I wouldn't want to wear anything but a drysuit when diving in the Arctic or Antarctic region, but my friend Ari uses a wetsuit when diving under the snow and ice in the lakes of his native Finland in winter. He also prefers to travel to and from the dive-site on his motorbike. Well, he's well hard! Me? I took the Tigullio T52 Defender Artik to the Egyptian Red Sea at Christmas-time. I'm just an old softie. People still turn up in Sharm in January with 3mm shorties, expecting some tropical diving, but I also note that more and more Red Sea dive guides and experienced divers are wearing drysuits at this time of year . I hasten to add that the Tigullio T52 Defender is a semi-dry suit, not something for taking out invading tanks. The '52' designation is on everything the Italian company brought out last year, in celebration of its 52 years in business. That's longer than the BSAC has been in existence, yet the company has only recently decided to try its luck on the British market. Times change. I remember when nearly all wetsuits were made in Yorkshire and bore the brand Beaver. Most branded wetsuits come from China now. Beaver still makes wetsuits but also imports a range of products from Tigullio in Italy. The Defender Artik is a 7mm semi-dry that has a heavy drysuit zip across the shoulder. Initially this feels rather uncomfortable - more so than with a neoprene drysuit, because you wear no undersuit with it. However, once you get in the water, any feeling of inadvertently wearing it with its hanger still in place is lost. You also have to pull a long neoprene neckseal over your head when donning it. Ladies with long hair and old rock Ã”n' rollers need not apply. This seal is then inverted to put its smoothskin surface next to your own skin and keep you snug. That's after you have fought your way past the wrist and ankle seals. If initial impressions were not so good, it has to be said that the neoprene of this suit is silky smooth on the inside and, once I had got my hands and feet past those wrist and ankle seals, the trauma was over with. There are zips at both wrist and ankles that close a cuff of the 7mm heavyweight material of the suit over the top of the thinner smoothskin seal that lies against skin. A close-fitting hood and boots integrate nicely with the suit too. Once wearing the whole ensemble, together with the gloves, you feel ready to take on the coldest conditions. I felt that the aperture in the hood was not quite big enough and made it time-consuming fitting my mask, but during long wet RIB rides after diving I slunk inside it out of the wind, like a tortoise in its shell. At the back is an open-ended double layer of neoprene in which I found the hood stowed. This seems a rather cavalier use of an extra patch of neoprene, because it meant adding another half-kilo to my weightbelt. I suppose it helped to add comfort by giving a cushioning effect where the tank is carried, and the hood was always to hand when I needed to put it on, provided my tank was not already in place on my back. There are also stretchy-style knee-pads which add flexibility to the legs, where a more rigid material would feel more restricting. The 5mm neoprene boots are substantial, with long ankles and soles that are highly cushioned. There is a detail at the heel for locating a fin-strap, but most importantly the upper is reinforced with polyurethane where the fin pocket often rubs the material thin on other boots.
I have never worn out a pair of wetsuit boots from the bottom up, always from the top down. The long ankles of the boots also came in handy for me because, with a limited number of off-the-peg sizes, they made up the difference in a suit with a leg that might otherwise have been slightly too short for me. It was either that or rattle about in a top-half too big for my chest. However, the thick soles meant more added buoyancy, and I was glad to be wearing some heavy rubber Apollo fins which counteracted this. There are also matching gloves in either 3mm or 5mm thickness material, with reinforced polyurethane palms. Of course, in the Red Sea I have no use for them. I am sure that Beaver would like me to say that this suit is ideal for use in all British diving conditions, but you would have to be a hard man to use it in the UK in winter. There will no doubt be plenty of hard men lining up to fling themselves in the freezing waters of various inland dive sites, but once they feel that first trickle of ice-cold water, they may have second thoughts. Maybe in the sea on midsummer days it would be OK for me, but I am inclined to think this suit is more sensibly employed by those who dive in the cooler depths of the summer Mediterranean or, like me, in the northern Red Sea in winter months. The Tigullio T52 Defender costs £275. It is available in a range of off-the-peg sizes to suit either men or women. The boots costs £35 and the gloves are £17.95 (3mm) or £19.95 (5mm).