Friday, May 10, 2013

Diving In A Drysuit: A Tropical Experience

Great capture! Picture taken from Santi Italy's Facebook

At the recent ADEX, Living Seas displayed the drysuits from Fourth Element, as well as Santi ones at the Living Seas-Santi booth, and the most common question we got was "Isn't it too warm to dive in a drysuit in the tropics? You guys do that??". There were just as many curious visitors who came up to look at the suits, and have a feel of it. 

I got my first drysuit three years ago after finding out that I have to dive in one if I wanted to take the GUE Cave 1 course in Mexico. A group of our local GUE divers had then just returned after completing their Cave 1 course, and their feedback was that the long hours in the water necessitated the need for a drysuit. With the US dollar still strong at that time, I decided to go for a then new entrant to the local market, the Polish brand, Santi. After getting measured up, I waited for another month or two and it had arrived. After cutting the wrist and neck latex seals to the appropriate width that would suit me, I was ready to go.

Undergarments. Before I could dive with it, I had to pick up undergarments to go with the drysuit. When I was told that one reason why I needed undergarment was to keep me warm, I was like "Come on, are you kidding? I'm already wearing a drysuit in the tropics, how am I gonna get cold?". Well, just like a wetsuit, with increasing exposure (time in water) and variable water temperature, there's a good chance that I could get cold. Then there's the issue of keeping dry.. not from the water, but from your perspiration. 

A complete set of undergarments set me back another couple of hundred bucks, and I decided on the Fourth Element (that was before Living Seas became the distributor) based on the recommendations of the divers. Initially, I felt that pulling on the long sleeve top and full legging bottom undergarment.. well, just felt a bit excessive when everyone was running around in their swimmers. I decided to try my first dive in just a dry-fit tee shirt and a pair of board shorts. I felt perfectly fine when I was diving in it, but when I opened up the zipper, I was soaked from my perspiration. Mind you, I wasn't overheating because I felt perfectly comfortably. We do perspire even when we're diving in a wetsuit, it's just that we don't notice it. So results from the first dive without proper undergarment: fail. The dryfit wasn't keeping me dry because it just wasn't able to wick the moisture from my skin quick enough. The subsequent dives were done in my Fourth Element Xerotherm, and I was both comfortably warm and importantly, dry after the dive. You might feel a bit of a damp feeling falling down to your feet as you open up the zipper, but that's just the condensation when the air inside of your wetsuit comes in contact with the ambient air. 

Floaty Feet. Ah yes... "floaty feet". The bane of many new drysuit owners. While researching on drysuit diving, I'd read plenty about divers using gaiters around their shins to prevent the air in the drysuit from getting into the boots, hence throwing the diver head first, or over-trimming. The reason why you would need to put air into your drysuit is prevent the ambient pressure from squeezing the suit against your body. Put in just enough to avoid the squeeze, and remember to dump the air (from the exhaust valve on your arm) as it expands when you're ascending. I don't use my suit as an inflation device: buoyancy control is done via my wing. My rationale for that is.. well, why is the air in a jacket more difficult to dump compared to a wing? Because of the cutting and shape, it tends to trap air pockets. Similarly, the air might be stuck at different parts of your suit, so managing your buoyancy via your wing would be the most efficient. The more air you have in your suit, the higher the possibility of the air getting to your boots if you're not careful.

I've read so much about "floaty feet" and how to deal with it, but nothing beats actually experiencing it yourself. It felt like the boot and foot pocket of my fins suddenly getting roomier. Coming off trim and straightening one leg at a time helps bring the air to your torso again (there are other methods too). But I had no idea what that feeling was when it first happened to me, and just like a runaway ascent, I found myself floating uncontrollably, feet first. It was a very humbling experience for me because I hadn't had an uncontrolled ascent since my Open Water days. Fortunately, it was at a depth of about 5 metres and in a sheltered part of the island where no boats could enter. I've heard about divers whose fin had popped off their foot, forced off by the expanding air pocket in the boot. Be sure to know how to dump the air out your suit, and yes, always check that your dump valve is open. 

Answering nature's call. Speaking of valves, there's another valve that is just as critical that you check to make sure that it's opened, and that's the pee valve. Unlike a wetsuit, there's just no way for you to pee in your drysuit, so you've gotta hold your pee until it's time to surface, swim back, get your gear off, run to the nearest toilet, get your suit off, then comes relief. Fortunately, there's the pee valve. The alternative to the pee valve is to wear adult diapers. Without going into too much details, the pee valve is at the end of a tube that you pee into via a catheter, while women use a device called the "she-pee". I gotta say that peeing in a drysuit can be an unnerving feeling the first time because of the fear that an accident may happen, but you'll get used to it. As they say, if you've gotta go, you gotta go. 

Why dive dry? So with all these things to look out for, what bother diving in a drysuit? I'll share with you the ad for a brand of drysuit: in the picture, there were 2 log books, one really thin one, and another one which was really thick. Under the thin one, it read "log of dives done in a wetsuit", and under the thick one, it read "log of dives done in a drysuit". And that's really true. With a drysuit, you can literally dive anywhere around the world, and all you have to be is to wear a thicker set of undergarments, a hood and a pair of dry gloves when diving in cold water. When I dive in the tropics with my drysuit, I just use a set of thin undergarment, which not only wicks the moisture away from my body when I'm diving, the undergarment is also cool enough to be worn during surface interval. Because of the fact that you're wet after diving in a wetsuit, chances are you'll be feeling cold, whereas with a drysuit, you'll be feeling perfectly comfortable.

My rationale for diving dry is simply.. why not? It may be a bit of a learning curve diving dry initially, but once you get used to it, you'll be able to dive in just about anywhere in the world. A friend of mine who dives dry was teasing us about struggling to put on our wetsuits while she was able to slip in and out of her drysuit quickly and easily. I know there are many divers who prefer diving in just a rash guard and shorts, but I like to be prepared for a situation when thermal protection or being well covered becomes a necessity and not just a hassle. 

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