Surf Science: Heat Waves

No need to pee in his wetsuit-Adam Wickwire tests the H-Bomb’s internal thermostat.

Heat Waves
A New Wetsuit That Electronically Warms The Core

Words: Mike Cianciulli
Photos: Courtesy Rip Curl

Wetsuit technology has come a long way in the last decade. Even though neoprene has become exponentially more flexible in recent years, a 6/4 can only be so stretchy, and in extreme cold-water conditions surfing more than two hours is risking hypothermia. So when Rip Curl unveiled the first-ever heated wetsuit this winter, the H-Bomb, many wondered if current industry standards would soon be left out in the cold, so to speak.

After more than two years of development (which Rip Curl officials say started in Australia), the suit, which has battery-powered fiber-optic heating coils along the central back region, was put to the test by boardshort-loving Floridian Adam Wickwire in the frigid waters of Iceland. "I wore the suit for two hours and came out panting," Wickwire said of a recent North Atlantic sojourn. "It's super hot, almost like being in a sauna. The heaters are great for warming you before you surf, too."

With a chest zip and heating coils throughout the back's lower region, Rip Curl claims it's found a way to warm the body's core without compromising flexibility.  "Due to the location of the heat on the body, the coils allow you to keep warm blood circulating," said Brian Bosson, wetsuit product manager for Rip Curl. "Direct heat means you never get a chance to get cold." Even crazier is the fact that the batteries last up to two and a half hours and charge via car cigarette lighter.

The waterproof, heating-pad-like coils are operated by a small controller that tucks away along the right side of the suit between the armpit and waistline. The entire apparatus is barely noticeable upon initial inspection and is powered by two small (two inches by four inches) batteries that sit in the lumbar area of the lower back. It offers two heat settings (medium and high), which Wickwire noted were easiest to set before he put on his bulky gloves and dove off an iceberg for a surf.

The immediate pros: slightly less rubber and bulkiness is necessary thanks to the internal heating device, so shredders can feel less restricted (with the heat on, you can shed a millimeter off their everyday rubber-wear) and also last longer in the water. The foreseeable cons: while the official price tag hasn't been set, the folks at Rip Curl anticipate the suit costing somewhere between $600 and $800—more than twice what a standard suit would retail at. And then of course, there are tech hurdles to be jumped as well—like battery size and placement. "The biggest challenge was the battery size. But we should have them at half this size before they go in stores this October," said a stoked Bosson. "This will continue to evolve and we hope to have a tiny watch-sized battery eventually."

A question many are asking: will the H-Bomb spur other wetsuit makers to spawn their own electrically heated suit? "You can't patent the idea forever," Rip Curl's Brian Bosson says, noting that parts of the system's design are patent protected. "But the other companies trying this are a bit off, like two years behind where we were this year."

As with any first of a kind, it remains to be seen how the H-Bomb will affect the wetsuit industry at large. But as Wickwire realized on his frigid test mission, "There's a huge potential for great waves in places where no one surfs because it's just too cold … until now."

Originally published in June, 2007 issue of Transworld SURF.