On November 28, 1998, in New Prague, Minnesota, I rode a Jet Ski. For that, I can thank some unbelievable weather (the air temperature was 62 degrees, 71 degrees warmer than the same date two years earlier) and my usual procrastination (I put off winterizing the SXi Pro until it was absolutely necessary).
The unsung hero in all of this, of course, was my wetsuit, which made the frigid water temperatures bearable. Had it not been for the 3 to 5mm layer of neoprene separating my skin from the water, I probably wouldn't have ventured much farther than the launch ramp.
For hardcore watercraft enthusiasts, the wetsuit has become something of an afterthought; it has become such a part of riding that most of us don't think much about it, where it came from or how it was developed.
However, it hasn't always been that way. In fact, wetsuits are a fairly recent phenomenon, dating back to 1952, when a hardcore surfer in northern California, Jack O'Neill, stitched together a suit out of neoprene so he could continue riding waves when the water started getting cold. Before O'Neill's first suit, there wasn't a whole lot that water-sports enthusiasts could do to combat the cold, except maybe suffer. Sure, there were grand experiments with bulky canvas suits or layered wool or even World War II flight suits, but none really worked, at least if you spent any time in the water.
And although the first wetsuits were bulky and uncomfortable, they were still better than anything else tried before and a heck of a lot better than staying out of the water. Over the next few years, more surfers and divers turned into entrepreneurs, creating many of the wetsuit labels that exist today.
If your watercraft roots go back to before 1986, if you used a wetsuit, it was probably manufactured by one of those companies and designed for surfing or water-skiing. The neoprene was probably thick, the color mostly black and the zipper located on the back. Handy little features such as padding in the knees and shins, a longer cut in back or more comfortable flat-stitched construction didn't exist because no one was making wetsuits with personal watercraft riders in mind.
All that changed in 1986, when three buddies from Carlsbad, California — Phil Johnson, Eric Baker and Scott Burnworth — began making personal watercraft-specific wetsuits in their garage. The suits featured padding on the shins and knees to protect the riders' legs while getting up on stand-ups, as well as a two-piece john-and-jacket design, which offered more versatility.
"Up until that time, most wetsuits you'd see for active water sports were one-piece," said Darren Attard of Jet Pilot, the company that sprang from those efforts. "You had a choice of either a full suit or a shorty, but that was about it. There were two-piece suits out there, but they were mostly for diving."
The basic color schemes also tended toward basic black-on-black or, if the designer was in a racy mood, black with a splash of blue or gray.
Jet Pilot's roots were in motocross — Burnworth was a professional motocross rider and Johnson and Baker also rode and competed — and the trio incorporated more of the bright and colorful designs of motocross gear into their wetsuits.
"I think the assumption of most companies was that the style had to be close to the surf market, which has always been pretty conservative," Attard said. "Actually, (our style) has always been closer to the motocross market."
That certainly seemed to be the case with another watercraft-wetsuit manufacturer located just down the road from Jet Pilot in San Diego. In 1986, Bob Maynard, the president of Thor, a manufacturer of motocross gear, was out riding motorcycles with two other buddies just north of San Diego.
"It was over 100 degrees out and we were just dying," Maynard said. "We were sitting on top of this hill and you could see the Pacific Ocean, and we all looked at each other and said, 'Enough of this.' I had just gotten a 440 and we decided to go Jet Skiing, but the water was still pretty cold. I remember going to a surf shop to buy a wetsuit and they wouldn't even sell me one once they knew what I was going to use it for. I ended up going to a dive shop and buying a big bulky suit with a beaver-tail closure that would go between your legs. It was awful, really uncomfortable, and that's when I decided we should build a wetsuit."
The first wetsuits built by Thor were marketed under the Hang Ten label, but in 1989, Maynard decided he had had enough of paying Hang Ten simply for a name and started producing suits under the Slippery When Wet brand.
"We showed them to dealers, and they flew off the shelves," Maynard said.
It helped that the colors matched those of personal watercraft and that there were purpose-specific features such as padded knees and shins and a roomier, more comfortable cut.
"I think watercraft riders liked them because they knew they were designed with riding watercraft in mind," Maynard said.
Over the years, watercraft wetsuits have diverged from surf and water-skiing suits in other ways. New materials have been introduced, as well as new designs and cuts that make them more comfortable to wear over the long haul.
As with the original wetsuits back in the '50s, neoprene remains the basic building block for wetsuits, though it has become more flexible, comfortable and economical over the years. In the watercraft market, nearly every suit is made with 3mm and 2mm neoprene, with the thicker pieces covering the trunk and back and the thinner layer in areas that move, such as the legs and arms.
However, not all neoprene is the same. You'll find variations between manufacturers, mainly in the flexibility and finish. Cheaper suits tend to use a stiffer neoprene, while better suits have softer and stretchier neoprene, with vibrant colors.
The colors come from nylon, which is laminated to the neoprene. If nylon has been attached to just one side of the suit, it's called nylon 1. Nylon 2 neoprene has nylon laminated on both sides. In addition to adding color, the nylon laminate can also reduce the amount of wind and water that is absorbed by the neoprene, as well as making it easier to get the suit on and off.
Other finishes also improve the insulating qualities. Smooth-skin neoprene, for examples, repels water and resists wind better, making it much warmer. That's why you'll typically see the smoothskin finish on the torso area, where insulation is key.
Over the past couple of years, some new types of synthetic rubbers have trickled into the market — hypalon, titanium-laminated neoprene and SCS (Super Composite Skin) are some examples — with either better insulating properties or a more comfortable feel.
Another area where wetsuits have changed over the years is in construction.
"One of the biggest changes, I think, is the increased use of flat-stitch seams," Maynard said. "Those early suits would leave seam marks all over you because they used over-lock or taped seams to keep out water. That's important in diving and surfing, where you're in the water most of the time, but with watercraft, it isn't worth the cost when it comes to loss of comfort."
Watercraft wetsuits also make more use of stretch materials such as Lycra for the same reason.
"In areas where there's a lot of movement, like under the arm or behind the knees, the stretch panels make a big difference," Attard said.
Designs have changed, though less drastically.
"Basically, what you're seeing is a looser cut, mainly because of the influence of sit-downs," Attard said.
Essentially, there are two basic types of suits on the market — one-piece suits and combos — though there are variations with each type.
One-piece suits are generally warmer and less expensive than combos are, but the drawback is that you sacrifice some versatility. With a two-piece suit, you can leave off the jacket or the john depending on the weather and water conditions, which in turn increases the suit's comfort zone.
As a result, most of the one-piece suits sold in the personal watercraft market are of the shorty design, featuring legs cut above the knee and sleeves cut above the elbows or in a john style. These suits are particularly ideal for warmer weather, and some riders will even find them suitable for cold-weather riding because they still cover the most important area of the body when it comes to staying warm: the trunk. Only the arms and legs are exposed, two areas of the body not as sensitive to cold.
Combos are two-piece suits: zippered jackets combined with johns (which are styled something like overalls) or pants or shorts. The two parts can be worn together or separately, adding to their versatility.
Jackets are usually waist-length and closed with a zipper in the front, back or side. Front zippers are easier to get in and out of, while back zippers are usually more comfortable during active riding. Most jackets are long-sleeved, though you can find some short-sleeved versions.
A john or jane (which is a women's version) covers the legs and trunk, providing a double layer of insulation in the trunk when worn with a jacket. Pants and shorts are used mainly for warm-weather riding and can also be combined with a jacket for greater warmth.
Most manufacturers make complementary johns, jackets, shorty johns and regular shorts, so you can mix and match throughout the year. Certainly, cost becomes an issue because you're buying so many pieces, but the various combinations ensure you'll have the right suit for the conditions.
And what is the right suit for the conditions? Well, it all depends.
Most wetsuit manufacturers suggest wearing a full suit or two-piece combo only when the air and water temperatures are both fairly cool, usually 70 degrees and below for both. As the water temperature rises, your need for insulation lessens, because water temperature is the biggest factor when determining what type of suit you need. Hence, you need more suit on an 80-degree day with water temperatures around 60 degrees than you would on a 70-degree day with water temperatures around 75 degrees.
You also have to take into consideration your riding style, how much time you spend in the water, and weather conditions. Stand-up riders generally need more suit than sit-down riders do because they typically spend more time in the water. Aggressive riders who throw off a lot of spray and occasionally get pitched off also need more suit. Weather also plays a role. Cloudy, windy conditions demand more insulation, whereas hot, desert-like weather can offset extremely cold water temperatures.
Whatever the style, personal watercraft wetsuits generally fit more loosely than they did eight or nine years ago, mainly because the type of riding has changed. In the age of the stand-up, suits needed to be tighter to prevent too much water from flushing through the suit while the rider was in the water. However, in the age of runabouts, riders generally spend less time in the water, and a looser fit offers better comfort, particularly when sitting. That's also why jackets and trunk areas are cut longer.
All of those changes have helped make wetsuits better suited to personal watercraft, which has improved their reason for being: to keep us out on the water longer.