Wetsuits: To wear or not to wear

The wearing of wetsuits in ocean swimming events is a hotly debated topic among a small section of the open water swimming community, which side are you on?

As the temperature starts to warm up towards summer, the sea temperature along the eastern seaboard of Australia doesn’t warm up as rapidly, with cooler ocean currents being brought in by strong afternoon North-easterly winds that are common during this time of the year.

I’ve done a lot of swimming in the ocean at Terrigal (NSW, Central Coast) over the last 30 years and generally find the ocean to be cooler at this time of the year (14-17 degrees Celsius) compared to the middle of winter (17-20 degrees Celsius) because of this.

With the ocean being cool for endurance ocean swims at this time, organisers of events are often thrown into disarray as to whether or not they give swimmers the option to wear a wetsuit.

Many studies have shown that wetsuits provide advantages in speed, buoyancy, confidence, warmth and safety, particularly with weaker swimmers where the differences in time over a specific distance are more significant compared to those who swim quicker.

I’ve heard very experienced ocean swimmers mention that wetsuits don’t belong in ocean swim events as it goes against the spirit and challenge of the sport.

A lot of debate has taken place on this topic, with many believing that swimmers should be given the option to wear a wetsuit if the water is below a certain temperature.

In one ocean swimming race held at this time last year, organisers held a non-wetsuit swim and many swimmers were pulled out from the water or treated for hypothermia following the race.

This was a big safety concern and fortunately, nothing too serious occurred.

The following weekend, under similar conditions, competitors were given the option to wear a wetsuit and many participants did this. Fewer people were actually treated for hypothermia because of these safety precautions that were put in place. The small number of people treated were non-wetsuit swimmers.

There are many ocean swims that take place throughout Australia over the warmer months.

Rules are varied as the events are often determined by the organisation providing sanctioning for the event. Some offer both wetsuit and non-wetsuit divisions to try and entice more swimmers to participate. In this case, the results for each division are kept separate with different awards given to both divisions.

Others, like the enjoyable, well known and popular Pier to Pub Race held in the cool waters at Lorne, Victoria each January allows all competitors to wear a wetsuit, while others held in warmer Queensland waters are often non-wetsuit swims.

Regular ocean swimmer competitor and a fellow training partner of mine, Don Boland recently invested in a wetsuit for the upcoming NSW ocean swim season, knowing that if he wanted to be competitive and feel comfortable in all events for the season, he would be needing one for a few of the races that he decides to participate in.

Competitive swimming wetsuits can vary in price from anywhere between $400 and $1200, depending on the brand, size, make, etc. (Shop For Wetsuits)

Personally, I choose not to wear a wetsuit unless I am competing in a wetsuit optional race. I could give you the reasons for this but don’t think it my job to convince people to ditch their wetsuits or look down on others if they don’t.

At the end of this, I believe if wearing a wetsuit will get more people to try the great sport of ocean swimming, I am all for it.

What do you think?


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
  • Avatar
    Grumpy Typewriter
    25 January, 2012 at 7:42 AM

    “Personally, I choose not to wear a wetsuit unless I am competing in a wetsuit optional race.”
    So what you’re saying is you always wear a wetsuit unless the rules forbid it.

    In your case the reason is obvious. For example, you won your (and my) age group at Lorne in the 40-49 mens. Without a wetsuit you wouldn’t make the same time and quite possibly not make the Top 20. We get it. For you there is a point to wetsuits.

    Personally, I choose not to wear a wettie, in fact I don’t even own one. I’m there for participation first and foremost. Given that I’m not a threat for the Top 20, nor do I come in the bottom 10% (I average around the 66% mark across category, gender and overall), I happily swim without a wetsuit and my goal is to better my percentage.

    You also didn’t mention around 95% of swimmers in the Pier to Pub wear wetsuits. In my wave of the P2P I think there were about 6 of us in bathers. And yes, it was a little colder this year but after the first 20 metres I never thought of it again.

    In other Victorian swims the non-wetties will number 10%, up to 15% max perhaps. However, I love the fact Mount Martha has created a Non-Wettie category in the various age groups.

    To me the advantages are overwhelming. I reckon it feels better swimming without a wettie, I love the lack of preparation and lack of overall baggage. Wetsuits certainly aren’t requirement for participation, a pair of bathers and goggles and you’re good to go.

    My $0.02.

    • Avatar
      5 March, 2016 at 11:31 AM

      I agree with everything you wrote. Wetsuits are pathetic. I have given up the organised swims because I didn’t feel comfortable with all those merchant bankers (rhymes with) in their wrist to ankle rubber enabling them to brave 20 degree ocean swimming. What a bunch of heroes! What would they have done before neoprene? Now I see beachgoers similarly outfitted. Speedos do it every time.

      Richard Harvey

  • Avatar
    21 March, 2012 at 11:03 PM

    I’m constantly irritated by the attitude amonst some ocean swimmers that wetsuits are somehow against the spirit of racing.

    I’m a very good swimmer, but cannot swim for any length of time off Sydney beaches, even in summer. I cramp up and sink. Literally. It’s not about trying harder or being fitter – I assure you.

    I appreciate the advantage that wetsuits can offer and am perfectly happy not to be in contention for prizes or places. I just want to swim.

    Banning wetsuits is elitist and exclusionary and denying people the opportunity to participate in what is in essence a community event is what is really against the spirit of ocean swimming.

    • Avatar
      22 March, 2012 at 12:34 AM

      Hi Will, Thanks for joining the conversation!

      At OceanFit we couldn’t agree with you more. I am 100% against the anti-wetsuit or ‘newd’ campaigners in ocean swimming, there’s no room for it and this attitude is, like you say, completely against the spirit of ocean swimming.

      If you want to wear a wetsuit great! If you don’t, that’s great too. Just being involved in this amazing sport and ocean lifestyle is enough to celebrate.

      At OceanFit we don’t care what ocean swimmers wear! At our annual OceanFit Clovelly 600 entry level ocean swim participants are encouraged to wear wetsuits, snorkels, flippers or whatever they feel comfortable in, if they wish to, and we think that’s fantastic.

      Andre, Owner OceanFit

  • Avatar
    blacketty black black
    6 April, 2017 at 1:29 PM

    I know this is an old post but since I am researching what sort of wetsuit I need to train in open water this winter, I figured it would be best if we could get the basics correct. when you talk about people needing to be treated because they have been affected by swimming in cold water you mean hypothermia or “low warmth.” Not hyperthermia, that would be too hot, which can happen in a wetsuit, especially hanging around all trussed up before your race. you want to know this because you treat them differently

  • Avatar
    6 November, 2018 at 4:56 PM

    I have widespread vitiligo (an autoimmune condition that results in white patches on the skin). These patches have NO protection against the sun and suncreen is not enough when ocean swimming. Wearing a wetsuit would be ideal for me as I need to I need to minimise my exposure to the sun. Can allowances be made for someone like me?

Add a comment


The great wetsuit debate

Do you only swim ‘newd’, or are you impartial to a bit of rubber? This question is at the heart of the annual wetsuit debate between ocean swimming traditionalists and the modern day ocean swimmer.

Season runs from 1 Oct to 30 April. Some contact out of season.

Be informed

Join 10k+ swimmers who hear about upcoming ocean swims & get tips from us

Every swim, every state. 220+ swims!