After almost three long months of waiting, our Santi dry suits arrived! Having recently completed the coldest dive of my life, 49 °F in a 7 mm wetsuit, our oversized parcel from Extreme Exposure was a welcome sight.
As we first considered adding dry diving to our underwater repertoire, more than a few questions crossed our minds. Having heard personal accounts of ill-fitted suits that were rarely used once purchased, we wanted to do things right. The decision to choose Santi over other suits was easy; it was all about quality. Andy and I are considered “nontypical” in body type, so custom suits and undergarments solved the size guessing game. As our GUE instructor and Extreme Exposure rep both assured us, there would be a learning curve, but it would be well worth it. With that in mind, and the suits in our hands, the only thing left to do was try them on and go diving.
To this point, I had never worn a dry suit. Let me reiterate that, I had never worn a dry suit that fit. Obstacle number one, how the hell do I put this thing on? While being actually fitted for my suit I had a number of neck seals attached to a lanyard stretched over my cranium. Things do not really get interesting until the seal is attached to the suit. One has to put their arms into the suit, lift the shoulder/neck portion up and over the head from behind and then slide the neck seal over the head until it is situated around the neck. Simple, right? I liken it to the scene in the movie ‘Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls’ when Ace is trying to climb out of the mechanical Rhino. I lost a lot of hair on my first trip through, as well as some skin. However, my first step of the mission was accomplished. I immediately zipped up my suit, and snapped a few pictures for posterity. As I stood for one last candid shot I could not help but think if this was the way a dry suit is suppose to feel. This question will be revisited through the learning process.
Overall the suits fit great. Since it was a custom suit it truly fit like a glove. No chance of gas being trapped in bulging areas of an ill-fitted suit for me. Wrist seals were snug; suit gave support while offering flexibility, and the neck seal was tight. Was it supposed to be that tight? I knew the neck seal had to be more than snug to ensure the dry diving remained dry. However, the muffin-tops of skin, bulging jugular veins, and purplish-red hue to my face suggested otherwise. But who was I to know what it was suppose to feel like? After a few more minutes, we decided that the suits did indeed fit and we removed them. Side note, I lost more hair taking the suit off than I did putting it on. FYI, the ponytail is not a friend of the latex neck seal. With the suits stowed, we could not wait for the weekend for the inaugural dive. Side note, talcum powder on seals makes the dry suit much more new user friendly.
Before we knew it, dive day was upon us. Having read up on proper weighting techniques, and advice from other divers, I decided that a little bit of weight, ~7 kg (16 lbs) total, would be sufficient. Already diving with a steel back plate and keel weight (all together 12 lbs or ~5 kg) I would only need an additional 2 kg (4 lbs) in my trim pockets. We will revisit this in just a moment. Since the water temperature was still at 50 °F I opted for a merino wool base layer under my BZ400 undergarment. Once the suit was on I noticed some decrease in mobility. With the undergarment combination I was having a hard time getting my dry suit up far enough to get the neck seal up and over my head. In addition, once the suit was on and zipped I wasn’t really able to simulate a valve drill. Was it supposed to feel like this? Is the neck seal supposed to feel this tight? How tight is too tight? Does my voice sound funny? Chalking it up to inexperience I attached my inflator hose, donned my back plate and wings, and off we went.
Once in the water I noticed I couldn’t get my fins on; my movement was very limited. But that’s what dive buddies are for, right? Kicking out the buoy I started to feel panicked. My heart rate increased, as did my respiration rate. As a physiologist I was aware that when a body experiences a decrease in oxygen concentration it tries to compensate by speeding things up a bit to maximize the amount of oxygen brought into the body. I wasn’t out of shape. The only culprit eliciting such a response was an overly tight neck seal. Is my neck seal suppose to be this tight? Having caught my breath I was ready for my first plunge in my new suit. Mask on, regulator in mouth, and giving the sign to descend down we went. The only problem was I didn’t go anywhere. I more or less bobbed like a cork for a few seconds until I realized that 7 kgs or 16 lbs total was not enough to sink my suit, gear, and undergarments. So, back to shore we kicked.
Adding 8 lbs of additional weight did the trick to get me down. Coming to rest in trim above the 25 ft platform I began to inflate my wing and add air to my suit. I knew that my suit was not to be used as a buoyancy device as that is what my wing is for. But how much air is too much in the suit? The suit itself, without air, felt like it was crushing me. Having heard the horror stories told by others, the last thing I wanted was to over-inflate my suit creating a large bubble of air that would travel to my feet and drag me to the surface ass first. I decided on just enough air to loft the undergarment and remove that pinching feeling. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to achieve that task. I was able to maintain trim and neutral buoyancy, but realized that I was still underweighted especially since my aluminum 80 L tank contained less than 1000 psi of air. Thus, the suit and undergarments remained shrink-wrapped to my body. In addition, is my neck seal supposed to feel this tight?
After four short dives, our first day of diving dry was in the books. I have to admit driving home I was very disappointed. I could not understand how this was a preferred method of diving and it was so damn uncomfortable, painful even. I had bruises on my neck from the seal, as well as on my arms and legs where my long bones meet. Exhausted and defeated I wanted to cry.
I realize at this point you are probably wondering why in the hell didn’t I just sign up for a dry suit course by a qualified instructor. My answer is simple; there are no GUE instructors in Houston to give such a course. As Andy and I are experienced divers we knew that we could learn the basics by ourselves in a relatively shallow environment. However, if learning to dive dry did pose any risk, then we would be taking a trip to Florida to attend such a training course.
Once home Andy sent an update to our instructor, and Santi representative in Florida. Both Meredith and Cora were very encouraging. One positive thing that came from the conversations, the neck seal was NOT supposed to be that tight. Over the following few days Andy would get lots of practice trimming seals as both of our neck seals had previously been untrimmed. Problem solved.
The following weekend we were back in the water. Determined to have enough weight to reach my target depth, loft my undergarments to stay warm, and fill my wing to maintain neutral buoyancy and subsequent good trim, I opted for 26 lbs total weight. Keep in mind my undergarments are thick. Perhaps a more experienced dry diver could have gone with a lot less weight, but I wanted to stay down. Once again mobility was an issue. The thought that kept running through my mind is how in the hell do cave and technical divers have mobility in similar attire. What am I doing wrong? I can barely get my arms over my head; I can only get my arms up so high before the undergarments and suit restrict the tops of my shoulders. Oh, and my neck seal is still too tight.
After two dives I was able to add just enough air to my suit for warmth and minimal comfort, inflate my wing at depth, and maintain trim. However I had to wear a weight belt. Did I mention I hate wearing a weight belt? Aside from that, the dives were okay, much better than last week but still not great. Once again we left the dive sight feeling as though we were still doing something wrong. My lack of mobility and incredible struggle to even get my suit, particularly the neck seal, off only lead to the mounting frustration.
Once again we talked to Meredith and Cora. Always wonderful, they told us to stick with it. Under Cora’s guidance, Andy trimmed another ring off my neck seal. No more pain, bulging, dizziness, or pounding in my ears. Success, but what about the suit? Why couldn’t I reach behind my head for a simulated valve drill? And why was I struggling to get my suit on and off up over my head? Was the suit size incorrect? I guess the easiest way to answer these questions is to simply say there is a fine art to matching base layer/wicking layer with undergarments. Although the merino wool was awesome, it was just too thick. I needed to wear a much thinner base layer or nothing at all under the BZ400. Luckily for us, the water temperature had increased from the previous week. So, for our third weekend of diving, I opted for little to no base layer paired with a lighter undergarment, the BZ200. Lighter undergarments also meant I would need less weight, so I could potentially dump the weight belt. In addition, after having tried on both the BZ400 and BZ200 with less underneath, I realized a increased my mobility increased slightly; I had to struggle less to attempt to perform a valve drill or get my neck seal up and over my head. A step in the right direction, but still not perfect.
With my lighter undergarments and less weight, trimmed neck seal, and modified hood we were ready to dive again. This time gearing up went more smoothly, not to mention I could put my own fins on once in the water. The kick out to the buoy resulted in no physiological stress; my brain was happy with my oxygen level. Mask on, regulator in mouth, descend sign given, and down we went.
Upon reaching depth, I was able to inflate my wing, loft my undergarments and stay warm (water was right at 58 °F), get into trim position, and maintain neutral buoyancy. I felt comfortable underwater in my suit. At no time did I feel I had too much air in my suit and as a result felt out of control. I was able to make fine adjustments to my depth by adjusting my breath. In addition, we were able to leave the platform and explore the dive site on both dives. I was warm enough for a 60-minute first dive followed by a 44-minute second dive after a 60-minute surface interval. I admit I did feel a little over-weighted, but that means I can shed some during the next dive.
The ascent is certainly a work in progress with the dry suit. To maintain trim, dump air from your BC, and vent your dry suit with a simple elevation of your left arm is no simple task. Although the second dive was much better than the first, we still maintained a safe and slow ascent during both.
We will just continue to work on our skills and drysuit until we get this figured out.