Scientists, surfers, and our own reporter team up to design a better wetsuit

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Jessica Antenico, who’s engaged on a grasp’s in kinesiology at California State University in San Marcos, is collaborating in a wetsuit experiment there that research warmth loss.

Jon Cohen/Science

Scientists, surfers, and our own reporter team up to design a better wetsuit

One of the good joys of browsing is that once I enter the water, I’m off the grid. Yes, driving waves is a hoot, however I additionally love being out of contact with the whole lot that’s not in my speedy environment. I even refuse to put on a watch. So there was one thing blasphemous early on the sunny morning of 1 November once I paddled out at a surf spot close to my San Diego, California, house outfitted with eight miniature thermometers taped to my physique as a part of an uncommon wetsuit experiment being run by a gaggle of undergraduate college students on the bluff above me.

Like most critical surfers, I exploit the identical wetsuit for about three winters, and it will get extra put on and tear than any single article of clothes I own. But I don’t give any crucial, scientific thought to the way it works—or the way it is perhaps improved. Neither, it seems, do most wetsuitmakers, who’ve favored trial and error over experiments. Which is why I let the scholars, who’re taking a kinesiology class at close by California State University in San Marcos (CSUSM), wreck my Zen.

Kinesiologist Sean Newcomer, who teaches the scholars’ introductory class in train physiology, has been gathering real-world knowledge for the previous a number of years about warmth loss throughout surf classes, and he’s working with a main wetsuit producer, Hurley, to scale back it. “Lots of the surf industry is really resistant to getting any kind of scientific data,” says Newcomer, who, along with his CSUSM colleague, kinesiologist Jeff Nessler, has printed eight surf-related research over the previous Three years.

The newbie’s surf spot the place I met their college students is known as after Barney Rubble, the goofy finest good friend of Fred on The Flintstones; surfers have appropriated the identify as a charming and even affectionate slang for newbies. Newcomer and Nessler depend on undergraduate Barney researchers to go to its parking zone and recruit surfers into research there; in addition they conduct extra managed experiments in a flume—a pool that has a present—on campus. “We’re teaching STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] through the use of action sports,” says Newcomer, who has surfed since he was a youngster and nonetheless is within the water by daybreak on most days which have ridable waves. “Students are way more engaged than in the typical lab.” Of the 500 or so college students who’ve come by way of their programs, 100 have later sought internships with him.

A diver wears certainly one of Hugh Bradner’s first wetsuits (circa 1952).

Special Collections & Archives/UC San Diego Library

The wetsuit has a prestigious scientific heritage, although most analysis on the garment includes divers, long-distance swimmers, and different nonsurfers. One of its fathers (debates persist about who invented it) was Hugh Bradner, a University of California, Berkeley, physicist who labored on the Manhattan Project and after World War II wished to enhance on the drysuit utilized by the U.S. Navy’s underwater demolition groups. Drysuits maintain out water and require a person to put on clothes beneath to retain warmth, a getup that’s cumbersome and constricting. “If you’d ever used any of the so-called drysuits that the Navy had at that time, there’d be no question about the need for improvement,” Bradner stated in a 1999 interview. Bradner in 1951 ran his thought for a wetsuit—a garment that’s water-permeable however retains warmth—by William Bascom, a legendary researcher and renaissance man on the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, who urged he attempt Rubatex, a versatile kind of neoprene foam that’s nonetheless extensively used as pipe insulation.

The subsequent yr, Bradner ran pores and skin temperature measurements on Navy SEALs outfitted along with his neoprene go well with. “The military did cold water immersion studies, and that’s where lots of data about how to build wetsuits comes from,” Newcomer says. But surfers aren’t divers. “At no point in surfing are you intentionally sitting in water up to your neck.”

Indeed, once I surf, I stroll into the ocean till the water hits my waist and I then bounce on my board and lie susceptible, paddling out to the lineup, the place the waves break. I might need to push by way of a few waves throughout my paddle, briefly submerging myself beneath whitewater, however I typically make it to the lineup with dry hair. I then sit on my board and look towards the horizon for approaching swells. To experience a wave, I flip my board towards shore, lie down, and paddle. If I catch the wave, I pop up to my ft, and, if I don’t fall, I kick out on the finish as I close to the shore and then paddle again out. My hair may nonetheless be dry. Even if I do come unstuck from my board—a “wipeout” in ’60s lingo—I often have a leash that attaches my ankle to it, so I’m solely submerged for the few seconds it takes to floor, discover my board, and bounce again on it.

Head surf wetsuit researcher, kinesiologist Sean Newcomer

Jon Cohen/Science

Newcomer and his collaborators put a finer level on this within the April 2017 challenge of theJournal of Aging and Physical Activity, as a part of their analysis paper detailing cardiovascular responses throughout browsing. Citing the few research that do exist, they observe that the time spent “surfing” consists largely of paddling (44%–58%), adopted by sitting on a board or mendacity stationary (28%–42%), diving beneath waves or swimming (2%–16%), and then driving waves (4%–8%). In May, the group printed a research inErgonomics that it claimed was the primary to ever present that this “dynamic nature of surfing” means “important differences in skin temperature profile exist throughout the physique” whereas carrying a wetsuit. “We’re fascinated that they’re doing surf-specific research,” says Bruce Moore, vp of innovation at Hurley in Costa Mesa, California. “That’s definitely led us to make changes in design.”

There’s a “duh” facet to most of the group’s findings, however their implications largely have escaped the eye of wetsuitmakers till now. “There’s a history in our sport of fuzzy math and claims and marketing and not a lot of accountability,” says Evan Slater, who made his identify within the browsing world driving the huge waves dubbed XXL and now works as Hurley’s senior director of name communication. “Nobody’s really checking up on it.” (Hurley helps fund Newcomer’s research.)

Undergraduates meet at Barney’s with their professor to recruit surfers into their wetsuit research.

Jon Cohen/Science

My winter wetsuit (full disclosure: not a Hurley) covers my complete physique apart from my ft, fingers, and head. It has 3-millimeter neoprene on the torso and 2 millimeters elsewhere, a thickness that works nicely in southern California winters, the place the water temperature not often drops under 13°C. The standard 3/2 design thought is that, as one producer boasts, your wetsuit gives you “insane flexibility” with out sacrificing “ultimate warmth,” no matter that’s. Newcomer says his team of subject researchers has “a good grasp” of the place warmth loss happens. As theErgonomics research in 46 surfers reveals, throughout a 1-hour surf session, pores and skin temperature declines probably the most within the calf and thigh—that are within the water greater than any physique half—then within the decrease stomach, forearm, and decrease again. It adjustments least within the higher elements of the chest, again, and arm. In different phrases, the physique areas that lose probably the most warmth are the least protected by commonplace wetsuit designs, Newcomer says.

The fundamental physics is that physique elements lose extra warmth after they’re submerged as a result of the thermal conductivity of water is 25% higher than that of air. Research has proven this leads to up to 5 instances higher convective warmth loss. To that finish, Newcomer’s team now desires to perceive how to retain that warmth most successfully.

Thermistors monitor warmth loss throughout a surf session with an experimental wetsuit.

Jon Cohen/Science

For my stint as a browsing guinea pig, the CSUSM college students gave me a particular wetsuit made by Hurley for his or her research. They taped thermistors—thermometers the dimensions of the disc batteries utilized in watches—on my chest, again, and arms to report adjustments in my physique temperature each minute throughout my surf session. “One of the things the wetsuit industry perceives is that the different types of neoprene have different insulation thermal capacity,” defined Newcomer, declaring that the 2 panels that type the chest on my take a look at go well with had been every comprised of totally different materials. “And this is all driven by anecdote.” A Velcro-fastened belt strapped over the wetsuit on just one wrist will enable his group to evaluate warmth retention by way of that favourite water entry level.

We’re fascinated that they’re doing surf-specific analysis. That’s positively led us to make adjustments in design.

Bruce Moore, Hurley

The subtle try to study these questions is about in opposition to a long time of ridiculous wetsuit ads. When I used to be 14, O’Neill Wetsuits, one of many largest within the surf trade (began by one other inventor), infamously ran an advert that led my highschool library to pull Surfer journal from the racks: It confirmed a bare-breasted girl zipping up the entrance of her go well with with the preposterous promoting level, “It’s always summer on the inside.” Dive n’ Surf, the wetsuit store close to my highschool house, named their product Body Glove, as a result of that’s the way it match, and the corporate provided a “Cossack model”—go determine—that was “outtasight!” I’ll cease there.

Surfing wetsuits have vastly improved since my first one, which was a two-piece, stiff, modified diving go well with. But in the present day’s adverts stay full of mumbo-jumbo and pseudo-science that goals to make the most of the truth that the one scientist many surfers can identify is Albert Einstein (who did design a refrigerator). The O’Neill Psycho Freak mannequin, for however one instance, is “psychotically warm” due to its “exclusive Technobutter 3, maximum strength, hydrophobic neoprene with featherline ENVY foam rubber core.”

Science’s Jon Cohen (heart) as he joins the experiment moments earlier than a surf session

Jon Cohen/Science

For proprietary causes, Hurley gained’t say how its 2019 go well with incorporates the brand new knowledge, and Moore says they’re trying ahead to future research. “Wetsuits can always get lighter, warmer, and more flexible,” he says, noting the corporate is concerned about testing supplies aside from the tried-and-true neoprene. “Ultimately, we’re trying to create a second skin.” (Patagonia has already moved to extra environmentally pleasant materials for its browsing wetsuits, a latex extracted from hevea bushes known as Yulex.)

Jeremy Sheppard, who has a Ph.D. in sports activities science and has extensively printed research about coaching for browsing, says he’s “really encouraged” by the CSUSM-Hurley collaboration and imagines they’ll design wetsuits that truly enhance the best way individuals surf. “In other sports apparel, your wear enhances your performance,” says Sheppard, a coach with Canada Snowboard in Whistler. “Shouldn’t we get to the place where wetsuits are reducing injuries or making you paddle faster?”

Newcomer envisions a day when surfers will match their wetsuits to the amount and size of their boards, which impacts how a lot contact the physique has with the water. He additionally hopes his surf research, which lengthen far past wetsuits, will up the sport of aggressive surfers—who will probably be within the Olympics for the primary time in 2020. “Traditional sports—baseball, basketball, football, soccer—were all informed by scientific inquiry, both to enhance the performance of athletes and product design,” he says. “If all the other sports are doing this, why not surfing?”



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