It is somewhat debatable as to who invented the wetsuit. In 1952, physicist from the University of California, Berkeley, Hugh Bradner, came up with the idea to create a suit that kept divers insulated during surfing. The idea was to help prevent illnesses such as, hypothermia, which surfers and divers were likely to be subjected to due to their prolonged time in cold water. The wetsuit also served purpose to create better comfort for the surfer and diver, allowing a more enjoyable and longer time spent in the water.
Engineer, William Bascom, at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, in California joined him on this venture, proposing to Bradner to use a substance called ‘Neoprene,’ a stretchy artificial rubber material, which he knew to be waterproof, as well as a good insulator.
The confusion arises with the wetsuit’s inception, when Brander and Bascom were refused marketing rights, with claims that the design was too much like the flight suit.
In fact, most refer to Jack O’Neill as the creator of the wetsuit, who managed to successfully start up his own company, ‘O’Neill’ after being introduced to Neoprene by his surfing enthusiast friend; Harry Hind. Hind knew of this material from laboratory work and suggested it to O’Neil as a good insulating material.
O’Neill’s company started in his garage, but when he later became successful in 1959, he moved to Santa Cruz in California to further widening his surfing brand.
After the discovery that Neoprene could be used as an insulator and was a waterproof material, the initial idea was to stitch pieces of the material together into the shape of a vest. However, this proved unsuccessful, as the material was not strong enough to endure the fierce waves and movements that surfing and diving require, and most suits tended to rip.
The suits were later improved, with the Neoprene squeezed in between Nylon and later, Lycra and Spandex, allowing for a tougher wearing suit.
Today’s wetsuits are still created with Neoprene, but there are also alternative materials used as well, such as, environmentally friendly suits made partially from recycled plastic bottles.
Some suits are even complete with a heating function – running off batteries – allowing surfers to explore the depths of even colder waters.
With surfing, partakers must use a significant amount of muscle power, which requires strong, sturdy movements, in order to tackle the resilient and robust sea waves.
With such a large amount of movement required of the surfer, it is important that they are able to have free use of their legs and arms, which is why the wetsuit is designed to provide the surfer with enough freedom to move their arms, shoulders and knees easily.
The design of the wetsuit allows a small amount of water to enter into the suit, creating a layer of water between the skin and wetsuit. This pocketed water rises in temperature as the surfer’s temperature rises, thereby, creating insulation, keeping the surfer warm.
It’s vital that your wetsuit fits to your specific shape, an oversized suit can let too much water in, which doesn’t allow for the water to insulate the surfer. The tight sandwiched seal between the skin, water and wetsuit is what enables the water to rise in temperature with the surfer’s body heat.
An oversized wetsuit will not keep the surfer warm enough and therefore, the surfer will waste energy trying to maintain a comfortable body temperature. Wasting energy is something surfers must avoid; otherwise they will not be perform to their fullest potential.
It is also essential that a surfer’s wetsuit is not too tight as this both, limits movement – which the surfer needs to tackle the waves – and cuts off the surfer’s circulation.
Types of Wetsuit
There are various types of wetsuits, designed for specific types of climate, skill level and comfort preference.
The Full Suit
The full suit covers the entirety of the surfer. With long arms and legs, encasing the whole of the body (asides from the head, feet and hands) these particular suits are best for the coldest of temperatures.
Rash vests, otherwise known as ‘rashies’ are not wetsuits. The rash vest is a thin, stretchy material with long or short sleeves that covers the top of the body only. This type of top is normally worn with board shorts and is ideal for hot, tropical climates and warm waters.
These vests are designed to protect surfers from the sun’s rays and prevent rashes from the rough, waxed body of the surfboard. In tropical climates it is also possible for the wax on the board to melt, which will stick to the surfer’s body and be particularly painful for those will hairy chests!
Rash vests have also been used in surfing competitions as they come in a variety of colours and enable spectators and judges to differentiate between surfers.
Also known as ‘Spring Suits’, these suits consist of less material, with shorter arms and legs, giving the surfer free-reign of movement. While still good at insulating the body, shorties are best worn in a slightly warmer temperature.
A semi-dry suit is a thick suit with tight closures at the openings – wrists, ankles, etc – this restricts the amount of water that is able to enter and exit the inners of the suit.
Additional Surfing Items
With extras available in addition to the variety of wetsuits on offer, such as neoprene shoes, boots, gloves and hoods, surfers can choose to wear as much or as little as the particular environment requires.
The wetsuit has allowed surfers to explore and experience parts of the ocean in which previously was not believed possible.
With such cutting-edge and robust suits available to buy, surfers can enjoy the waves in comfort.
With our ever-advancing world, who is to say what will happen next with the wetsuit, but it’s a certainty that the design will continue to progress in quality and beneficial elements.
This was submitted by Bethan Grylls, writing on behalf of wetsuits lovers and online surf shop, TransSurf