Our panel of experts tackle the subject of DRYSUIT DIVING, and offer up a host of helpful hints and advice to get you comfortable, warm and with no buoyancy issues.
Drysuits should be in every UK diver’s arsenal, as there is nothing worse than feeling cold both on a dive and when you exit the water, and no amount of neoprene in a wetsuit or semi-dry is going keep you as warm and toasty as a good-fitting drysuit.
However, it seems some divers still have some bizarre, inherent fear of drysuits, which is odd, as with a little bit of practice and tuition, diving in one is a doddle, and you are soon happy bouncing back and forth between wetsuits and drysuits.
And remember, drysuits aren’t just for UK or real cold-water diving, you will also find diving in a drysuit in the Med in winter, for instance, is far more preferable to layering up the neoprene.
PADI TecRec Instructor Trainer Martin Robson said: “Drysuits are designed to keep you dry and, with the right undersuit, warm too, so use the suit to keep you dry and insulated and not for buoyancy. That is what your wing/BCD is designed for.
Less air in your suit will make trim and buoyancy easier to control. Unless you are very well practiced, leave your drysuit dump valve open so that you can vent gas from the suit quickly should you need to.”
Matt Clements, UK Regional Manager at PADI, commented: “Cannot stress this enough, buy your own suit and make sure it fits you. Often hired suits leak, which is mostly due to poor fit. It is never fun to go in for a second or third dive wet and cold.
When it’s your own suit you can trim the seals to fit you. Wrist and neck seals also tend to be the weak spot, so keep an eye on their condition as you can repair them pre-dive rather than at the water’s edge (unless you have a quick-change system).”
He added: “Now I dive with dry gloves, pee valve and a heated vest – why suffer, I would much rather not need the extras than be in deco wishing I did!”
PADI Course Director and TecRec Instructor Trainer Alan Whitehead said: “Drysuit training is essential, but please remember although it affects buoyancy, try not to use it primarily for your buoyancy, as this could lead to too much air in the suit, which can easily migrate to ‘problem’ areas, such as your feet. It is also not as easy to dump as a wing/BCD during ascent. Start with small amounts of air in the suit for comfort and warmth, but just enough to avoid squeeze.”
Emily Petley Jones, UK Regional Training Consultant at PADI, explained: “Look after your zip. This is the most-expensive part of your drysuit to fix if it breaks. When storing your drysuit, leave the zip open and don’t bend it back on itself. With my back-entry zip, I roll the legs up into the chest, then wrap the arms around the outside to avoid the zip getting bent. Don’t forget to wax it either!”
Vikki Batten, Director of Rebreather Technologies, Training Supervisor and Instructor Examiner at PADI, said: “If you find your feet are a ‘little’ floaty in a drysuit, instead of pushing your legs down, which risks cramping, try looking up slightly. With a cylinder on your back, this tips your hips down slightly and your legs will follow. Of course, this only works for minor problems – if it gets worse, you may have to ‘roll’”.
TDI/SDI Business Development Manager Mark Powell said: “Much of the advertising you see for diving involves warm water and divers in swimsuits or thin wetsuits. It can be a bit of a shock to those divers who were certified in warm water to come back to the UK and discover that the water is a bit cooler.
For those of us who dive and teach in the UK or Europe, talking about the differences is much like talking about how to choose a mask. We are often asked about the differences between diving wet and diving dry. Of course, there are some key differences.
“Warmth – This is probably the most-important reason to decide to dive dry. You know that neither a wetsuit nor drysuit actually keeps you warm. What they do is slow the amount of heat loss. Wetsuits do this using a layer of neoprene and a thin layer of water trapped between that and the skin.
Drysuits use air and a combination of undergarments – no water to take heat away if a seal is lost and allowed to flush through the suit. With drysuits you can add layers of insulation to slow the loss of body heat.
“Buoyancy – Wetsuits compress with depth and lose some of their inherent buoyancy. Drysuits allow the diver to add air and compensate for the increased pressure at depth. As the wetsuit compresses, it gets thinner and loses insulating capacity. The drysuit does not.
“Weighting – Once a diver has become proficient with a drysuit, over-weighting is not as much of a concern as it is with a wetsuit. As a wetsuit loses buoyancy at depth, a diver can become seriously over-weighted due to suit compression. With a drysuit, the amount of buoyancy the suit offers stays more or less constant since the diver has the means to adjust for the increased/decreased pressure.
“Varying conditions – A large benefit of a drysuit is the ability to use the suit in various conditions. A wetsuit does not offer the flexibility of a drysuit to add or subtract undergarments to suit the water/surface conditions. Many divers use their drysuit year round, from warm water locations to under the ice in winter.
“Purchase cost – At one time, drysuits were prohibitively expensive for the average diver. One could purchase several wetsuits for the cost of one drysuit. They often had to if diving in a wide range of water temperatures! With the introduction of new materials and manufacturing competition, a quality entry-level drysuit can be had for roughly the same price as a higher-end wetsuit. By varying the undergarments the diver can also avoid having to buy several different thicknesses of wetsuits. One drysuit will work in numerous environments.
“Cost of ownership – Once a diver buys a wetsuit there is very little maintenance other than proper rinsing. Drysuits require seals to be replaced, leaks attended to, boots or socks replaced, and maybe even the zip. These costs may be offset by the life of the suit. Drysuits, with proper care, can last 15-20 years or more.
This is using the suit on a regular basis – say 100 dives a year. A wetsuit seeing that much use may last five years. In the long run, a drysuit may actually be less expensive. Drysuits often hold their value for resale. Used wetsuits get tossed. Used drysuits are sold to offset the cost of a new one!
Mark continued: “Whether you’re a prospective, or new, drysuit diver – you’ve likely heard a few outrageous stories about the potential challenges that come with diving a drysuit, specific to body position or ‘trim’.
“So, maybe you’ve heard once you dive dry, ‘there is no way you can reach your valve(s)’ or a dramatic story of a diver having too much gas in their feet and rocketing towards the surface upside down.
Sure, each of these scenarios is possible, but they can be easily avoided with a combination of a proper fitting suit, adjusting your cylinder position and weight placement, honing in on your drysuit diving skills and technique, and gaining more experience. In time, you can dive a drysuit just as easy as a wetsuit.”
Garry Dallas, Director of training RAID UK (Recreational/Technical/ Cave Instructor Trainer) said: “The purpose of a drysuit is in the name, to keep you dry! Often mistaken for other attributes, such as keeping you warm, which is actually the purpose of the undersuit.
“There are various drysuits on the market, with all the bells and whistles, but the most-important features are often overlooked. Neoprene suits have a place in recreational diving but membrane/trilaminate suits are best suited for technical and/or recreational diving.
Whichever suit you choose, in-water comfortable flexibility, tailored fit throughout the body (especially under the crotch and armpit” preventing restrictive movements), constant neutral buoyancy characteristics at depth, pocket accessibility, ease of donning/doffing with telescopic front/back entry, self-replaceable seal material, durability, zip material and quality are important factors to name a few. When it comes to repairs/warranty, customer service is up there too.
“When you’ve chosen your first drysuit, train to use it. Ability to dive well in a wetsuit is one thing, but drysuits are a different ball game. However, once mastered, hovering in a drysuit is the most-pleasurable experience and will open up a whole new world of diving.
“To keep your drysuit seals in tip top condition, periodically check wrist and neck seals for deterioration, splitting, dozing and cracking of rubber, avoiding prolonged exposure to sunlight and chemicals. Regular lubrication with bee’s wax increases the life of the zip teeth and smooth operation of the zip, while preventing fraying.
Suit inflator and dump valves need checking for proper operation. Obviously, the suit could develop a leak anywhere – commonly, valves, the soles of boots or socks, seals, seams on the crotch, armpit or zip area and even delamination of the material. The best solution is to take your suit to your reputable dealer or repair centre and let the experts sort it out for you. Let them check it over annually, as time alone without use will deteriorate a suit.”
Alex ‘Woz’ Warzynski, Advanced Instructor and BSAC Chairman, said: “One of the most-common questions I get asked is ‘which drysuit should I buy?’ and the answer is ‘well, it depends on the type of diving you do’. If travel is important, then a lightweight suit that folds up small is a high priority.
If your thing is squirrelling around wrecks, then a suit that doesn’t snag and stands up to sharp edges is important. If you’re diving in a high-current area, then a close-fitting, streamlined suit would be best so you can whizz about with minimal resistance. Diving a twinset? A suit with lots of flexibility in the upper body for shutdowns.
“For UK diving, where you are likely to be spending all day in your suit, the most-important thing is fit and comfort, both in and out of the water. Getting into and out of it should be simple, and it should have a way of staying up when the top half is undone. Neoprene neck seals, especially the comfortable super-stretchy ones, stop the hangman’s noose effect that you can get from the irritation from latex.
“Once submerged, you need to be weighted properly and add just enough gas to the suit to take the squeeze off. Otherwise, you end up with large volumes of air migrating round the suit which can, for inexperienced divers, lead to difficult buoyancy control. For compressed neoprene suits, a little extra weight will be needed to get you off the surface (and keep you on your safety stop) as the suit material compresses at depth. This isn’t a problem with membrane or crushed neoprene.
“For warmth, I’m a big fan of layering. A merino base layer to start, a mid-layer if it’s really cold, then your main outer undersuit on top. Just add and remove layers as the temperature varies, and change your weighting to suit. Good notes in your logbook helps with this.
A close, tight fit works best with undersuits, and choose them carefully to maintain flexibility while still retaining some structure to resist the force of the drysuit pressing down as it’s the air layer that keeps you warm.”
John Kendall, GUE Instructor Trainer, said: “There are many things that can make a drysuit great or terrible. The first of which is the fit. Some manufacturers make their suits baggy, some make them tight, some cut the arms one way, others do it differently. I am very, very fussy when it comes to the fit of my drysuits, and make sure that they will be cut to allow me full overhead movement of my arms. Without a good fit, the drysuit is pretty useless.
“The next thing that can make a big difference to how good a suit is, is the zipper. I don’t like rear zips, as it means I am reliant on other people to help me in and out of my suit, and they also stiffen up the shoulders and make reaching valves hard.
“The last thing is the position of the dump valve. For me, the dump valve should be on the outside of the bicep, that way I can simply lift my left elbow in order to dump gas, and not have to contort myself to get the gas out.
“When you find a good drysuit, that fits you well with a good zip and proper dump valve placement, you should look after it. Don’t be afraid to invest in servicing before things go wrong. I replace the seals on my suits every 200 dives or so (which means about six months for me) to make sure that I am never surprised by a ripped seal just before what turns out to be an awesome dive for my buddies. If you are a regular diver, it might be worthwhile investing in a second drysuit, so that you never have to miss a dive while one is being serviced.”
IANTD Instructor Trainer Ian France said: “The drysuit is an essential part of many diving scenarios. Despite offering both thermal insulation and redundant buoyancy, the drysuit is an often-overlooked piece of equipment due to its relatively high cost for a decent product. With increased redundancy becoming the norm in diving, with divers carrying two of all essential kit, it is only realistic to take one drysuit.
A poorly fitting drysuit will often result in the diver being restricted, preventing management of other equipment effectively, e.g. the ability to manipulate valves while diving back-mounted cylinders, and to effectively manage a divers stable platform, resulting in poor trim and buoyancy. In turn, this decreases the diver’s ability to manage simple tasks underwater, resulting in additional stress.
“Poor drysuit maintenance also increases the likelihood of zip or dump failure, while carelessness can result in damage and leaks. A failed drysuit on a dive can lead to potential hypothermia, negative buoyancy, or at least, increased thermal stress affecting decompression efficiency.
“However, a little care with simple maintenance after each dive can prolong the life of this important investment for many years. Remove equipment from the pockets after each dive, rinse off salt, lubricate the zip as per manufacturer’s instructions and store dry, preferably hanging. Inspect seals regularly and attend to nicks before they become splits or perish.
Your drysuit is fundamental to your underwater drysuit diving, comfort and safety – treat it well.”
Gary Asson from the Sub-Aqua Association said: “There are two main types of drysuit in use today, neoprene and laminate, neoprene having the better thermal insulation, but losing out on flexibility and weight. My personal preference is for crushed neoprene, which has good thermal insulation and flexibility.
When it comes to maintenance, both materials need to be completely dry before a repair can be made. This can usually be quickly achieved with a wipe over in the case of laminate, but can take a considerable amount of time in the case of neoprene.
“Ideally, a drysuit should be made to measure. However, this is associated with additional cost. Regardless of whether your drysuit is made to measure, off the peg, or second hand, don’t forget you will require additional insulation, and that if you intend to dive in UK waters all year round, that this requirement will change.
Make sure it still fits, and that you can perform any shutdowns, etc, when you are wearing your winter gear. Also, make sure that the suit does not have large spaces where air can migrate, causing buoyancy problems.
“Pockets are a very useful addition. Being able to stow a DSMB in a pocket ready to go makes life easier. Make sure that you can open and close the pockets with cold wet hands, and thick gloves.
“Buoyancy underwater in drysuit diving can be by using the drysuit only (the jacket is used only at the surface), or by a mixture of the jacket for buoyance, adding air to the suit only to stop squeeze.
The advantage of drysuit only is that you only need to consider the gas in your drysuit, whereas when adding air to both drysuit and jacket, you need to consider both. As always this is a mixture of personal choice, and the type of diving you do.
“Being able to control the amount of air being dumped from the suit is an important decision. When I first started diving, we had the cuff dump. Then later a friend of mine announced that all his buoyance problems were over. He had just bought a suit with an ‘Auto Dump’, that would just magically release the correct amount of air for him. That was a giggle.
“Moving to a drysuit requires practical training, from a competent instructor, to master the basics. Then, practice, practice, practice. Build up experience until it is second nature, before putting yourself into a position where buoyance failure can put you in danger.
“I have always used the drysuit-only method. This was the way I was taught, and I have found that even with three stages/ bailout bottles, I can still maintain buoyance comfortably. This was until October, when diving in freshwater in Mexico.
I have lost a few pounds, did not need the usual insulation because of the water temperature, but wanted the insulation of the drysuit so that I could extend the dive times, and stay comfortable. Even without any weights, I was considerably overweighted. Using the suit only meant that air sometimes dumped from the neck, and/or migrated everywhere.
This made for some interesting diving. I handled the situation, but it was not ideal. I have now started to look at drysuit for squeeze, and jacket for buoyance. However, trying to break 25 years plus of muscle memory is taking time.”
Photographs by Mark Evans