In June we had to say goodbye to the larger than life surf legend Jack O’Neill, who was – by many considered – the inventor of the wetsuit. Also, with the recent news of Patagonia’s new eco-friendly wetsuit, it’s time for an article on the past, present and future whereabouts of our rubber suits.
1950‘s – bubble filled rubber
Hugh Bradner, UC Berkeley physicist, introduced the first “wetsuit”. In 1951 Bradner first heard about neoprene (bubble filled rubber) and started to design wetsuits believing it could be used for Navy divers. From then on he started to work on his prototype wetsuit but noticed that the military showed no interest. Bradner never followed up on his idea, therefore never thought of patenting it either.
You don’t have to stay dry to stay warm – Hugh Bradner
1952 – Wet suit
The Southern Californian surfer/diver/entrepreneur/explorer/and so much more Bev Morgan came upon Bradner’s wetsuit blueprint and red his recommendation to use neoprene in order to keep warm into the water. Bev was the first to actually step into the market for wetsuits. He figured out that divers will still get wet, but also stay warm due to the insulation in the material itself (hence the name wet suit). He read Bradner’s complete report and discovered where to get the material, bought a sheet for himself and built a suit. After he figured out this was working, he continued making other suits for is buddies and started his career as a suit manufacturer.
Weirdly enough, surfers in those days considered it ‘weak’ to wear a rubber suit to stay warm so it was hard to break into the market of the surfing world.
Enter Jack O’Neill. A Navy Air Corps pilot (1940s), Founder of the O’Neill brand and so-called founder of the wetsuit. He opens his first surf shop in San Fransisco’s Ocean Beach and began what is now a world-famous brand ‘O’Neill’. He began experimenting with various materials that allow surfers to enjoy the sport longer in the very cold northern Californian ocean but discovered quickly that neoprene was the way.
1970’s – full suit
Already an established brand and owner of now two surf shops in Santa Cruz Jack O’Neill produced his first full wetsuit. Since Jack O’Neill’s first launch of the full wetsuit together with his famous quote: ‘It’s always summer on the inside’, surfers got more into the idea of neoprene wetsuits. What the surfing community at first thought of being weak and unmanly was completely forgotten. Starting from that point (it could have been sooner if they weren’t so worried about their manliness at the time) surfers were able to stay longer in the water without freezing their nipples off, therefore surf more and live a happier life.
It’s always summer on the inside – Jack O’Neill.
Current news in the wetsuit world
You won’t hear me complaining about wearing a wetsuit for surfing since I surf cold waters 90% of the times and when somebody steps up the stage and tells me: ‘Hey, we can do this allot more eco-friendly’, I’ll give my ‘Yay’ with this motion in a second. The outdoor brand Patagonia has found out that due to its complex and highly energy-intensive manufacturing process, neoprene is actually environmentally damaging. In order to reduce the amount of neoprene used in wetsuits, they started to experiment with innovative fabrics but still noticed this wasn’t renewable enough so on they went the search for a better way. They ended up in a partnership with Yulex developing a renewable, plant-based replacement for neoprene (oh yeah, this is so vegan). Since Hevea ( the main source of natural rubber) was avoided due to its association with deforestation, they have kind of been trying to avoid it. But in the end, they did introduce the first wetsuits made with rubber from the guayule plant after they discovered that Hevea was being grown on Forest Stewardship Council certified plantations in Guatemala. I really hope this isn’t a false advertisement of Patagonia in trying to profile themselves as being an eco-friendly outdoor brand and workers on the plantations get to work under fair working condition. But, it looks like a good step in the right direction even if it is in creating more awareness towards our environment. I’m for sure triggered by the idea of getting myself an eco-friendlier wetsuit when mine is worn to the seam.
What to know when buying a suit
Just keep in mind these few focus points and you’ll be alright.
for the very cold waters can be between 5 to 7mm thick.
In between season suits:
For the seasons autumn-spring can be between 3-5mm thick.
for those great summer surfing sessions can be between 2-3 mm thick.
for the warm waters of Indo or any other exotic island you wear your bikini, shorts, naked suit or just a rash shirt.
When you read:
WETSUIT CHEST ZIP (name of the brand) 6/4 mm
It’s a wetsuit that has a zip at the chest (some of them you zip up at the back) from (name of the brand) with 6mm thickness on the body and 4 mm thickness on arms and legs.
The wetsuit world has a lot to offer, and changes – as fashion does – with every season so check what fits you the most. Just make sure that when you go shopping for a wetsuit, always (!) try them on before you buy. I know it’s a hassle but I’m telling ya, you’d be better of if you do.