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Sailing Dry Suit Basics: What Is It & How Does It Work | Expert Advice

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What is a Sailing Dry Suit?

These suits are waterproof, and one piece with a waterproof entry zipper, and have seals at the neck and wrists, and attached socks at the feet keep the water out.  Once inside and zipped up you can simply jump in the water and, other than your head and hands, stay completely dry.

Today’s dry suits are made with waterproof-breathable fabrics allowing moisture (perspiration) to travel from your skin, through your wicking base and middle layers worn inside the suit, and eventually out through the fabric of the suit, keeping you dry and warm.

Key Features:

Dry suit seals

You will find that suits come with neck and wrist seals made of either natural rubber latex rubber or neoprene.  They seal water out and only require moderate pressure against the skin to do so.

  • Latex seals stretch more, seal better and are comfortable, but you do need to be careful not to tear them when taking your suit on and off.
  • Neoprene seals, unlike latex, have a durable nylon facing on the outside, and rarely tear, and almost never need replacing. They are less stretchy than latex, and may not be as comfortable.
  • Fabric seal guards (usually with Velcro adjustments) around neck and wrist to protect latex seals from getting caught and torn while sailing (not needed for neoprene seals).

Dry suit feet

Sailing drysuits all come with attached waterproof socks to keep your feet completely dry.  These socks will be either latex or a waterproof-breathable fabric sock made from a fabric similar to what your suit is made of.

  • Latex socks are stretchy and allow for extra sock layers. Be careful not to walk around in the socks without boots on as the latex can be torn or punctured.
  • Fabric socks do not stretch, so be sure they are large enough for the thickest socks you may wear. While the fabric they are made of is breathable, having them, and your foot, in a non-breathable dinghy boot negates most of this advantage, but they are durable as compared to latex socks.

Dry suit zippers

Brass tooth waterproof zippers have been around for over 50 years and have a proven record of reliability and durability.  More recently plastic waterproof zippers have entered the scene.

  • Metal zippers are robust and long-lasting, and should generally have a fabric flap covering them to protect the boat and zipper when re-boarding (sliding back in the boat).
  • Plastic zippers are light and flexible but require more frequent lubrication.
  • Diagonal front zippers make self-entry easy as the zipper car is readily accessible. Rear zipper are out of the way (horizontal on the back shoulders), but are difficult to operate without assistance, and have fallen out of favor.

Standard features 

  • Heavily reinforced in the seat and knees for durability and long life.
  • Internal adjustable suspenders to keep the crotch in place, which reducing binding when you are kneeling, or reaching up with your arms.

Optional features

  • Front relief zipper (short waterproof zipper at crotch level) for men, or drop seat (curved waterproof zipper running around the seat) for women for when nature calls. Note: these options can significantly raise the cost of a suit, but are very convenient.

Why Choose a Dry Suit

Safety first.

By way of example – If you fall into cold water in spray gear (dinghy smock and trousers) the icy water rushes into your gear (which is physically shocking).  Immediately your body starts losing heat.  Within minutes the strength in your limbs decreases, and the longer you are in the water the more difficult self-rescue becomes.  If you self-rescue back into the boat, your sodden gear is no longer able to retain sufficient heat.  Continued loss of strength, shivering, and loss of cognitive reasoning can set in.  If you have ever experienced hypothermia setting in you know how quickly it can incapacitate.

Dry suits provide comfortable protection from cool weather all the way to freezing cold conditions making them very versatile.  Because a dry suit is just that, a suit to keep you dry with no inherent insulation, it is the layers worn beneath it that will determine the warmth factor.  For cool weather sailing with a base layer may be all you need.  For colder weather, a base layer with a fleece mid layer will keep you comfortable.  In freezing weather, a base layer with multiple fleece mid layers will keep you toasty.  The ability to change the amount and thickness of insulating layers is what allows a dry suit to span fall, winter and spring sailing temperatures.  When properly outfitted in a dry suit (including thermal gloves and hat) you can fall into cold water and float around unaffected for quite a while, with no cold shock.  Once you are back in the boat, you are dry and warm inside the suit and can continue to sail.

What about wetsuits?

Wetsuits are also an option for cold weather sailing, but with limitations.  Wetsuits’ insulation come from the neoprene material they are made of.  The thicker the neoprene, the warmer the suit.  In cool weather, you may wear a 3mm thick shorty wetsuit (short arms and short cut legs).  For cold weather sailing, you may wear a 3-5mm full suit (long arms and legs).  In freezing weather you would wear a 5+mm steamer wetsuit.  To span fall, winter and spring sailing temperatures, you would need multiple wetsuit types/thicknesses.  Also, wetsuits are just that, wet.  When you enter the water, cold water seeps in and fills a thin layer around and between you and the suit which is then trapped.  It is shocking when the first water begins to seep in, and will take your body a few minutes to warm it up and regain a comfortable temperature.

Outfitting for Dry Suit Sailing

Here are the items you will need in order to be comfortable sailing in a dry suit in cold weather:

Base layers: Start with a thin top and bottom wicking layer.  Its job is to first wick perspiration away from the surface of your skin.  These layers also provide some insulation.  Remember to wear no cotton clothing when sailing.  Cotton will absorb and hold moisture, leaving you damp and cold.

Mid layers: This is your insulation layer which should consist of one or more medium thickness fleece tops and bottoms.  One thick layer does not allow you the option of adding or removing a layer as temperatures change.  Secondly, these layers will continue to move perspiration away from your body and to the breathable fabric of the dry suit.

Life jacket: Be sure to try on the jacket you choose while wearing the under layers and dry suit to ensure proper fit and comfort.

Socks: Use Marino wool (not scratchy) socks.  They are excellent insulators, wick moisture away from your feet, and have the added benefit over synthetic sock of being able to absorb excess moisture when there is no place for it to go.  On frigid days start with a thin Marino wool sock liner first.

Boots: Neoprene dinghy boots are best.  The neoprene is soft, flexible and adds a layer of insulation for your feet.  With thick socks and dry suit booties on your feet, you may find you need a boot a size larger than you would for warm weather sailing.

Hat: You can lose a lot of body heat through your head.  Be sure to wear a thick, warm hat that fully covers your ears.  Windproof fleece or hats with a nylon shell to stop the wind from penetrating and robbing heat are best.

Gloves: Full hand, insulated gloves are a must.  Winter gloves can be neoprene, loft insulated waterproof (sailing specific, but look like a ski glove), or waterproof rubber with either an insulating liner or unlined (wear separate fleece gloves inside).  Personal preference plays a large roll in choosing which one to use.

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One Response

  1. Thanks, good video. Next video, show more on hand, neck, feets. Wideness of chest, lenght of pants. Regarding telescopic suits. I tryed on my new suit today. Ordered from internet. The inner suit was way to large, but didnt say way to large from size chart. The dry suit. the wrist, after i take on the latex, the arms becomes a little long, how long should they be. Neck was killing, red lobster. But good info there. Feet, how shuold the feet be, For know ill only wear 1 pair of sock, and the dry suit sock integrated onto the suit, maybe in need shoes on that.

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