Although so much of the ocean qualifies as cold water, the majority of divers learn the basics of scuba diving in tropical waters, and remain there for their entire dive careers. But there’s no need to restrict your diving horizons: it’s time to try a drysuit.
If someone asked me if I’d like to visit the Alps in winter to ski I wouldn’t say no because “the snow looks a bit cold.” I’ve always held the same philosophy when it comes to diving: You just need the correct clothing and equipment. A drysuit opens doors to explore everything from winter diving in the Mediterranean, to Scotland’s Scapa Flow wrecks, to ice diving.
A drysuit can be worn anywhere but is typically used in water that’s colder than 59 to 68 F (15 to 20 C). According to several diving historians, the first drysuit was introduced by George Edwards in 1838. It’s evolved over the decades but does essentially the same job. Where a wetsuit lets in a small amount of water that is subsequently warmed against the body, the drysuit is water and air-tight. Zipped into your trusty drysuit, you’re sealed at the neck and wrists to keep the water out and a layer of air inside, which is used to maintain body temperature and help control your buoyancy and positioning while in the water.
What’s the first step?
If you’re ready to take the plunge into drysuit diving, there are a few considerations and a slightly amended diving style you’ll need to become familiar with. Although there’s nothing preventing you from simply buying a drysuit and jumping in, you’ll do well to first contact your local dive center and enroll in a drysuit specialty training course. Most major training agencies such as PADI and SSI offer such courses. The training allows you to become accustomed to drysuit diving under the guidance of a diving professional, as well as to learn about the suits themselves, their valves, undergarments and accessories. You’ll also learn basic repair and maintenance of drysuits. In addition to the classroom sessions, there’s also some practical assessment. PADI and SSI, for example, include two open-water dives in their training program, during which you’ll practice new techniques. For example, a large part of your buoyancy control comes via air you’ll add to the suit, usually through an “Iron Man”-style inflator button on your chest. Gas is then vented via dump valves, usually located on your left shoulder or wrist. This new skill takes a little practice and is best done with the advice and supervision of an instructor.
What type of drysuit should I get?
Once you’ve taken the class and decided you like drysuit diving, you’ll most likely want to invest in one of your own, if you’ve got the financial means. First, make sure you purchase the correct type of drysuit for your environment and undergarments. Most major manufacturers sell off-the-shelf suits in standard sizes, but a made-to-measure suit is the way to go for the best fit and comfort.
Drysuits come in a range of materials, but most divers opt for neoprene or trilaminate. The foam neoprene or crushed-neoprene suits tend to be slightly thicker; on first wearing one, people often report that they feel bulky. However, the additional thickness makes the suits tougher and slightly hardier than their trilaminate cousins, which can be important if you’re wreck diving or working in a tougher environment. In addition, in the unlikely event that a neoprene suit floods, it will retain some basic thermal protection — not much, but some.
Under a neoprene drysuit you’ll typically wear thermal base-layers; many manufacturers offer their own bespoke base-layers. The number of layers you wear will depend on your own thermal characteristics, the length of your dive and, of course, the water temperature. Be aware that the more layers you wear, the more weight you’ll need to carry.
Trilaminate or ‘shell’ suits are thinner and more flexible than neoprene, which makes them easier to transport and, usually, to get on and off. They’re not quite as hard-wearing as neoprene suits, however, and being thinner means they’re slightly more prone to puncture either in transport, storage or if you’re a little careless on a wreck. Typically, these are worn worn with a thick under-suit that resembles a sleeping bag.
Whichever construction you choose, fit is most important. Consider the following:
- Is the construction right for the environment, both in terms of temperature and activity?
- What undergarments do I need to wear underneath to stay warm? Will they fit comfortably and still allow the suit to vent air safely?
- Do the neck and wrist seal fit snugly, but not so snugly that restrict blood flow?
- Are the boots sufficiently large enough to wear the booties or thick socks I’ll be wearing underneath?
- Are the arms long enough to allow me to make adjustments to my mask, BCD and hoses?
- Will my computer fit comfortably over my wrist?
- Will my fins fit?
Once you’ve decided on the suit’s construction, you’ve got a few other decisions to make — Front entry or rear entry? Shoulder or cuff dump valve? Neoprene or latex wrist and neck seals? Dry or wet gloves? Pee valve or no pee valve? Boots included or rock boots?
The drysuit is an amazing invention, and when you master its use, you’ll realize you no longer need to feel intimidated by either its operation or cold-water diving. With the correct training and experience, drysuit diving opens up a brand new world of water.
By guest author Marcus Knight (The Scuba Monkey)