Warm to the Core: The Story of Isurus Wetsuits and Tim West

Warm to the Core: The Story of Isurus Wetsuits and Tim West

Warm to the Core: The Story of Isurus Wetsuits and Tim West
In the Green Room with Mike Wallace

Tim West slashes back

Montara wetsuit upstart Isurus has teamed up with coastside charger Tim West to develop an innovative new line of high-end, buoyant, light and flexible wetsuits targeting hardcore watermen and women who tend to spend as many as 200 days in the water per year. Named after the Latin genus for the sleek Mako shark and inspired by suits developed for hyper-competitive triathletes, Isurus has leapt right off the starting line in an audacious attempt to marry superior materials with a tighter tolerance fit and high quality manufacturing geared toward NorCal surfer-athletes.

Wetsuits have come a long way since 1951 when waterman and physicist Hugh Bradner invented the first wetsuit (see A Waterman’s Tale: The True Inventor of the Wetsuit). Driven by a bygone ethic of invention for the greater good, and sponsored by the Defense Department, Bradner didn’t patent the idea that a person donning such a rubber garment didn’t have to stay dry to stay warm. As Bradner put it, “I don’t give a damn who thought of it first, as long as I’m not going around making a false claim.” Bradner died on May 5, 2008, at the age of 92 without ever receiving full credit for his creation. But his legacy lives on in those with the character to innovate and charge just for the love of it.

John S. Foster in Bradner wet suit prototype, ca. 1953

Flash forward to the present: the wetsuit has evolved from a stiff, ill-fitting, leaky strait jacket into a refined garment with warmth and flexibility as its main function. In the pursuit of those sometimes competing attributes, many wetsuit manufacturers have sacrificed durability and quality in the process. By infusing more nitrogen bubbles in the neoprene that is sandwiched between layers of nylon or Lycra, such suits are prone to deterioration and saturation within a couple of months of hard use, despite industry claims and warranties. The more durable 5-mm suits retain their thermal properties longer, but tend to be more restrictive, and even 4-mm suits can add pounds in water retention, equivalent to dragging around a bottle of water or small dumbbell in the line-up.

Isurus Wetsuits (http://www.surfisurus.com/)

Any hardcore surfer on the North Coast will tell you that the older a wetsuit gets, the heavier it feels, the less it insulates, and the longer it takes to dry, reaching a terminal point of diminishing returns at some stage in its finite lifecycle. There is nothing more irritating than pulling on a damp, clammy wetsuit, only made tolerable by the knowledge that you’ll soon be getting wet again and chasing down some more “tasty waves.” In fact, most watermen use at least two wetsuits in rotation to avoid just that chilly scenario.

Isurus = form + function

Isurus Founder-Innovator Jim Brateris’ concept was to design wetsuits “for surfing by surfers.” After blowing through two to three wetsuits a year himself, Jim realized that wetsuit quality was being sacrificed with the corporatization of the wetsuit industry. In 2003 he figured there had to be a better way to bring the wetsuit back to its core values and re-engineer it for more discerning and demanding surfers. As Jim says, “We were looking for a different design concept, more suited to the muscular structure of the human body in order to get a better free range of motion,” like that illustrated in the archetypal illustration of ideal human proportions, “Vitruvian Man” by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Isurus, Fit for a Vitruvian Man!

Isurus took their inspiration from triathletes, who have long demanded better-fitting, lightweight, and more buoyant wetsuits from their suppliers—all of which add up to shortened swim times and quicker muscle recovery in later stages of the competition. Such a performance wetsuit provides a clear competitive advantage for triathletes and surfers alike. Like only a couple of other manufacturers, Isurus starts with the gold standard of Yamamoto “closed-cell” neoprene, fused between “hydrophobic linings.” This allows for a much thinner and 50% lighter wetsuit that retains significantly less water than conventional versions. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpqivbsGI-4&feature=PlayList&p=250CC809413E3062&index=2)

Yamamoto rubber is the best.

As Brateris explains, “The main difference between the mass-produced and -marketed wetsuits is right here (fingering the wetsuit rubber); Yamamoto has a proprietary process in which they inject nitrogen to get the prime part of the rubber to have a closed-cell neoprene, and that’s all they use, the best part of the rubber. Unlike an open-cell kitchen sponge-like material used in many conventional suits, the stitching will hold much better in a closed-cell structure.”

In terms of materials, Isurus wetsuits also integrate “Aerodome” panels in the front, from the chest all the way down the thighs, and on the back. These are the rubberized air-cell panels adopted by a few manufacturers that not only increase floatation, but heat retention as well. The slick skin surface of Aerodome helps resist wind chill (most of any suit) and actually adds to board traction, as well, when paddling prone. Rounding out the ensemble is a feature adopted from tri-athlete versions, called a “Forward Propulsion System” (FPS). FPS is basically textured rubberized strips on the inside of the forearms that add water traction and adherence with each stroke and, in theory, greater power.

Details, details

The high-end materials choice will only get you so far, and Isurus has taken it a step further, pairing the best in Japanese neoprene with the highest-quality Chinese (ISO 9002-certified) manufacturer. The suits are designed with the panels specifically anatomically structured to mirror body contours, rather than resist them, by taking 20 points of measure compared to the standard 15 points. Isurus suits can generally be worn about one mm thinner year round than comparable suits. That results in a wetsuit that fits much more snugly than conventional suits, ideal for heat retention, blood flow, and dynamic functionality in the water —much more like a custom suit.

Starting a local wetsuit company from scratch with the ambition of taking it to “a higher level” and creating a superior product for the demanding Northern Californian marketplace is a daunting task. But Isurus has found something that has been nearly lost – quality. By using the best materials available, they have dramatically cut the weight without sacrificing warmth and flexibility.

A demanding customer base: Maverick's Contest Opening Ceremony

The I-Elite 343 version is the lightest and highest performance model in the stable and comes with a removable hood. The I-Evade 434 model feels like wearing thermal underwear and sheds wind and water with ease. It has an integral 2-mm front-zip pull-over hood with a buttery yellow lining that just steams when pulled up and is designed to not be restrictive when rolled down, which is nearly anytime the sun comes out (when was the last time you were almost too warm in your 4-3?). The hydrophobic jersey material sandwiched around the closed-cell neoprene also dries extremely fast and retains 80% less water, making double-sesh a breeze.

Maverick’s journeyman Grant Washburn has taken the suit out to his favorite haunts and reported back that he’s used a number of different wetsuit brands and this one “feels totally different and is built really well.” Grant has even taken out the thinnest 3 mil I-Elite version of the suit to Maverick’s without a hood and been quite comfortable. Not only does the cut of the suit aid in paddle recovery, but the improved warmth is the key, as “the biggest enemy out there is the cold, which more than any other single factor burns calories and increases fatigue.”

Grant Washburn

In addition to the superior thermal properties and fit of the suit, Washburn was particularly pleased with the thin, warm hood. “Back in November of 2008 I was nominated for the XXL Wipeout of the Year for a wave at Mav’s that I didn’t make. My wipeout didn’t win, but I did tweak my neck on that fall and it has been sensitive ever since. The ‘slippery stuff’ (slick skin) on the hood helps penetrate the water during spills and the turbulence just doesn’t get the same grip on your head. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this became the new standard for hoods out at Maverick’s.”

Grant also chuckles that friend and former champion Grant “Twiggy” Baker hauls around a battery-powered blower hanger to dry his wetsuits, which is not needed for the quick-drying Isurus. The whole package works: the lighter weight, the warmth, the flexibility and fit. He even feels “something going on” with the Forward Propulsion System (FPS) on the forearms, aiding in paddle power over numerous strokes, just as with competitive swimmers.

Washburn has known Tim West and his family since he was a little kid and was really stoked when he found out about Tim’s ambition to surf Maverick’s, since there were few locals doing so. Though crowds of elite international surfers mob the line-up now compared to the early days, Grant says he tries to keep it fun and light out there, sharing waves especially on the busiest days. He sees Tim as also keen to have a good time at the break, having a certain “Jay vibe” (Jay Moriarity) about him that transcends the “us vs. them localism” that can infect any spot.

Like most other wetsuits, the Isurus suits occasionally flush through the yoke on the shoulder when you take an awkward fall, but as Grant notes this is almost a relief after you’ve been steaming along and the suit warms up fast. They are also a little more challenging to remove than enter due to that near-custom fit, which feels like a vacuum seal on your body once wet. But this is a “small and acceptable price to pay for the performance advantages, and you quickly figure it out,” says Washburn.

Grant Washburn, cruising on coldest day in 40 years at Ocean Beach, San Francisco

The high-quality Yamamoto rubber is also initially stiffer, but soon begins to mold to your body after a session or two. Isurus is so focused on quality materials and fit that any initial minor issues have already been ironed out in subsequent versions about to be released. Getting the right size with such a tight-tolerance suit is also key, and Isurus offers a wider range of sizes for this reason.

Test Pilot Tim West

Tim West rides a bomb

Tim West grew up in Montara and has been a fixture in serious surf along the San Mateo coast for much of his young career. His stocky build and tenacious attitude have kept the goofy footer firmly planted to his board in frequently heaving and hollow beach break conditions that few others would dare to attempt. More recently he has taken that finely- tuned act to Maverick’s after “doing his homework” on big waves. Montara neighbor and renowned sports/surf writer Bruce Jenkins noted in his recent 3 Dot Blog that “the best of the up-and-coming generation from the Half Moon Bay coastside, West is confident, level-headed and a regular whenever Maverick’s is going off.” His commitment to the spot in all conditions and hard-charging backside attack earned him underground recognition and a slot in the Maverick’s contest as one of only two local invitees. The other is his tow partner Ion Banner. Here is some Powerlines footage of their breakthrough tow session on a mean west swell on December 4, 2007: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imArpSkBPDE

West out the back

For Tim, “Maverick’s is just something I’ve always since day one been dreaming of– just paddling out there, let alone being in the contest” following years of diligent preparation at other spots. He remembers as a grom working his way up into double-overhead conditions at Ross’s: “Then it was like closed-out Cove, yah. Then it was just CRAZY closed out Cove. Then I’d go out by myself on my Mav’s gun just to practice, and then I’d go out to Scott’s Creek and practice there too. And finally I got geared up and went to Mav’s. I didn’t have anybody to go out with; nobody wanted to go out with me in my generation. I just did it all on my own. I didn’t have that push…”

In turn, Tim has been an incredible role model for younger surfers in the area, especially members of the Half Moon Bay Middle School Surf Team, who he has encouraged and mentored along with Wyatt Fields and others. In his formative years he vividly recalls examples of good and bad eggs in the line-up, and says he drew motivation and determination to succeed from both.

Tim mentors Half Moon Bay grom

Among his most influential surf mentors he credits Ion Banner and Curt Meyers, while Jay Moriarity of Santa Cruz also embodied the positive spirit that he embraces. His dad, Tim Senior, got him started surfing and still keeps him on track in their day jobs as fire sprinkler fitters, setting the bar high as Tim’s number one role model. As a result, nothing could give him more pride that seeing the “local line-ups loaded with local kid-rippers.” The ocean has been his teacher too, of course, keeping him “grounded and clean” and having a huge impact on his performance, attitude, and life.

Tim, Sr. and Tim, Jr.

It’s clear that he sees a lot of himself in the local kids searching for their places in the line-up. He can regularly be found stopping by Sunday team practices, generously handing out surf stickers and advice—checking in on “Tim’s groms,” as his proud mother calls them. Tim went to some lengths to formally invite the entire team to the 2009 Maverick’s opening ceremonies back in October to give the kids “a chance to see how the contest works, meet the competitors, and expand [their] horizons.” The event included the paddle out, heat selections, and dinner, which was a thumping success thanks to the consummate hosting skills of Katherine Clark.

Brateris of Isurus was in touch with Tim West as far back as 2003-4 and broached the idea of a locally-grown wetsuit of superior design. Tim was in on the ground floor and contributed ideas for key features at an early stage for a near-custom suit that was ideal for harsh local conditions in the region. As Brateris recalls, after trading ideas and drawings with Tim before heading off to China, “Tim put on an old wetsuit and he stood there as I traced the new lines with a magic marker on his body to get the design just right and have an accurate prototype to send out.”

Tim grabs rail at Todos

Of the symbiotic relationship, West was stoked to help out a friend and “water the roots locally,” while Brateris felt there really couldn’t be a better test pilot. Tim has tested out the suit this season at Maverick’s and has noted no problems despite numerous beatings. Much like Tim’s polished surfing, “the suit speaks for itself.” Tim is in it to test himself and have fun in big waves, not for photo ops.

He once paddled out with friend Chris Loeswick, only to be vaulted several feet in the air by a ballistic attack from below by a Great White shark. Several TV networks including the Today Show, Good Morning America, and National Geographic were all clamoring for an interview, but Tim refused them all because he wanted to be known for his surfing, not some freak attack. As Tim recalls:

“The only insight I want anyone to get out of that incident is to live each and every day to the fullest. When the shark hit it was unexpected and out of the ordinary. My attention was focused on an epic sunset with one guy out at small Maverick’s and I wanted to get one more good one. Then BOOM. I know anyone can relate-driving a car, walking in a lightning storm, etc. How about the guy who took a meteorite through his chest! One second everything may be perfect and content in your life, and at a moment without notice your one life on this earth can be taken. I’m lucky. I’m lucky to be alive. I’m lucky to walk, shake hands, talk. I’m lucky to be able to surf still at the same place I almost had my life taken. I’m lucky to hug my family and sit down with them at holiday dinner. I’m lucky to experience the next phase of my life, and one day to experience bringing another life into this world. Don’t take it for granted. It is inevitable that one day each of us will wake up and that day will be our last. I’m so thankful that Nov 2, 2005 wasn’t that day for me. So when you see me gone for months at a time in the tropics or off to ‘spot x’ for the weekend, its cuz I know life is short, especially our youth. Live in the now.”

Tim moonlights as a barrel miner in Puerto Escondido

As the first Isurus team rider, West is among a vanguard of five participants in the Maverick’s contest using the suit, with others impressed enough to be willing to plunk down cash for a superior wetsuit in the most challenging proving ground on the planet. Tim has taken to the road as well to hone his skills in the hollow waves of the Southern Hemisphere at Puerto Escondido and Todos Santos in Mexico—prep work for big winter surf at home. He published some insightful “Puerto Journal” entries on his adventures south of the border on the Maverick’s contest website, giving a unique glimpse into the big wave fraternity: http://maverickssurf.com/buzz/press/2009/aug/TimPuerto.php

Here’s an excerpt from his final journal entry on August 26, 2009:

This was my first trip to the area and definitely not my last. It’s a true test of a waterman to surf this beach, because it is like no other beach break in the world. The local crew has the place wired and gets much respect, not only for surfing well, but for their kindness and good vibes. My two month trip had more of everything than I ever expected—waves, friends, food, culture, landscape and juice smoothies, ha. Thank God for the smoothie bar; couldn’t have pulled it off without that place.

Tim tows into a keg

Thursday was the day pulse #3 showed up. Around lunch time you could hear it from wherever you were on the beach. Thunder-like sets rolling through with a little bit of cloud cover, which meant a possibility of clean evening conditions. During the next 6 hours the swell jumped up dramatically- nobody out. Sure enough the winds shifted offshore as 40 foot waves marched in like a brigade of soldiers, back-to-back-to-back with 10 to 20 wave sets. So I’m sitting on the roof, watching this macking swell flood into town with the most unforgiving close out sets I’ve ever seen, and all of a sudden out of the corner of my vision I see Greg Long running down the street with his Puerto gun ready as ever to tackle one. He, Jaime Sterling, Rusty Long, and Will Dillon were on it. It looked scary, not fun, so I opted out. Big props to those guys for getting out there that evening.

Sunset at Todos

On Saturday, the next day after the big swell (that peaked and A-framed at 40 foot top-to-bottom, no joke) it was still 15-20 foot. So I launched the ski and all morning towed in a few friends that I had met during my stay with a few waves for each and most of them for the first time on a tow board. They all said they got the biggest tubes of their lives and I was more than happy to provide the assist. In fact, it’s just as fun towing people into big waves as surfing them sometimes, especially when you witness how stoked they are at the end of their ride. After towing them for a couple of hours I packed my rig, attached the ski, and B-lined it straight back to Half Moon Bay with an adrenaline rush that still hasn’t gotten out of my system. Livin’ it to the fullest!” –Tim West.

Tim drops in at Todos

It was in Puerto that Tim met and traded waves with Mexican charger Coco Nogales, another well-traveled surfer whose pursuit of bone-crushing waves occasionally finds him outside of his tropical element. Tim put Coco on to the Isurus program and his positive feedback from Northern sessions in Todos Santos and Maverick’s has been invaluable. As Jim Brateris said, “our challenge was to keep him toasty and flexible in Todos and Mav’s this winter.”

Tim doesn’t take big wave surfing lightly and has been methodical in his approach to excelling at Maverick’s. Like others, West cites “Powerlines” videos by Curt Meyers and Eric Nelson (http://www.mavfilm.com/) as providing a library of essential study materials chronicling the break. He has examined the videos backwards and forwards as part of his preparations, and credits them with helping him understand the wave. He has also listened very carefully to interviews of surf legends for any hints or tips on how to handle different risky situations, testing and adding their techniques to his own survival program.

When in the impact zone, one technique is to slip off his board and point it toward the beach, take a couple pencil dives down. Then he will adopt a specific fetal position when closed out in the impact zone, tucking his head and limbs into a cannonball ahead of detonation. Then there are no surprises when it happens and only relief if he pops up sooner. “You always want to go into a comfort zone, because in big waves if your arms are flapp’n around, and you go limp, it’ll rip your arm off. It’ll tear your sockets up for sure.”

West cuts back at Nelscott Reef

It is his mental preparation as well that keeps him calm and alive. On any wipeout he is ready to have his wind knocked out and assumes he will be facing a two-wave hold-down. “Every time I go down I automatically assess in my head that I will have a two-wave hold-down, because if you don’t and you expect that air, your mind is just going to be bummed and you’re going to panic. Even if you broke your arm, even if you’re gashed wide open, it’s survival mode and it’s the instinct that we all have, but most just don’t know it.”

As Tim says, “The suit makes me feel that much more ‘on it’ when I’m in heavy surf. It’s comfortable; it keeps me warm when the air/water temp is really cold; the propulsion system on my forearms improves paddle power. All these factors give me more confidence being out there, knowing I have the best wetsuit pretty much ever made for surfing.”

Maverick’s Contest, 02/13/2010

West paddles out for Heat 3 during Heat 2

West had ample opportunity to put his survival training to the test during Heat 3 of the Maverick’s contest on February 13. His first drop was a long, steep one, nearly making the corner before being devoured and taken down deep. He remarked, “I nearly split my wig open,” and when he came up managed to “get one big gulp of air and one pencil dive before the next hold-down.” Taken through the rinse cycle three times before Garrett McNamara swooped in on a PWC, Tim was so drained and confused that he couldn’t hang on for more than 20-30 feet splayed across the sled sideways before getting flushed again.

West courting the wave on Valentine's weekend

Amazingly, his leash didn’t break and his board was still attached, providing a life line to the surface each time. Finally, Santa Cruz’s Vince Broglio found Tim “gone-fried,” grabbed him, and pulled him through the rocks into the lagoon before swinging back around and taking him back out into the line-up for his second wave. And that one was even less friendly, flipping him on his back and skipping him down the face like a wayward sled at a snow park. Tow partner Banner described Tim’s spill as “one of his worst ‘ragdollifications’ ever.”

Tough date

Warmth and flexibility breeds the confidence to thrive, not just survive, in the unforgiving littoral zone of NorCal. Unlike body armor (and apparently surfers like Tim, who have survived both shark attacks and semi-consciousness) a wetsuit is not indestructible. But made without compromise in terms of materials and fit, it does have the ability to boost your game. Like a new custom board, that thin layer of neoprene, once you get a feel for it, may become the single most important piece of equipment you’ll own.

More photos of Tim West at Maverick’s Contest, 2010:

Heat 3 wave, shot 1

Heat 3 wave, shot 2

Heat 3 wave, shot 3

Heat 3 wave, shot 4

Afterburner time

Mike Wallace has surfed for over two decades on the East and West coasts, Hawaii, Europe, and NorCal. Currently a resident of Moss Beach with his family of four, he can often be found haunting the beaches south of Devil’s Slide in search of the perfect sandbar with his blind dog, Moose.

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