It wasn't quite cold enough to bring on what surfers call ice-cream headaches, but the thought of 15 mph winds and 59F water off Santa Cruz had me shivering. Yet a couple of hours later, I emerged warm, if exhausted, from a surfing lesson in the choppy soup with Jack O'Neill and son, Pat, of the water sport company O'Neill Inc. Wet suits have come a long way since the 1950s, when Jack O'Neill made his first with plastic, foam rubber, and a soldering iron. O'Neill's Animal, the $500 model I was wearing, is one of the most advanced on the market, a black number with high-tech grooves for extra flexibility.
In our sampling of new models and styles, my colleagues and I found that there's no such thing as a standard wet suit anymore: New designs and materials allow waterwear to be tailored to specific sports, water temperatures, and proficiency levels. Body surfers can opt for inexpensive, ultralight lycra vests or suits to thwart sunburn and scrapes. At the other extreme are head-to-toe insulators for deep-water diving, such as Henderson Aquatics' $580 semidry model equipped with a chemical pack that generates heat under water to warm your back.
Suits must offer warmth and freedom of movement. Some companies, such as Body Glove and O'Neill, make a wide variety, while suppliers such as Parkway focus on one sport, such as diving. Start your shopping by examining the demands of your sport and the water temperatures you typically encounter.
STAYING LOOSE. The prone-to-upright snap that surfers make to catch a wave demands a flexible suit, particularly in the shoulders, lower back, and thighs. Riders of shorter "boogie boards," who usually stay prone, don't need so much flexibility, but they need warmth. Surf East's model SE701, for about $130, with short arms and legs, kept BUSINESS WEEK's "Boogie Bob" Barker happy in 66F water off Long Island. But Rhode Island's icy waters at such surf spots as Narragansett in January might demand the $420 SE900 Winter Suit.
Windsurfers' arm muscles pump up as they hold the sail's boom, and the squeeze of a tight wet suit becomes tiring. BARE, Gul, Ronny, and Victory keep the upper torso and forearms fairly loose on their board sailing suits but are watertight at the ankles.
Most wet suits are made of neoprene, a synthetic rubber that runs 1 mm to 8 mm in thickness. Thicker is warmer--but also more cumbersome, so most suits are 2 mm to 4 mm. The material's buoyancy is a minus for diversbut a plus for triathletes, as BUSINESS WEEK's David Greising found when he shaved three minutes off his one-mile-swim time in the $176 TR 850 "tri-suit" from Triumph Speedsuits.
Many waterskiers wear neoprene trunks, which provide warmth and padding--and don't slip off at high speeds the way simple suits can. Slalom and jump skiers can get a full-length suit with rib padding.
SEAMS CRITICAL. There are new materials on the market, too. One is Darlexx, which blends nylon, lycra, and a urethane film. It's lightweight, breathable yet windproof, and has some insulation. Sport Suits of Australia makes Darlexx suits that are popular in warm-water regions where it gets chilly when you dive down deep. We found them stiff and tight out of the box, but they loosen up when wet.
Although wet suits go for as little as $100, it's worth it to pay more for some features, especially good seams. The cheapest neoprene wet suits are overlock-stitched. But those seams let more water in, tear out easily, and can chafe wet skin, causing a rash. Look for a flatter stitch, or better yet, a suit whose seams are stitched, glued, and then taped. The zipper should be covered with another flap to keep cold water out.
Look for tough, flexible knees: The Kraton pads O'Neill and O'Brien use get raves. If you're headed for really cold water, booties, gloves, and caps are a must.
While wet suits used to be uncool--and not very warm, either--the new models help neophytes as well as the gnarliest dudes.