Cold-Water Wetsuits | Scuba Diving

Cold-Water Wetsuits

April 2001
By John Francis
Photography by Joe Byrd

Wetsuits Reviewed in This Article

Bare Supra John/Jane Combo Body Glove X2 Combo Harvey's Kobalt Pro-Flex Henderson 7mm Gold Core John or Jane and Jacket Mares 42° Parallel O'Neill 7mm 7000X John/Jacket Performance Expedition Jacket & John/Jane SeaQuest Contour 7 Two-Piece

The Advantages

The Bikini Advantage. Top and bottom can be different sizes. If a sedentary lifestyle has given you a lower center of gravity than nature intended, you can buy a medium jacket and a medium-large john or jane and get a better fit. By contrast, a full suit's waist and chest get bigger together as it goes up in size.

The Dressing Advantage. The jacket-and-john combo is easier to put on and take off without help. This is particularly true if it's thick and stiff. Sure, a buddy can help with zippers, but maybe you want to dress yourself.

The Layer Advantage. There are two layers, each full thickness, over your torso and upper thighs. Short-sleeved jackets and vests made to layer over full suits exist in 7mm thicknesses but can be harder to find.

The Drawbacks

Jacket-and-john combos do have real disadvantages compared to full suits, however.

The Useless Piece. Despite what some ads say, neither piece is very useful alone. You could wear just the jacket if you see a reason for a long-sleeved shorty. (The neoprene used in the arms would be better spent on the torso.) And though you do see divers wearing just the john, the open neck and shoulder holes will scoop in a lot of water. Those guys might look studly, but they're not especially warm.

The Leaky Collar. The jacket almost always has a front zipper with an open throat and therefore a poorly sealed collar. You'll wear a hood whose bib will be stuffed into that area, but the collar seal will not be perfect. Because the bib covers your chest, you may not feel the invading water immediately, but it will be there. (One solution might be a jacket with attached hood.)

Some johns and janes come in sort of a dickey style, with a turtleneck collar and a zipper across the chest. These do seal better against the skin of your neck, though you will still have leaking between the layers. The best-known of this style is the Mares 45th Parallel, which I'm told is no longer available in this country.

That said, the jacket and john combo is most popular where the water is coldest--the Pacific Northwest, for example. It can be a good choice for a cold-water diver who does not choose to wear a dry suit.

How (and Why) I Tested for Compression Resistance

The enemy of all wetsuits is depth, not water temperature. As you descend, neoprene compresses more quickly than you might believe--to only half its surface thickness in the first 35 feet, for example. What is being squashed is the bubbles, which are your only real insulation. At 90 feet, your 7mm cold-water wetsuit is as thin as a tropical neoprene skin.

Some wetsuits compress with depth more than others, though the differences are not huge. As you might expect, stiffer, heavier neoprenes generally compress less than soft stretchy ones.

To compare the resistance to compression of these suits, I made a caliper gizmo that would simulate the pressure of depth by squeezing a patch of neoprene under a weight while allowing me to measure its thickness. I don't claim this is an exact simulation of water pressure at depth, but it is consistent from suit to suit. Use these numbers for comparison only.

The pressure at about 90 feet below the surface is 40 psi (plus one atmosphere). I tested each suit four times at different places to make sure the results were reasonably consistent, and averaged the four. Results ranged from 1.8 to 1.3mm and are shown here as "compression resistance."

Rating System

***** Excellent
**** Very Good
*** Good
** Fair
* Poor

Bare Supra John/Jane Combo

| | Bare Supra John/Jane Combo| Rating: ****

The designers have made a serious effort to seal all the openings of this suit. The long jacket zipper has a wide flap with a smooth sealing surface that mates with another sealing surface on the inside of the suit. This surface is folded to create a ridge that presses into the flap to make a better seal. The zipper reaches higher on the throat than most do, and the sealing flap connects with a band of sealing material on the inside of the collar. On some people, this will make an efficient seal against the skin, and they might want to use a bibless dry suit hood to avoid spoiling it. Most of us will tuck the bib inside the collar. Forearms and lower legs have clever "flip seals" that are similar to what engineers call "lip seals." Each is a ring of thin neoprene that circles your arm or leg. One edge is sewn to the inside of the suit, the other hugs your skin. When you push your arm or leg into the suit, you flip the seal toward the cuff. In that position, it's best able to resist water entry, and its smooth surface faces your skin. When you pull your arm or leg out, the seal flips the other way, so its nylon surface slides over your skin. Ankles have zippers, which usually leak, but these are gusseted and the flip seal is above the zipper. The flip seal will also be above your boots, which you will probably tuck inside.

Nominal thickness: 7mm.
Compression resistance: Fair.
Sizes: 12 men's (including tall and king sizes), 11 women's (including tall and plus sizes).
Price: Jacket, $180; john or jane, $190.
Contact: Bare Sportswear, (604) 533-7848.

Body Glove X2 Combo

| | Body Glove X2 Combo| Rating: ***

The zipper flap of the jacket has a sealing surface that mates with a similar surface on the inside of the suit. Wrists and ankles have wide sealing surfaces on the insides, though you'll probably stuff your boots inside the ankles. There's no attempt at a collar seal here, but you'll stuff your hood bib in there. With high-stretch panels at shoulders, knees and crotch. The X2 does not resist compression well, however.

Nominal thickness: 7mm.
Compression resistance: Poor.
Sizes: 9 men's, 5 women's.
Price: $270 for both.
Contact: Body Glove, (310) 320-7873.

Harvey's Kobalt Pro-Flex

| | Harvey's Kobalt Pro-Flex| Rating: ****

This suit has the slick inside surface that was popularized by Henderson, though this one is blue. The theory is that you don't need special seals at the collar, wrists, etc., because the whole suit seals against your skin. At the same time, the stuff makes the suit slide on easier, at least when it's dry. Both claims seem to be true. The potential problem is that the suit may be more fragile because it lacks nylon cloth reinforcement on one side. I have not yet seen or heard of these slick-inside suits coming apart in unusual numbers, but the jury is still out. Meanwhile, these suits do go on easier, dry faster and (assuming a good fit) should be warm. Harvey's is the only farmer john I've seen that has a somewhat adjustable collar. Quality of the neoprene itself is high: this suit tied for second place in the compression resistance test. Harvey's says it has lots of titanium too, for those of you who believe those claims. The jacket can be ordered with an attached hood, or an exceptionally good bibbed hood is available). This one is a Testers' Choice for the slick lining, the huge choice of sizing and the compression resistance of the neoprene. Just don't look at the price tag.

Nominal thickness: 7mm (with 5mm panels in the arms and legs).
Compression resistance: Good.
Sizes: 17 men's, 12 women's, 7 youth.
Price: $458 for both; add $180 for custom sizing. The suit is also available in 5mm/3mm and 3mm.
Contact: Harvey's Skindiving Suits, (206) 824-1114.

One Good Bibbed Hood

Problem: The bib usually seals poorly with the jacket collar.

Solution: Harvey's puts a sealing surface on the outside of the bib, to mate with a similar seal on the inside of the jacket collar. The inside of the hood itself is smooth, so it will slip over your ears with less pain. It has a chin cup and seems well shaped. It only lacks a bubble vent, but you can make your own with a hot nail.

Henderson 7mm Gold Core John or Jane and Jacket

| | Henderson 7mm Gold Core John or Jane and Jacket| Rating: ****

Henderson was the first wetsuit maker to promote the smooth lining idea in a big way, but in fact the idea is not new. Old-timers remember wetsuits with bare, smooth neoprene inside. You couldn't get them on without talcum powder or soap, but once they were on, they were very warm because they stuck to your skin and reduced water flow inside. In its new incarnation, the smooth surface is also slippery, at least when dry, so the suit is actually easier to put on than a nylon-lined one. The neoprene is unusually soft and stretchy, giving you more freedom of movement than is usual in a 7mm wetsuit. It is also less likely to wrinkle or bag--wrinkles and bags are the water pumps that suck in the cold ocean.

Nominal thickness: 7mm.
Compression resistance: Poor.
Sizes: 12 men's, 6 women's; custom sizing available.
Price: $439.
Contact: Henderson Aquatics, (609) 825-4771.

Mares 42° Parallel

| | Mares 42° Parallel| Rating: ***

This is a no-nonsense traditional farmer john with no fancy seals. Even the zipper flap is nylon-faced. No ankle or wrist zippers to leak or make dressing easier, no high-stretch panels for flexibility. But the neoprene is of high quality, scoring best on the compression resistance test. And the price is right.

Nominal thickness: 6.5mm.
Compression resistance: Good.
Sizes: 6 men's, 4 women's.
Price: Jacket, $124; john or jane, $104.
Contact: Mares America, (800) 874-3236.

O'Neill 7mm 7000X John/Jacket

| | O'Neill 7mm 7000X John/Jacket| Rating: ***

Wrists and ankles have narrow seals. The collar of the jacket is adjustable with a Velcro tab and has a wide, slick seal around about two-thirds of your neck. Strangely, under the long adjusting tab it is nylon-faced. The jacket zipper has a flap but no sealing surfaces. Ankles and wrists have no zippers, but high-stretch panels instead. The torso of the john and jane is lined with an unusual fabric. It's a 76 percent polyester, 24 percent polyurethane mixture that is claimed to retain some air (and, therefore, increase insulation). This might work for surfers whose torso is out of the water a lot of the time and who stay at or near the surface, but divers should expect all this air to be driven out before they reach 30 feet.

Nominal thickness: 7mm.
Compression resistance: Fair.
Sizes: 11 men's (including tall and short sizes), 10 women's.
Price: $399.99 for both.
Contact: O'Neill, (831) 475-7500.

Performance Expedition Jacket & John/Jane

| | Performance Expedition Jacket & John/Jane| Rating: *

This could have been a very good wetsuit, with seals at zipper, ankles and wrists. Too bad they don't work. Performance seems to be, as the saying goes, unclear on the concept. The long jacket zipper has skin-surfaced flaps that are meant to mate, except that the flap on the right side is positioned wrong. Instead of the two flaps overlapping smoothly, one or the other will scrunch up. The resulting fold or wrinkle will be a water channel. The wrists and ankles have wide sealing areas inside, but each is crossed by a zipper. The gusset behind the zipper will also bunch up and provide a water channel. Then there's the plush lining for "extra insulation," the catalog says, when in fact a smooth lining is warmer. Plush--like nylon only much worse--provides another channel for water to flow through. It's only warm when it's dry. If you happen to fit one of the sizes exceptionally well, this suit might be OK, but with so few sizes offered that's not likely, and you won't know till after you've bought it. Too bad, because the neoprene itself is of pretty good quality judging by its resistance to compression. The one shown here, by the way, cost $225.43, including regular shipping, and it arrived in 10 days. Cheap, but not a bargain.

Nominal thickness: 6.5mm.
Compression resistance: Good.
Sizes: 5 men's, 4 women's.
Price: $99.99 for each piece.
Contact: Performance Diver, (800) 933-2299.

SeaQuest Contour 7 Two-Piece

| | SeaQuest Contour 7 Two-Piece| Rating: ****

The Contour 7 has a well-sealed zipper treatment similar to Bare's. The flap behind it has a slick surface that mates with another slick surface on the inside of the suit. The latter is folded in such a way as to create a ridge that presses into the flap, improving the seal. The forearms and calves have clever seals similar to Bare's "flip seals." A ring of thin neoprene is sewn inside along one edge. The other edge will snug against your skin. When you push your leg or arm through, the ring flips so that its sealing side is against your skin. Even the neck has a sealing surface on the inside. (A bibbed hood with a matching surface on the outside would be a good idea.) The ankle zippers make the john or jane easier to put on, and have gussets behind to limit water intrusion and Velcro flaps on top to hold the zippers closed. The farmer jane also has a side zipper. The neoprene resists compression pretty well. This wetsuit was next-to-thickest of the seven at a simulated 90 feet.

Nominal thickness: 7mm.
Compression resistance: Good.
Sizes: 7 men's, 6 women's.
Price: Jacket, $195; john or jane, $180.
Contact: SeaQuest, (760) 597-5000.