Dress for the Water: A Comparison of Cold Weather Options
The days are starting to get longer, and here in the South we’ve had some extremely unseasonably warm weather lately, but the water is still cold. My flatwater paddling venues still are well below the 50-degree mark, which means even on the days pushing 70 degrees air temp wise, I am still going to wear the suit. I always dress for the water temperature…it’s just safer that way, especially if I am paddling alone.
Let’s face it, dry suits just aren’t fun nor are they especially comfortable. I have a wonderful Kokatat kayaking drysuit designed for whitewater paddling but it is extremely difficult to get in and out of and it is very bulky. Totally not suitable for interval training. The neck and wrist gaskets are so tight I feel like I am going to either be strangled or lose my hands. And that’s after stretching the gaskets. Fortunately, there are now options more suited – pun intended – to our sport but they come with their own sets of pros and cons. Based on what I see folks paddling in, I decided to take a look at two of them, the Starboard All Star Sup Suit and Ocean Rodeo’s Heat Drysuit.
Some general issues that apply to both suits: Fit. It is just really hard to mass produce sizes that are going to appropriately accommodate every type of body shape. I found this to be the case with both the Starboard and the Ocean Rodeo suits, but in different places. The Starboard suit on smaller folks can be long in the crotch and the neck opening can be too large. On the ocean Rodeo, there is bit too much fabric in the chest area, at least in the size I chose.
Starboard All Star SUP Suit
Starboard brought this to market a year or so ago. It is lightweight, breathable and very easy to get in and out of. But let’s be clear, it is not a true dry suit. Starboard is correct not to market it as such. Why? Because the neck gasket is neoprene. Neoprene is permeable. That means water can get in.
True drysuits have rubber/latex neck, wrist and ankle gaskets that fit tight and keep the water out, like my Kokatat suit. This is one of the reasons why the All-Star suit is more comfy. Since the neck is neoprene, you do not feel like you are going to choke to death. You can also easily vent the suit if you start to get overheated. You just have to remember to close the neck back up at some point, otherwise you risk flooding the suit. Flooding is bad news – remember those rubber gaskets on the wrists and ankles? They not only keep water from coming it, they keep it from going out as well. So any water that comes in to the suit stays there. That can weigh you down and make self-rescue after a fall difficult. Water is heavy. Getting back on your board with a suit full of it will be hard. And then you’ll be in a suit with cold water. No bueno.
Here is where fit comes in. Many of us ladies have complained that the neoprene gasket doesn’t adequately close around our necks. It’s just too big and leaves a gap. A gap that invites flooding, should you submerge for any length of time.
Also, the Sup suit is is meant to be more form-fitting. The fabric is stretchy, which is part of what makes it comfortable, as well as lightweight.
Now, if the risk is low that you will take a fall, then the suit is awesome. Lightweight and comfy. Easy to deploy. You will however, run the risk of looking a bit like a Federation science officer from Star Trek: The Next Generation if you chose the blue and black model. Just sayin’.
In the event you do take a fall, chances are you are not going to fully submerge the neck long enough to get much water in. You will still feel the chill from the water, but it will be bearable for the short term and you will be dry. But on a rough day or in surf, this may not be the best choice. I took a header off my board in some rough conditions the first time I used it and got a significant amount of water in the suit because of the poor fit at the neck.
As for care, watch how you treat the wrist and ankle gaskets. They can be easy to snag and tear on things like watches or booties. I have already had to replace my ankle gasket because it ripped after getting caught on the velcro buckle on my bootie.
This will be my go-to suit on warmer, calmer days when the water temperature gets back into the mid to high fifties and above.
Pros: Very lightweight and packable, comfortable all around, highly breathable, not bulky, velcro wrist closures, best suited for calm, light conditions.
Cons: Semi-dry, fit for smaller folks can be an issue, neck closure can be cumbersome.
Ocean Rodeo Heat Drysuit
Unlike the All Star, this suit is a true drysuit with a latex neck gasket. But this one does not choke me. It is actually comfortable. I have no idea why. But it is and it works. Ocean Rodeo has been around for a while, designing drysuits specifically for water sports that are more aerobic than sit down kayaking. These suits are designed for SUP, kiteboarding and windsurfing. While the fabric is still breathable, it is a bit thicker and stiffer – no stretchiness here. Yet during a recent interval session I did not feel any more uncomfortable than I would have in the lighter Starboard suit. Even though there fabric seems more substantial, I did not feel hampered in any way paddling. Comfort while cranking out the paddle strokes during interval sessions in both suits felt the same.
I chose the option of having “footies” on this suit – Ocean Rodeo calls them “socks.” Instead of gaskets at the ankles, there are feet made out of the same material as the rest of the suit. Think onesie. The advantages to this: Booties go on and off easily over them, the add an extra layer of warmth, and it’s two less gaskets to worry about failing. The disadvantages: You can’t wear this suit barefoot or with split toe booties, and you have to be careful that the fabric doesn’t tear. Just don’t walk around without something else on your feet.
Another huge difference between this suit and the Starboard, or really any other drysuit for that matter, is the design. At first glance the Heat looks like two pieces – a jacket and pants. In other words, you do not look like someone needs to beam you up. You just look like you are in rain gear. Personally, if function follows form (and we know it does not) this suit is more flattering.
The jacket feature, when combined with the U-shaped waterproof zipper, which runs from side to side at the chest around your neck, allows you to go in “stand-by mode.” This means you can suit up, but not deploy the neck gasket over your head, then zip up the jacket – for comfort. You’ll still be protected from the elements, just not hermetically sealed inside. This is a fantastic feature.
The Heat comes with removable elastic suspenders which help keep everything in the right place, especially if you have the suit completely unzipped, from gasket to jacket. One thing that would make a good addition, to aid in fit, would be velcro wrist closures on the jacket sleeves.
The jacket has one small pocket on the left side, just the right size for a phone. I wish it was a tad bigger. And I wish there were more pockets – like another on the jacket and maybe a cargo pocket on the thigh. Upgrading to one of OR’s other models – the Soul or the Ignite – will get you more pockets as well as a hood.
Overall, I feel more confident in being able to withstand water temperatures in the ’40s in this suit.
Pros: Fully dry, comfortable gaskets, pocket, stand-by mode option, footie option. Suitable for rougher conditions.
Cons: A bit more bulky than the Starboard suit, addition of one larger pocket would increase functionality, addition of velcro at wrists would help with fit, round-toe booties only.