Developing The Inflatable Wetsuit

Surfers and people in the surf equipment industry are always on the lookout for new innovations that have the potential to enhance the experience of surfing. Many of these innovations seek to make the sport more exhilarating, while others there simply attempt to make it safer.

Surfing can be dangerous at times, particularly the open-ocean kind favoured by the most extreme thrill-seekers, and so safety is a definite concern for many surfers and industry experts.

Consequently, when Hawaiian surfer Shane Dorian set a world record this year by paddling into a 57 foot high wave off Maui island, his world record was not the only thing that attracted attention. The thing that really caught the eye of many observers was that he was also trialing a brand new prototype wetsuit – one with a very unique set of features.

Being pushed under by a giant wave has long been one of the worst perils faced by big wave surfers like Dorian, and the new wetsuit he was testing claimed to have the answer to this problem. It was called the V1 and was claimed by manufacturers Billabong to be the world’s first inflatable wetsuit.

The science behind an inflatable wetsuit could not be simpler. When a surfer finds themselves deep underwater, they simply pull the shoulder-mounted ripcord, which inflates the back-mounted air bladder with a small carbon dioxide cartridge. The surfer doesn’t even need to swim, as they can just let the wetsuit take them back to the surface.

Dorian’s idea for the wetsuit came about last year after he experienced one of the worst wipeouts of his life, and only narrowly escaped drowning. He wanted a wetsuit which would improve safety for the big wave surfers, and took his suggestion to the manufacturers.

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In the course of the research and development phase, a team of military equipment designers were consulted for their knowledge and experience of creating an underwater air bladder. This is quite a common occurrence when designing new products, because the military tend to lead the way in innovation and extreme sports equipment makers tend to follow in their footsteps.

Once the designs were finalized, a prototype of the first inflatable wetsuit was created and then given to Shane Dorian to test, first in calm waters, then in the much more dangerous Cortes Bank area 100 miles off the coast of California.

Through all the tests, the inflatable wetsuit passed with flying colours. When Dorian was pulled under the water following a bad wipeout, he simply pulled the cord and let the wetsuit inflate, carrying him swiftly to the ocean surface.

With a prototype model already successfully tested, all that remains for the manufacturers now is to secure the patent for their design and then bring it to the commercial market. Some experts have already expressed concern however, suggesting that once inflatable wetsuits become widely available, they will encourage surfers to take more risks and be more reckless, relying on the wetsuit to get them out of trouble every time.