Tuesday, December 25, 2012

No more cold hands: Ianovated wetsuit review

Keeping the hands warm in cold weather windsurfing is the critical issue for most windsurfers. Many of my friends who stop windsurfing sometime between October and December mention cold hands as the primary or even only reason (most of them have dry suits or very warm wetsuits). On the "Eastern and central USA" section of the iWindsurf forum, the "Which gloves are best" topic comes up every year when temperatures drop.

My lovely wife and I have found several solutions that have let us sail through the Cape Cod winter the last couple of years. She likes neoprene mittens, I prefer two-layer solutions like palmless gloves and nylon shells; but whatever we have used in the past, it has always made us sail conservatively: staying out of the water was way more important than trying fun stuff.

I believe that this is about to change! Several things have changed that make winter windsurfing easier: we finally got a van; we moved to Cape Cod, so that the drive to the best winter windsurfing spots is now only 40 minutes instead of 2 hours; and we have a jacuzzi and a sauna to warm up after a session. But the biggest difference will be the new wetsuit I recently received from Ianovated. I had an opportunity to test it in 38º F (4º C) weather two days ago, and it worked beautifully, keeping me and my hands nicely warm. Here's the full report.

The idea behind the suit
The idea behind the suit is nicely described on the Ianovated web site: breathe out into tubes which then go through your suit and into mittens or regular gloves. The warm air of your breath warms up your hands while you are holding your boom. This allows you to constantly blow into your hands to warm them up, without having to take breaks! After first reading about the suit, I had tested the idea with some tubing and a regular semi-dry neoprene suit. It worked well enough, so I ordered the Ianovated suit.

Getting the suit
Right after my test, I contacted Ian, the inventor of the suit. He offered me the same great deal that he offered on a German windsurf forum. He shipped the suit from the UK the next day (Monday), and I received the suit 3 days later (Thursday). I had asked him to also send me a second suit for anyone who wanted to try the suit, and he did! I received a large smooth skin suit that I use, and a medium double-nylon suit for anyone who wants to test in on Cape Cod. He even added some open palm mittens for the test suit.

First impressions
The first thing I noticed when unpacking the suit was that the neoprene felt quite thick. I sometimes use an Ion 5/4 semi-dry suit; the Ianovated suit has neoprene at least as thick, but appears to use the same material for the entire suit, including arms and legs. The legs, upper body, and arms are cut quite wide. That makes it easy to get the suit on, and leaves plenty of space for the tubing, but raised the question how warm it would be.
I used the suit for the first time the next day, but air temperatures that day were about 50º F (10º C), warm enough that my open palm mittens were perfectly fine, even without breathing through the tubes into the mittens. I noticed that my lower arms getting tired, but that was at least partially because I had to use a wave sail on a slalom board in gusty conditions, and used my hands much more than normally. Still, I had seen similar problems with other suits when I first got them, and placed a couple of plastic bottles into the arms of the suit over night to stretch out the neoprene. That has always worked so far, and worked again this time

Testing the suit in cold weather
Two days later, on December 23rd, I got the opportunity to really test the suit. The air temperature was about 39º F (4º C), with 25 mph winds:

Due to a somewhat different forecast, we arrived at Hardings Beach in Chatham a bit too late. We initially saw two of the locals (JE and PK) planing on 5.2 and 5.3 m sails, but by the time we had rigged, the wind had come down quite a bit. I re-rigged from 5.5 to 6.5, and went out on my Tabou 3S 96. That turned out to be the right choice - I was powered for about 40 minutes, until the wind dropped further and I had to call it a day. Here is a short video:

I wore a short sleeve neoprene shirt under the suit, mostly because I find this more comfortably when changing into and out of the suit. I started to use the tubing when carrying my gear to the water, and it warmed up my hands nicely. During the session, I breathed out through the tubes about half of the time, and just left the tubing dangle most of the rest of the time. With the given temperatures, I normally would have had to take a break after a couple of runs to warm up my hands - but with the Ianovated wetsuit, I did not need any breaks, since I simply could breathe onto my hands to warm them up. That worked very well, and my hands were comfortable the entire time. I did fall several times, and had to swim after my gear once. When getting back up on the board, my hands would be a bit cold from the swimming (the water temperature was about 44ºF, 7º C). I typically started to use the tubing once I was comfortably planing again. After a swim, there would be some water in the tubes that had to be blown out first - but that turned out to be a great thing, since the water warmed up very quickly, so my fingers would get a warm water rinse. Nice!

When watching the video above, keep in mind that I am mostly a flatwater sailor - and I mean really flat. I usually don't jump, but rather try to keep the board on the water, and I don't do waves. In the short session, I did several jumps that were decent for my standards and the marginal conditions. I also played around with the little waves a bit (at least when I did not have to concentrate on going upwind or staying on a plane). For me, this was a playful session - very different from a typical winter session! The fear of falling, which had been pretty noticeable in previous winter sessions, was mostly gone, since I knew that I would be able to warm up my hands easily when back on the board. The suit kept the rest of my body very warm, too, including my arms and legs. I did feel tiny amounts of water entering the suit, mostly through the seams. However, the amounts were so small that they never were any problem - they may even have helped a bit once they were warmed up. I has definitely warmer than I would have been in my Ion 5/4 semidry suit: when wearing the Ion, my arms sometimes get a bit chilly, and water that enters through the back zipper can also feel cold, despite the back flap and a neoprene shirt.

My other winter suit is a baggy dry suit, the Boost from O'Neill. The Boost usually keeps me warm, but I try to avoid high impact crashes, which can force water into the suit. Once inside, water can make the suit feel clammy and cold. In contrast, the Ianovated suit is a typical wetsuit, where any water that enters warms up very quickly, and is not a problem. Like any neoprene suit, the Ianovated suit is definitely much better suited for swimming to catch up with your gear after a fall than the baggy dry suit.

Summary: A great winter wetsuit!
After reading about the Ianovated wetsuit and my own tubing tests, I had high expectations for the suit, but it has clearly exceeded my expectations. Even without the tubing, I think this would be my favorite suit amongst the three suits I own, because it is very warm and easy to swim in. With the tubing, which works wonderfully to keep my hands warm, the Ianovated wetsuit is simple a stroke of genius. In 39º F (4º C) weather, I used the tubings only about half the time to keep my fingers warm - this leaves plenty of room for the air and water temperatures to drop even further (although I usually only go windsurfing when the air temperature is above freezing).

The only bad thing about the Ianovated wetsuit is that I did not discover it in October, when some of my friends were still sailing who now have stopped for the winter. Had they been able to try the suit when they started to think about stopping because of cold fingers, I am sure many of them would have bought the suit and extended their season. But anyone who still is sailing and wants to try the Ianovated wetsuit on Cape Cod, let me know! As I said, I have an extra size medium suit for testing, and I'll be glad to let anyone I know try my size large suit, too. If you don't know how to get in touch with me, ask JE, or send me (boardsurfr) a private message on the iWindsurf forum.
Disclosure: I am not affiliated with or sponsored by Ianovated, nor will I receive anything from them if anyone decided to by a suit after reading this or testing a suit. But I do have to admit some self-interest: I would like to see more windsurfers sail through the winter, especially my friends who stop because of cold hands. The Ianovated worked so well that for the first time ever, I actually considered doing freestyle in the winter, something I have always shied away from since it involves frequent falling.