|By Matt Lind, Splash Dive's Freediving Expert
“When is a Freediving Suit Not a Freediving Suit?” Well when you’re not Freediving in it of course!
There are very few eureka moments when it comes to new dive gear, the moments when you try a new piece of kit for the first time and immediately wonder how you’ve gone on so long without it. Using a Freediving suit for the first time is almost always one of those moments; you notice how much more flexible it is as soon as you put it on, you enter the water gritting your teeth waiting for a cold flush that never comes and then when you get out of the water you don’t have the urge to immediately take the suit off either as it’s comfortable enough to wear topside as well. Now you know this suit is different.
So what is a Freediving suit and what makes it different? There are a few major differences in design that separate a freedive suit from suits designed for other sports. These differences are driven by the unique demands of Freediving and spearfishing the main one being that it must be suitable for all day use. Spearfishers will typically be in the water for 3 or 4 hours per dive and will usually stay in their suit between dives. This means that the suit must be very warm so they don’t get cold either in or out of the water and that the suit must be supremely flexible and comfortable enough to have on all day.
There are two main features of these suits that achieve these demands. The first is the material used and the second is the design. You’re probably aware that wetsuits trap a layer of water next to you your skin which your body warms and in turn keeps you warm. The big difference between suits is how much energy it takes to heat that water and more importantly how much energy it takes to keep it warm. The neoprene insulates the warm water inside the suit from the cold water outside so the thicker and better the neoprene the warmer the suit. It is not the neoprene itself that insulates but the gas bubbles within the foam. Therefore the more and the bigger the bubbles the warmer it will be. This is referred to as the density of the neoprene. Freediving suits are usually a low to medium density. Not only does this lower density make the suit warmer it also makes it a lot more flexible. The flipside of using low density foam is that it is generally more susceptible to compression at depth but with modern, high quality neoprenes this isn’t an issue until we’re talking about depths greater than 20 or 30m.
The other half of the materials equation is the linings covering the neoprene foam. Your average scuba or surf suits are double lined meaning there’s a lining on the inside and outside of the suit whereas most Freediving suits are single lined or have ‘open cell’ interiors. The inside of the suit is raw neoprene with no lining of any sort or seams to rub or chafe. The open cells of the neoprene stick to your skin allowing the absolute minimum of water into the suit and preventing the water that is permitted entry from moving around and cooling down. The interior is so sticky in fact that you have to use soapy water to lubricate the suit to get it on. This sounds a bit weird but filling your suit with hot water from a thermos on a frosty morning is bliss.
The second part of the equation is the design of the suit. All Freediving suits are two piece with attached hoods. The reason for this is very simple – it is the most water tight design possible without having to resort to zips. Zips let water in and out. Not only do they cool the suit down but because they don’t stretch they stiffen it as well. This also forces the neoprene around the zip to stretch twice as much so it’s often the seams around zips that fail first.
The two piece design is superior to one piece suits as it means that there is a double layer of neoprene over your core which boosts warmth without losing flexibility of your limbs. It also allows for a better fit as you can mix and match jacket and long john sizes to accommodate different body shapes.
It is these features and the uncompromising dedication to warmth and all day comfort that are making these suits popular with all kinds of professional divers. Commercial paua and kina divers have been using them for years but they’re now being used in all manner of salvage, construction and military applications as well. Basically anyone who needs to stay warm in the water for extended periods will find these suits ideal. So if you’re thinking of getting into a new suit give one a go. I guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised.