The Wetsuit Revolution

Jim Brateris in the northern California studio where he designs his cold weather–proof Isurus wetsuits
Jim Brateris in the northern California studio where he designs his cold weather–proof Isurus wetsuitsPhotograph by Cody Pickens

If you’re a winter surfer used to shivering yourself silly in a high-end, big-name wetsuit and wondering why the damn thing costs so much and provides so little warmth, no one feels your pain more than Jim Brateris, in Montara, California, and Matt Patton, in Wilmington, North Carolina. They know what it’s like to drop $600 or more on a suit that leaks and constricts and flushes with freezing water after every wipeout. And each, in his own little-guy, big-entrepreneurial-dreams way, has been working on a solution. What they’ve come up with are the biggest changes to hit the multimillion-dollar wetsuit industry in nearly 50 years. In fact, these two unknowns may redefine how you can stay warm while paddling around, even in slush.

By night, 28-year-old Patton is a trucking-company dispatcher; by day, he’s the lead U.S. distributor of a high-tech heated rash guard (a vest worn under a wetsuit) called the Thermalution 15M. The seeds of Patton’s quest were planted in high school, when the water at his local break dropped to 41 degrees, freezing him and his buddies and leading to a school project featuring his first ideas about heated-wetsuit design. After college, he started a career in real estate, but heated wetsuits were always in the back of his mind. Over the years, he bought every model. The $200 Quiksilver vest produced little heat, and its battery drained in less than an hour. The Rip Curl H-Bomb suit, while toasty, cost more than $1,000. And the cheapo gel packs used by skiers reached max heat in five minutes and then spent the next hour dropping to zero.

About five years ago, however, Patton came across the Thermalution on the Internet and had a $499 model shipped to him from Taiwan. Invented for deep-sea divers in 2006 by a company called Petatech, the battery-powered vest has carbon-fiber coils sewn into the back; turned to high, they heat within a minute to around 140 degrees and keep pushing heat into the back for at least two hours. “Within 30 seconds,” Patton says, “I could feel the warmth on the inside of my wetsuit. It was this great, big, warm hug.”

What impressed Patton most was how the heat penetrating his core spread warmth from his toes to his fingertips. “When you’re cold, your body pulls blood from the extremities into the core to keep your vital organs warm,” he says. “But when all the heat from the Thermalution penetrates your core, your body says, ‘Well, heck, the core is super warm. Let’s push all this warm blood out to the extremities and keep them warm, too.’ ”

Recognizing the Thermalution’s potential for surfers, Patton used his savings to make himself its main U.S. distributor. He does admit that it has one limitation, though: “As much warmth as this generates, it’s not going to turn your horrible wetsuit into a miracle suit.” That’s where Jim Brateris comes in.

In 2008, Brateris was a sales rep for a medical-device company in northern California. Many mornings, the job took him from San Francisco to Ukiah, 115 miles north. On his way home, he’d head back down the coast, stopping to surf in 50-degree water. He was always cold, and he thought he could do better. He started studying Da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man drawing, pondering range of motion and wondering how one could improve upon the poor anatomical fit of most modern wetsuits. Then he began sketching designs, cutting up old wetsuits, and stitching them back together in new configurations. After a year of experimentation, he flew to China and, with help from his cousin, a tech entrepreneur with contacts in the Far East, located a manufacturer.

Thus were Isurus wetsuits born. In short order, 37-year-old Brateris lost his girlfriend, his credit cards, his pickup, his BMW M5, and his sweet little three-bedroom house four blocks from the beach. “Everything, man,” says Brateris. “My girlfriend just didn’t understand the passion I had. Her question was, ‘If it doesn’t work, then what?’ My feeling was, ‘It’s got to work.’ ”

The test pilots for Brateris’ suits were some of the hottest locals at Mavericks, a famed break 20 miles south of San Francisco known as one of the most dangerous cold-water surf spots in the world. “For 20 years, wetsuits have been a huge part of my life,” says Grant Washburn, star of the surf documentary ‘Riding Giants.’ “I’ve worn the best, but when I put on that Isurus, I was like, ‘Jesus!’ I was warm!”

Brateris earned these high marks in part by seeking advice from nonsurfers. “The original wetsuit innovators at companies like O’Neill, Rip Curl, Billabong, and Xcel are all gone,” he says, “and their companies are now run by lawyers, suits, and bean counters. We went outside the industry to look at swimmers, triathletes, skiers, runners, and cyclists, all of whom also have to deal with the cold, and tried to incorporate into our wetsuits what works for them.”

That research led Brateris to use Yamamoto neoprene, a high-end, closed-cell rubber, instead of the open-cell stuff that has been the industry standard since Jack O’Neill developed his first wetsuits in the mid-1950s. Open-cell neoprene works by allowing a small amount of water to seep into its cells (think of a sponge), which the body heats. The problem is, it takes a lot of energy to heat that water, and water adds a lot of weight to the suit. Closed-cell neoprene, on the other hand, absorbs very little water, meaning less additional weight. And since the cells are closed, what the body heats is the air trapped inside, which is much more energy efficient.

Brateris also implemented the same type of compression technology used in running gear (compression promotes circulation and increases oxygen flow to muscles, which keeps them warm), offset seams (which allow you to move with the flexibility of the neoprene instead of against the stiffness of the seams), and longer body panels with fewer cuts (which means fewer seams). “A mass-produced wetsuit has about 15 points of measure so that any size will fit a wide range of guys, but our suits have 20 points of measure,” says Brateris. “At first they can be really tight, but after three or four sessions, they break in and basically custom-mold themselves to your body.” That fit allows for better insulation and a watertight seal around the openings.

In 2009, Brateris sold his entire run of 70 wetsuits, and in 2010, he did the same with a 400-suit run. Still, his business was teetering on the verge of collapse. At one point, it got so bad that Brateris and his sole employee, a scruffy surfer named Rufo, had to search the floor of Rufo’s truck for quarters to buy gas just to get home from a sales call. In 2011, however, with sales on the upswing, Brateris’s cousin came on board with a cash infusion and became CEO.

“It was dark for a while,” Brateris says today. “And I really found out who my friends were. I could see it in their eyes, friends looking at me, like, ‘You’re taking on billion-dollar companies like Billabong and O’Neill? Yeah, good luck with that. You’re a loser and an idiot.’ ”

While Brateris now has a salary, he still doesn’t have any credit cards. “It’s kind of fucked up. Borderline crazy. I have way more gray hairs than ever before. And the stress is gnarly. I used to get rid of it surfing – paddling hard for a wave, catching the wave, smashing the wave. But I don’t get a chance anymore. I’m in the wetsuit business now.” He pauses and smiles. “Did I know I was going to sacrifice this much? Hell, no, man. Not even close.”

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