The Belize Issue
By Jason Heaton
on 3.6.14
Photo by Gishani

Patagonia has always been a company with one foot in the mountains and one in the sea — climbing and skiing one day, surfing and paddling the next. When they introduced wetsuits to their lineup a few years ago, it was a big leap for the company, but not one they were unqualified to make. In fact, their experience building warm, lightweight and bombproof alpine gear transferred well to wetsuits, which we found out recently while testing the R1 wetsuit ($349) during a week of diving in Belize.

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Water conducts heat away from the body 20 times faster than air, which is why even a couple dives in tropical waters can leave you feeling chilled. Divers have long known about the need for exposure protection. In the early days, they would contort themselves into ill-fitting, clingy rubber suits, using talcum powder to facilitate entry. In the early 1960s, neoprene wetsuits made their debut — first used by surfers — and were a huge improvement over rubber suits.

Wetsuits work because body heat transfers to the air pockets in the neoprene foam and continues to insulate despite the rest of the suit getting saturated with water. The problem is, colder water demands a thicker suit and a thicker suit is less comfortable; it requires that a diver wear more weight in order to counteract the buoyancy and be able to descend. So, while wetsuits have improved since the 1960s, warmth still equates to bulk. For really cold water, you can don a drysuit, but that requires an additional air hose, additional training and a lot of additional money. For water over 65 degrees, a wetsuit is still the way to go.

Patagonia’s wetsuits are designed, first and foremost, for surfing. Surfing wetsuits differ from their diving brethren mainly in form and features. Zippers are on the back since there are no tanks to snag on and you won’t have to lie on a zipper when you’re paddling out to the break. Surfing suits are also cut more athletically for the greater arm movement required during surfing.

These features made the R1 no less suited for our diving. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the R1, and of Patagonia wetsuits in general, is the insulation lining. Here is where Patagonia’s background making warm outdoor gear really shines through. If Polarfleece and wool can keep you warm even when wet and hanging off of a rock wall in the Alps, why couldn’t that also be true in a wetsuit paddling out at Maverick’s or diving in a cold current?

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The advantage of insulating a wetsuit is that it’s not only those neoprene air pockets that keep you warm. By adding insulation, the suit stays less bulky while still adding warmth. The R1 is lined in recycled polyester grid fabric, not unlike that used to construct Patagonia’s Capilene baselayers. While the Caribbean Sea is typically warm enough not to worry much about insulation, we went in December when northerly currents keep water temperatures in the upper 70s. That might not sound cold, but a day of diving in 78-degree water can be chilling. Compared to our old 3-millimeter suit, the 2.5-millimeter R1 with insulation stayed noticeably warmer and more comfortable, even after repeated 60-minute dives.

Patagonia’s legendary build quality is evident in the R1 wetsuit. All seams are externally heat welded, critical wear points are reinforced and bar-tacked, and the knees are padded with a grippy material that is perhaps more suited for a surfboard but equally appreciated for the wear and tear of climbing on and off boats. The most impressive feature of the R1 is the internal neck seal, which supplements the standard hook-and-loop neck closure. This extra seal hangs in back of the suit; you slip it over your head and it seals against your neck before you reach back and pull up the rear zipper. The result is a snug fit like no other wetsuit we’ve tried. In fact, the seal at the neck, combined with the heat-pressed wrist and ankle holes, made for such a tight seal that we actually had to vent the suit a bit to allow water in to descend. The snug fit and extra neck seal did make donning and doffing a bit more difficult, but you’re only doing it once or twice a day, so it’s a minor complaint. Overall, the suit fit very well, tight with no flabby bits of extra material (which we can’t necessarily say for its wearer). This means extra care should be taken when ordering so you get the right fit.

One thing we did notice at the end of our week in the R1 was a distinctive odor. If you’ve ever rented a wetsuit while diving on vacation somewhere, you know that neoprene holds odor, especially when it’s used for a long time in saltwater, peed in (not us!) and stored in a damp place. Add in a layer of insulating polyester, another material known for its odor-retaining characteristics, and you’ve got a recipe for a stink bomb. A good soaking in baby shampoo back home seemed to clear up the smell, but we advise thorough fresh water rinsing after every use and the occasional soak in a mild soap to make sure you’re not the guy everyone sits upwind of on your next dive trip.

The Patagonia R1 is a $350 wetsuit, which may elicit sticker shock for divers used to buying cheap shorties or closeout suits in neon colors. But Patagonia’s philosophy has always been to build top-quality gear that lasts so you don’t have to replace it for a very long time. This philosophy is evident in its wetsuits. Saltwater, abrasion and the abuse inherent with diving (or surfing) can take their toll on neoprene wetsuits. The R1 is built to last so you can stop shopping for wetsuits every couple of years and spend your money on trips and umbrella drinks.