Many sailors wonder if a dry suit or wetsuit is the best choice for winter sailing. We’ll compare and contrast to help you learn what’s best for the type of sailing you do.
The question is not ‘which is better?’ it is ‘which is better for you?’
While wetsuits and dry suits both keep you safe and comfortable in the cold and frigid water; neither is ‘better,’ although they are certainly different. One is better in some ways, and not as good in others. Once you understand their relative advantage and disadvantages, it is a matter of deciding which one is better for the type of sailing you do.
How They Work
Wetsuits are made of foamed neoprene rubber which is a spongy material containing millions of bubbles of air or nitrogen gas. The air space created by these trapped bubbles has a high insulation factor and reduces the heat lost to the outside significantly, thus keeping you warm. As the name implies, a properly fit wetsuit will allow a thin layer of water to enter the suit. This water is then trapped and warmed by the body. The water does not add insulation but does keep new cold water from entering the suit, thus a warm stable environment is established inside the suit. Winter wetsuits are generally made with 5mm neoprene or 3-4mm super stretch neoprene with an internal insulating facing.
Dry suits are one piece suits made of waterproof and breathable nylon fabric, with waterproof rubber seals at the neck and wrists, and attached sock seals at the feet. Entry is through a waterproof zipper on the front or back of the suit. Other than your head and hands, the suit keeps you completely dry in the water. This goes a long way to prevent heat loss as water will conduct heat away from your body 25 times faster than air. Insulation is a factor of the warm layers you wear inside the suit. These layers trap air, which is warmed by body heat and slows heat loss through the suit, leaving you dry and toasty inside.
In broad terms, expect a dry suit to cost from $500 – $1,000, and a full winter wetsuit from $250 – $500.
Comfort and Warmth
From a warmth and comfort standpoint, dry suits are warmer and more comfortable than wetsuits. This is especially true when you fall in the water the first time in a day. With dry suits and proper under layers, there is no cold shock other than maybe your face getting splashed. You can float around and not feel the cold of the water. With wetsuits, you will immediately feel the cold water seeping into the suit which is uncomfortable and chilling. This continues until the water has fully saturated the inside of the suit, and your body has had time to heat it up.
Once back in the boat, after your short swim and righting of the boat, you remain dry and toasty in the dry suit. Even throughout the rest of the day as you sail hard and perspire, the wicking under layers and breathable suit fabric will expel this moisture, and you remain dry.
With a wetsuit, once back on the boat, your body will have heated the thin layer of water in the suit, and a stable, warm environment will have been established inside the suit, and keep the cold out. You will remain wet inside the suit for the rest of that day’s sailing, and as you sail hard and perspire, this moisture will be trapped inside the suit (this is contributing to wetsuits smelling bad).
Dry suits are loose and baggy to allow for layering underneath and freedom of movement. Sacrificial shorts are worn over the suit and your PFD, generally, keep most of this in check, but they are not sleek like wetsuits, and some high action sailors (think Moths and 49’ers) are put-off by their bagginess.
Dry suits are not the most hydrodynamic outfits to swim in – you will be a bit slower in the water if you are trying to swim any distance.
Wetsuits, due to their ‘second skin’ fit, require you to stretch the material with every movement, and this can be fatiguing over the span of the day especially if it is thick neoprene. Suits made of super stretch neoprene help alleviate a good portion of this.
Neoprene suits also tend to bunch up uncomfortably at the elbows and knees, where dry suits tend to behave like ‘regular’ clothing and not collect and bunch up.
Ease of Gearing Up
Dry suits take a little bit more time to put on as you need to layer up and take your time with neck and wrist seals (if they are latex rubber and not neoprene seals) to prevent tearing them.
Dry wetsuits are quick and easy to put on, but wet ones tend to grab your skin and take a bit of work to coax on. Also, if your wetsuit is still wet, it is cold and a bit of a shock to your skin initially. So, always make sure you leave your wetsuit out to dry completely.
Tears in either wetsuits or dry suits are rare as they are made with durable fabrics and both will have reinforced seat and knee areas.
If your dry suit has latex seals, these can rip or be torn if caught on something sharp. Many drysuits now come with neoprene seals which are not as comfortable as latex but are rarely ripped or damaged.
There is a misconception that a dry suit with a torn seal or a rip in the fabric will ‘drag you down’. This is unfounded. The water inside a torn dry suit is no denser than the water outside it, so it has no effect on buoyancy. On the other had a dry suit partially filled with water will certainly be awkward to swim in, and it might make it difficult to re-enter a boat following a capsize. But very few dry suit tears are so extensive that they allow a great deal of water to enter. In general, tears are rather rare out on the water.
Tears in a wetsuit will not generally cause much additional water to enter the suit, and have a very little impact other than to the immediate torn area.
Care, Repair, and Maintenance
Dry suits with latex gaskets require occasional conditioning to protect them from dry rotting and UV damage from the sun. It one tears, you can purchase replacement seals and adhesive for home replacement or send it out for professional replacement at about twice the cost of home repair. Expect latex seals to last 3-5 years if they are well cared for.
Dry suit zippers require occasional lubrication to keep them easy to operate and maintain a long service life.
Tears in the fabric of a dry suit are rare and can be patched using Aquaseal adhesive and a swatch of fabric (usually provided by the manufacturer with a new suit). Wetsuit neoprene can be repaired with iron-on patches call Iron Mend – all you need is a clothes iron.
Wetsuits have a tendency to stink, and the older they get, the worse they smell. This is generally caused by body oils that collect on the inside facing of the suit over time, and which are nearly impossible to wash out. The second cause is sweat, urine, mold mildew and bacteria that builds up on the inside facing of the suit too, but can be removed with wetsuit detergents and odor removing treatments.
Drysuits tend not to build up too much odor, but if they do they can be washed, but use a detergent specific to water gear with no fragrances or softeners.
Making a Decision
Winter wetsuits are specific to cold and frigid conditions. The decision to be made is not ‘Do I wear my shortie or spring suit in place of buying a dry suit’, it is ‘In addition to any wetsuits I may own, do I buy a dedicated winter wetsuit or a dry suit’.
Determine what qualities and features matter the most for your type of sailing in order to decide between a wetsuit and a dry suit. You have to consider your own priorities and the conditions you sail in and the type of boat you sail on. For most sailors, the decision narrows down to the tradeoff between price and functionality. Only you can decide whether the superior warmth and safety of a dry suit justify its higher cost.