away from the sun on a thick clothes hanger (triple-up the cheapo ones if you can't find a thick one). Store hung up in a cool, dry place. Avoid folding your wetsuit for storage. Clean every once and a while (or whenever it smells funky) with a wetsuit-specific cleaner like McNett Wetsuit Shampoo and Mirazyme.
  6. Accessories such as booties, hoods, and gloves can boost warmth. Just make sure they fit and browse the internet for reviews.
  7. Underwear and Peeing? Most prefer to wear some kind of underwear to keep their suit a little cleaner. "Jammies" (Lycra shorts used for swimming) are nice for this because they don't ride up or chafe. And yes, everyone pees in their wetsuit, unless it has a fly. While some manufacturers say it's bad for your suit, when you gotta go, you gotta go.

What sort of wetsuit should I buy?


Fit

A well-fitting suit should have no airspace between your body and the suit. However, you should not achieve this level of fit by buying a wetsuit that is too small for you. A suit that is too small will constrict your bloodflow and hamper your body's ability to stay warm. A suit that is too large will allow cold water to enter and cool your body faster.

Ideally your suit should fit all over, however we're all different shapes and sizes so the most important parts of your body to consider are:
    1. Torso and shoulders.
    2. Thighs.
    3. Groin (for dudes).
It is important for the suit to fit well in the torso, shoulders, and thighs because these areas of your body are responsible for warming your blood and keeping it warm. This means that a suit that fits excellently in the torso, shoulder, and thighs but too loosely in the calves is perfectly acceptable, though not ideal. More commonly you'll find that it fits everywhere except your upper arms or forearms, which is okay. Note that men really shouldn't buy a wetsuit that is not comfortable in the groin, and if you have any interest in trapeze sailing it's worth asking if you can put a harness over the suit and try hanging in it to see if the family jewels are comfy too.

It is normal for your wetsuit to be mildly difficult to enter. However if you cannot put it on without help from a friend or some lube, it is way too tight.

Bottom line: Ideally your wetsuit should fit snugly with no airspace anywhere on your body. However if it's a little loose in the arms or lower legs, that's acceptable. 

Thickness, Length and Construction

All of these factors depend on your intended season of use and your personal preference (as well as your tolerance to cold). First, here are some quick terms:
    • 5/3mm means that the wetsuit is constructed with both 5mm and 3mm neoprene. The manufacturer puts the thicker material where less stretch and more warmth is needed, like the chest.
    • Flatlock seams are not waterproof or as stretchy but quite durable and cheap.
    • Glued and blindstitched (GBS) seams are waterproof and stretchy, but not as durable or cheap.
    • Reinforced glued and blindstitched seams are waterproof, stretchy, durable, and more expensive.
    • Fully glued seams (no stitching involved) are waterproof, super stretchy, durable, and really expensive.
Here's the overview by season:

Cold season (Nov 1 to May 1) wetsuits tend to be thicker, either 5/3 or 4/3mm in construction. They also tend to be full suits, meaning they cover everything except your head, neck, hands and feet. Some have built-in hoods. Some sailors like the combination of farmer johns/bibs with a spraytop (waterproof jacket with water-resistant or waterproof neck and wrist closures) instead of a full suit because they dislike how a full suit limits range of motion in the arms/shoulder. Farmer johns/bibs are sleeve-less full suits (they look like overalls). Any wetsuit with waterproof seams will be warmer than one without.

Shoulder season (May 1 to July 1, Sept 1 to Nov 1) wetsuits tend to be thinner, either 3/2 or 2mm in construction. They also tend to be shorties, meaning no coverage on the calves or lower arms. Some sailors combine a neoprene top with waterproof pants instead of wearing a shortie. Some sailors with less cold tolerance combine a shortie with a spraytop for increased cold protection. Waterproof seams can increase comfort in shoulder season suits (especially if you have little tolerance for cold weather), but they are not usually necessary.

From this overview there are many options. Some sailors stick with the 5/3 suit from Sept 1 to July 1 and then cool off by capsizing. Many sailors who are quite cold tolerant find the spraytop combinations perfectly acceptable in winter. Some sailors think these people are nuts. Other sailors feel that drysuits are the only acceptable option in winter. The options are virtually limitless and we can't possibly define all of them here, so talk to your fellow sailors to see what they use and enjoy.

Construction methods can greatly impact the effectiveness of a wetsuit. Wetsuits with waterproof seams (GBS, reinforced GBS, fully glued) will always be warmer than their flatlock seamed equivalents. Wetsuits with a minimal number of seams will always be stretchier than their many-seamed equivalents. However, reducing the number of seams also affects the shape of the wetsuit, and this could result in a poorly-fitting suit. 

Durability and Price

Expect your wetsuit to endure a lot more abuse than it would in other watersports. Sailboats have a lot of sharp metal hardware on deck which is perfect for slicing and dicing the lower half (and sometimes the upper half) of your suit. The $550 kitesurfing wetsuit may not be a great investment if you cut it open the first time you go sailing in it.

Look for fabric (either nylon or polyester) coated neoprene in the lower body, as well as reinforcements on the knees, butt, and groin. Avoid 'smoothskin' neoprene on the lower body, as it is prone to snagging on damn near anything. You can further protect your wetsuit by wearing a rainjacket or spray top and some board shorts or waterproof pants. This decreases the likelihood of snagging and might reduce a full tear to a partial tear. Should you damage your wetsuit, neoprene cement can be used to repair it. However don't expect perfect results on seams or large tears.

Bottom line: Price depends heavily on construction methods, thickness, and the length of you suit. $80 buys a high-quality shortie. $120-$170 buys a well-made full or farmer john suit. Waterproof seams add to the price, as well as fancy features like 'semi-dry' closures.

Features

Some wetsuits will tout features like built-in hoods, 'waterproof' or 'semi-dry' entry/exit closures, and pee zippers. While these are nice to have, they're not absolutely necessary. If you're buying on a budget or buying your first wetsuit, avoid expensive features--you're only going to trash this one anyway.


Where can I buy a wetsuit?


Craigslist is always a good place to check first as you can find some sweet local deals there.

Urban Surf: Located near Gasworks, they have a large selection of wetsuits designed for surfing and kitesurfing.

Fisheries Supply: Conveniently across the street from Urban Surf, they have a small selection of sailing-specific wetsuits. We also get a discount there--ask to purchase on the Washington Yacht Club account and show your membership card.

Wetsuit Care Tips


Caring for your wetsuit is important if you want it to last. Rinse with cool water in the shower inside and out after each use. Hang to dry away from the sun on a thick clothes hanger (triple-up the cheapo ones if you can't find a thick one). Store hung up in a cool, dry place. Avoid folding your wetsuit for storage. Clean every once and a while (or whenever it smells funky) with a wetsuit-specific cleaner like McNett Wetsuit Shampoo and Mirazyme. Don't swim in the pool with it; chlorine destroys wetsuits. Don't leave it out in the sun on the beach. Repair tears or snags before your next session to avoid further damage.