In the first years after World War II the bumptious new sport of skin-diving was inhibited by one frustrating reality: in water cooler than 65° diving was not much fun. Today, wearing form-fitting foam neoprene suits like those Shown in the pictures on these pages, the average amateur can tolerate temperatures down to 55°. And when snugly outfitted with pants, cap, gloves and boots of neoprene a competent underwater man will dive into anything except a solid block of ice.
These developments were not easily or quickly arrived at. In the late '40s divers on the West Coast used the watertight rubber suits that characterized wartime frogmen. These suits were based on the principle of keeping the water out. Getting into one of these early so-called "dry suits" was like climbing into a kangaroo's pouch. In some models the diver had to squirm his whole body through the neck hole. In others he got in through a slit in the front, and the slack fabric around the slit was then twisted into a knot and tied down at the waist like an oversized umbilical cord. The unlovely labor of getting dressed required count-down precision. If one diver in any group dressed too fast, he was apt to overheat, soak his insulating undergarments with sweat and thus defeat the purpose of his dry suit. Often some impatient novice would try to fight his way into his suit and rip it, whereupon his buddies would have to cease their own struggles and seal him back in with a tire-patching kit.
Actually, once inside his dry suit a diver was quite at ease. But though he was the champion of a beautiful cause, he cut a sorry figure poised at the water's edge. In a mixed group of divers, all padded with underwear, swaddled in black rubber and splotched with patches, it was hard to tell the girls from the boys. Both sexes looked as drab as a tramp banana boat.
Over the years dry suits improved both in usefulness and appearance, but in the meantime two California physicists came up with an entirely new idea: the so-called wet suit. Rather than fight the hard battle of keeping all the water out, it would be easier, the physicists figured, to design a suit that let a little—but only a little—water in. A bare-skinned diver traveling only a few hundred feet surrenders body heat extravagantly to a great volume of water, but if dressed in a form-fitting skin of insulating material that allowed very little circulation of water next to the body, the diver would need to warm up only a few pints to be comfortable in his travels.
January 30, 1961
The fabric used in the wet suits was foam neoprene, an industrial material which incorporates tiny gas-filled bubbles to increase its insulating capacity. The first suits made of neoprene were rather slack affairs, following old, impractical garment patterns that let the water circulate too freely. To reduce seepage of water, yet allow the diver freedom of movement, a good wet suit today is explicitly tailored to fit either the male or female form. With the girls now recognizable as such, the water everywhere is a trifle more appealing.
Foam neoprene is not only warming but very buoyant. Considering this, it is a wonder that wet suits as such did not actually precede skin-diving. Before skin-diving emerged from the cradle there were already swimmers, surfers and water skiers who shivered, suffered and sometimes drowned in the off season. Today the White Stag Company of Portland, a front runner in the refinement of wet suits, offers models specifically designed for swimming, wave riding and skiing. The sale of wet suits has trebled since 1958, reaching a volume of around 100,000 last year, with further increase expected as the suits find use in half a dozen sports. Duck hunters are using them—and also sailors, for whom the double virtue of warmth and buoyancy makes good, safe sense. Striper fishermen at Montauk and steelheaders in the Northwest have been caught using them. Stripermen and steelheaders are a chil-blained, masochistic lot. To them, anything new and comfortable is suspect, even if it looks good on a beautiful girl. When these diehard anglers start suiting up, the battle against cold water has been fairly won.