Let’s be honest: Surfing in a neoprene wetsuit is like going camping with a tent that’s made from trees — the ecological irony is undeniable. Yet, it’s not something that gets talked about much in the lineup. Perhaps it’s because the idea of finding an alternative to the intensely polluting process of manufacturing neoprene has seemed like a pipe dream akin to building an electric car with style, performance, and a near-zero environmental footprint. Well, meet the Tesla of wetsuits.
As of this fall, all 21 of Patagonia’s wetsuits are made of a rubber produced from Havea trees, grown on sustainable plantations in Guatemala. A culmination of nearly 10 years of R&D, the new suits are the crowning achievement of what Patagonia has been calling its “Yulex” line. But, until now, Patagonia was simply integrating Yulex rubber into its regular wetsuit designs, whereas, the new line is completely neoprene-free (more importantly, chloroplene-free).
This is huge and, as you would expect, surfers everywhere are pretty excited. But surfers have also been cautious in their expectations — in fact, many seem to be asking not whether Patagonia’s new Yulex suits will be better than their regular one, but whether it simply does the job. The implication here is that if it even comes close, they’re sold. This isn’t surprising considering what an eco-conscious bunch most surfers are, but the scrutiny has been intense, nonetheless.
And so in determining whether we can really say goodbye to neoprene forever, we decided to forget about all that warm, fuzzy Earth Day stuff and just go surfing. A couple caveats: One, this wasn’t exactly a longitudinal study, so we can’t really attest to how it breaks in. Two, we tested an R1 Lite full suit (the equivalent of a 2mm), as was appropriate for mild fall temps in Southern California.
First impression: Damn, this thing is tight, and not in the 1995 high school sense, but in the hard-to-squeeze-into sense.
Fit and flexibility is perhaps the most noticeable difference between Yulex and regular neoprene. Yulex simply does not have that buttery suppleness of a good neoprene suit. Putting the 2mm suit on for the first time felt a little like wiggling into my regular 3/2 suit — despite being much thinner. I’ve been encouraged by reports of a break-in period, and even session two and three felt better, but this would certainly be a concern in a thicker suit from the Yulex line (the R5 is 6.5/5.5mm). Basically, there’s just no avoiding this fight the first few times you pull the thing up over your head.
And, yet, the tight fit was actually a noticeable upgrade from my other suit. Wetsuits are obviously “skin tight” garments. However, mass production results in many suits having at least a little unused space. Patagonia seems to have paid extra close attention to the cut, going for a fit that almost feels custom made. It was far less prone to odd twists once it was on and there wasn’t an inch of extra material anywhere. This went a long way in eliminating flexibility issues once in the water, as well as reduced flushing. In short, the fit is awesome.
We’re not going to go deep on cost and durability, because both are exactly what you would expect from Patagonia. Yes, it’s expensive (but only about 10 percent more than comparable suits) and, yes, the craftsmanship is impressive — stitches and welds are noticeably stronger and cleaner than most other suits. Patagonia insists these suits will last longer than your neoprene one, and after spending some time with it, we can see why.
In a way, the new Yulex line is the selvedge denim of the wetsuit world. Selvedge is expensive and a little stiff at first — especially compared to a pair of off-the-rack Levi's — but lovingly made and built to last. And, yet, a simple sartorial comparison like this does nothing to convey just what an environmental milestone this is, in terms of moving on from neoprene for good. These suits are impressive. This, along with the fact that Patagonia is eager to share the tech with other wetsuit manufacturers means, fingers crossed, this could be the beginning of the end for neoprene. [Prices vary; patagonia.com]