Posted by: Bill Keefe | March 9, 2010

A Brief History Of My Wetsuits part 1

The first wetsuit I ever owned was back when I was 14. Right after I finished my SCUBA Training class (remember my Yankee Paddler C-Card?) my Dad went out and bought me the complete SCUBA outfit. He didn’t get it from a dive store, he found it in the “Want Ads”. Some guy must have tried SCUBA and not enjoyed it very much because he was selling everything very cheap.

Mike Nelson (Sea Hunt) in Seal Skin Wetsuit

For those of you under the age of 30, there actually was a time when there was no Ebay! When people had stuff they no longer wanted, or needed, they often put what we used to call a Want Ad in something we used to call a Newspaper.  If you saw something that you wanted in the newspaper you would dial their phone number, actually speak to them, and strike a deal. Then you would (believe it or not) drive to their house, give them actual money (no PayPal), put the stuff in your car, and take it home with you. Crazy, huh?

I think that for $100.00 my Dad got me a steel SCUBA tank, a US Divers Calypso J Balanced Piston Regulator, a  Bac-Pac, a Mae West (Safety) Vest (aka Chicken Vest), Mask, Voit Viking Full Foot Fins, a Snorkel, an AMF Voit double band Spear Gun and a neoprene wetsuit. Can’t remember how thick it was but it had pants, jacket, hood, gloves, and booties. None of which fit me. There was no nylon on either the inside or the outside and it must have been sitting in the guy’s basement for a couple of years because it was pretty dry and cracked. Couldn’t complain though for $100.00 all together. The suit was black and looked like the outfit that Mike Nelson (Lloyd Bridges) wore underwater on Sea Hunt (TV show). I tried using the suit once and froze my kiester off. It was early November in some lake in Connecticut and the water was about 49 degrees. The rest of my stuff was working great but even my Dad could see I needed a new wet suit if I was going to keep diving.

My first “new” wet suit I got for Christmas later that year. The suit wasn’t actually under the tree. My parents gave me an envelope with some money in it and told me to go buy a proper wetsuit. I ended up buying it from a dive shop called SEA WOLFE DIVERS in a small Connecticut town somewhere near New London. The owner was an ex-Navy hard hat diver and a very cool guy. What I got for myself was called a Shark Skin II wetsuit made by a company called Parkway. “Back in the day” (hereinafter known as BITD) we measured wet suit thickness in fractions of inches. Not millimeters. This was a ¼” Farmer John / Jacket combo and it was state of the art.

Up until this point, wet suits had been made of straight neoprene rubber. Sometimes referred to as “Seal Skin” because they were simply slick black rubber. Suits were difficult to put on and divers often used large amounts of baby powder or corn starch sprinkled generously on themselves and in the suit to put them on. Pretty much a pain in the butt! The first big revolution in wetsuit design was when they lined the inside of the suit with nylon making it easier to slip the suit on without making yourself look like a powdered jelly donut in the process. This was called a Nylon 1 suit. And rather than just the slick neoprene outside of the suit, Parkway now put some texture into it and called it “Shark Skin”. Very cool.

The “Farmer John” in lieu of pants was now also just becoming popular. The bottoms of the wetsuit now extended up and over your shoulders like a pair of overalls. The wet suit top though was still a long sleeved jacket with an archaic devise attached known as a “beaver tail”. The “Beaver Tail” was a unique and often times awkwardly uncomfortable aspect of the wet suit. It was a flap that came off the back of the jacket, up between your legs, and then attached to the front of the jacket with 2 twist locks (Velcro had not been invented yet). If you were a guy, and you were wearing it with wetsuit pants or farmer johns, no problem. However, in temperate waters, many guys chose to dive with just the jackets alone.

Beavertail Bravado

Probably because James Bond wore only that way cool orange wetsuit jacket when he was flying around underwater with that jet pack thing kickin’ major SPECTRE butt in THUNDERBALL. The problem was, if the beaver tail was snug enough to do any good, it was too uncomfortable to wear for any length of time. If it was loose enough to be comfortable, it wasn’t doing you any good. In the end though, a lot of guys, myself included, toughed it out and wore them anyway. It didn’t seem to cramp 007’s style nor cause any long term negative effects. So we went with it. Today though, the beaver tail is pretty much a thing of the past. The old wet suit jacket has been replaced by a wetsuit top affectionately called a “short john”. Although it is much more functional and comfortable, to me they look like something your British Nanny would dress you up in when you’re 5 to send you off to school in. Not a fan. And that was much more than I had ever planned to write about the beaver tail!

The other thing we had to make our wetsuits look awesome was seam tape. If you ever watched THE UNDERSEA WORLD OF JACQUES COUSTEAU, there were always a few distinct things you’d notice about the Cousteau divers. To begin with, they wore these space age looking shells over their SCUBA tanks that seemed to serve no other purpose than to make them look like Buck Rogers underwater. The second thing was, they were diving wearing helmets. Not really sure what that was about either but it did add to the Buck Rogers effect. Finally, you’d notice that their wet suits had this yellow striping going up and down all the seams. That was seam tape! And just like the bright red wool watch caps that Fran Halpin’s Mom knitted for us to wear on our dive trips. If it was good enough for Jacques Yves, it was good enough for us. We would buy the stuff in roles and, using neoprene cement (glue), we would put it on all the seams of the suit. Definitely got you noticed at the dive site.

I still have that Parkway wetsuit hanging on a hanger in the garage at my parent’s house back in CT. It’s old, dry, stiff, and brittle now but I just don’t have the inkling to throw it out. Maybe someday.

By the time it came to buy my next wet suit, another innovation had come about. One of the problems of the neoprene wet suit was that the outside of the suit could very easily rip or tear. Now it was true that with a tube of neoprene cement/glue you could all but cut the suit into 100 pieces and glue it back together. Stronger than before. It was also true that after 3 or 4 repairs you began to look a little shabby. So, to make the wetsuits more durable they began to put a nylon coating on the outside! This groundbreaking leap forward was called the Nylon II suit. and it became all the craze. Because with nylon came colors. And this is diving’s first foray into any type of fashion. Up until now, wetsuits were black.

Easy to tell Good Guys from Bad Guys

That is unless you were James Bond. Or, on James Bond’s team in an underwater fight to the Death with Emilio Largo and SPECTRE. Then they would make an orange one for you. You might also get a white one if you were Stephen Boyd or Raquel Welch in FANTASTIC VOYAGE. Otherwise, you had better like black. But now, with the Nylon II suit, you could get red or blue! This was incredible!!! You could even get suits that were blue AND red. Or, black and red. Or blue and black. Well…., you get the picture. You could break out of the mold. Be an individual. Make your mark. The real ground breaking event though was still yet to come. Because, as more and more women began learning how to dive, the inevitable eventually happened. The PINK wet suit. Diving, as we knew it, would never again be the same.

There was however a downside to the Nylon II wetsuit. Although it was more durable, it also made the wet suit less flexible. That didn’t matter though. The Nylon II suit was here to stay.

Now divers were not the only ones wearing wet suits. I learned this when I took up surfing during my lifeguarding days on Cape Cod. Now when you watched surfing on TV or in the movies, whether it was Frankie Avalon in BEACH BLANKET BINGO in the 60s or Gary Busey and Jan Michael Vincent in BIG WEDNESDAY in the 70s, you never saw surfers wearing wet suits. But when you were surfing the Atlantic Ocean off of Cape Cod MA. and the water temp is 55 degrees farenheight, you saw a lot of wet suits.

Surfing wet suits were different though. To begin with, surfing suits were usually one piece, what were referred to as jump suits. Almost like a big “onezie” without the feet. They also were only 1/8” thick. When surfing you are rarely fully immersed in the water so you did not really need the ¼” thickness of a dive suit. Surfing was also much more active so surfers needed the ability to move about in their suits. Paddling, climbing on and off the board. They needed more flexibility in their suits. The fit did not need to be so snug, and, there was one major difference that would carry over to revolutionize the entire wet suit industry. The wet suit zipper was in the back as opposed to the front of the suit. More about that later.

I touched on this earlier but this is as good a spot as any to add another side bar. Today, when you go to purchase a wetsuit, the thickness of the wet suit is measured in millimeters or mm. I can’t explain why but it seems to be the only aspect of the metric system that has been embraced by people in the US. In dive lingo you talk about 3 mil, 5 mil, or 7 mil suits. But BITD we still used 1/8”, 3/16”, and ¼”. For a layman’s cross reference. The 1/8” wetsuit became the 3mm. These suits were primarily the ones used by surfers and divers in the Caribbean. At the time I was unaware of this because I had yet to go to the Caribbean. All I ever saw were magazine pictures and as far as I knew, no one ever wore wet suits in the Caribbean. The 3/16” suit became the 5mm. This thickness was a bit odd. Cold water surfers were the only ones that I ever saw wearing these. Finally the ¼” wet suit gave way to the 7mm. In my world, there were, and are still, no wetsuits thicker than 7mm / ¼”. That’s because, if the water is so cold that you need more thickness than that, you’ve got two options. First, get a dry suit. I have personally never dove in a dry suit and in all likelihood never will. Your second option, and the one I would probably choose is, stay home! The water is too freakin’ cold to go diving!

The next wet suit I bought was when I was headed out to California in 1981 to attend the NAUI Professional Development Center and become a SCUBA Instructor. It was a 3/16” 2 piece Farmer John suit I found in a Surf Shop on Cape Cod. This turned out to be a huge mistake. Not the buying it at a Surf Shop part. The 3/16” part.

Somehow I had gotten the impression that the ocean water in California was warm! I had never actually been to California, but everything I could ascertain from TV, movies, magazines, etc. told me that it was warm out there. I had at this point spent time in Florida, and, I thought that southern California was pretty much going to be the same. Please keep in mind that again, this was BITD. No internet. No weather channel. No Google Earth telling you surface water temps from anywhere around the globe. Just my massively incorrect assumptions about what I would find when I got out there. Talk about a wakeup call!

During my Instructor training in SoCal the ocean temps were between 60 and 65 degrees Farenheight (F). That actually did not sound too bad. While Lifeguarding on Cape Cod for the National Park Service – Cape Cod National Seashore, the summer water temps were between 55 and 60 degrees F. And as part of our training regiment they made us swim in it without wet suits every day. It wasn’t really that bad. After diving in, it only took about 90 seconds for you to be able to breathe again and the “ice cream headache” effect subsided soon after. So the idea of diving in 65 degree water in a 3/16” wetsuit at first seemed like a piece of cake. And it was actually fine! For about 15 minutes. I then began the slow but inevitable process of freezing my ass off.

Jim, Jed, and Scott. The instructors at the NAUI Professional Development Center introduced me to another twist on the wet suit. The “Skin-In” model. These guys were getting custom made wetsuits from a company called Blue Water Wet Suits. They raved that they were the warmest/best suits they had ever worn. To begin with, they had attached hoods. This stopped that excruciating feeling of cold water shooting down your back if you twisted your head the wrong way while underwater. The other secret to the suit’s warmth was the “skin-in” factor. I guess they figured out that having the nylon on the inside of the suit actually affected the suit’s warmth factor. The warmest option was to have the actual seal skin neoprene against your skin. Now I know what you’re thinking because I thought it too. Isn’t this a step Backwards? Did Mike Nelson have it right all along? I guess so. Here was the big drawback to these suits. We were now back to the baby powder and corn starch needed to get into them. Jed told me that they didn’t mind it. The warmth factor was worth it. Doing classes in the ocean they would sometimes be in the water 90 minutes to 2 hours cycling groups of students through their exercises. If all it took was a half a box of corn starch to stave off hypothermia then they felt it was well worth it. There was however one additional negative aspect to the process. Yellow corn muffin dough. Let me explain.

Besides getting cold, there is another thing that happens when you are in the water for any length of time. You have to pee. And let me make this statement to you right here and now. EVERYONE pees in their wet suit. No matter what they may tell you, they do. In fact, those that insist the hardest that they don’t are probably the worst offenders. Sometimes when people buy a new wet suit they try NOT to succumb to the pressure but inevitably, everyone breaks down and does it. And that includes the 50 or so people who rented the rental wetsuit you are wearing before you. Just get over it and enjoy the dive. But anyway, back to the corn muffin dough.

When you mix water and corn starch you get a pasty type of dough. When you mix yellow liquid with corn starch…..well…..I think you know where I’m going with this. On the beach, after the dive, as we are all peeling out of our wet suits, clumps of yellow dough chunks would fall out of the “skin-in” suits. Didn’t seem to bother the Blue Water suit team as they were the only ones whose teeth were not chattering. You might ask, did I ever get myself a Blue Water skin-in suit? Nope. My overall outcome in becoming an instructor was to end up in a location where I would not (really) have to be concerned about water temps. Had I remained in California, I definitely would have gotten one. I just toughed it out, borrowing additional pieces of wet suit where I could so that I could layer. The one long term down side to the skin-in experience was this. I could never quite look at a corn muffin the same way again.

To be continued…………….


Responses

  1. Hey Bill,
    I still have my 1/4 ” Parkway Sharksin II wet suit hanging in my basement. I still have the 1/8″ chicken vest too. I now dive in DUI a dry suit.
    Poking around in my basement I also found the Voit MR12 regulator and Rocket Fins. I have two steel tanks with J valves and plastic back packs. I also still have the Zodiac watch that Jay gave me at camp many many many years ago. Stay in touch

    Chuck

  2. Hmm that’s very interessting but frankly i have a hard time determining it… wonder how others think about this..

  3. Hello there, I couldn’t see a way to email you, and so I really hope that you see this comment. I have a website covering ladies wetsuits, and thought you might like to swap links with me. I have submitted my contact address if you would like to get in touch. Thanks.

  4. I prefer nylon on both sides, it’s just as warm and has extra strength, in my opinion. I made a couple of 9mm suits, for some boys up north, and the instructor switched up to a 12mm farmer-john! I can make any suit, any thickness, if anyone wants to remake a suit from the past. Sundance Apparel affiliated.

    Jeannie

  5. I worked at a dive shop in sacramento and we dove the north of cal. all the time. Blue water were Great suits but even better were Imperial drysuits. At cost they were about 395.00 cost and worth EVERY penny.If you think it was bad in SoCal for your training try up around Salt point. Great menories. Take care,I’m back to looking for an orange scuba pro stab jacket, tired of wearing black.lol.


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