Whenever surfing comes up in conversation with non-surfing people, the matter of water temperature almost always surfaces. I've met several people who say, "I don't surf here (in Nor Cal) because the water is too cold." Yes, the water temperature around Half Moon Bay, California is typically in the 48-58 F range year-round. But, with new technology in wetsuits, cold water is no longer an excuse.
A wetsuit is a surfer's essential life-support system, especially for a starter who spends more time in the water. With about $400 you can get a technology that allows you to surf all year. And, people do surf essentially anywhere in the world, anytime of the year, thanks to wetsuits.
I have had many different types of wetsuits, but in the last few years the material and structure have changed dramatically -- making the suit more comfortable, warmer, and easier to get in and out of (but somehow slower to dry).
Advanced new features
The suit I am using now is made of super-stretch material on the sleeves with a four-millimeter thickness on the body and three millimeters on the sleeves (known as a 4/3 configuration).
The zipper length on the back is significantly shorter than in older models. There is also an inner sheet across the entire back called Bat Wings or Zen Zips. These features make the suit both warmer and easier to zip up.
Blind-stitched panels provide additional comfort in that no harsh stitching rubs against your skin. On Bat Wing models with a neck pullover, be sure to pull up the bat wing part as you put the suit on, before you put your arms through the sleeves. Then tilt your neck as far back as you can and pull over the neck ring. Otherwise, all the buttons will come undone.
Your wetsuit must fit like second skin, and shouldn't create a pocket of water inside. Once you get in the water, you can't return it to the store -- so try different sizes, walk around and mimic paddling moves to make sure you can surf several hours comfortably in the suit.
One special area that is important to keep warm is the collar closure area. Make sure the back zipper is all the way up and the closure is tight around your neck. Otherwise, water will rush in when paddling or in a wipe-out, making it almost like wearing nothing at all. If you wear booties, be sure your suit fits on top of the booties.
Besides protecting you from cold, a wetsuit protects you from coral, rocks, fins, sunburn and stings from poisonous sea creatures. A local surf shop guy said that if you get injured with a wetsuit on, you're likely to need only half the stitches. A five-stitch wound in a wetsuit might cost you 10 stitches if you had on just a pair of board shorts, and an emergency room visit can set you back a lot of money and keep you out of the water for a week.
Choosing the right suit and accessories
New wetsuit models usually cost somewhere in the high $200s to low $300s. In the winter, bundle yourself up with a four-millimeter hood, a pair of gloves and booties. A significant amount of body heat is lost from the head, and while a hood may not be fashionable, the added comfort and safety will allow you to stay in the water longer and advance faster.
If you are going to surf a lot, two wetsuits will let you get into a dry wetsuit each session, and if damage occurs, you have a backup. But, if you have only one, you can dry it quickly by blowing a fan on it at a low setting. This will dry the suit completely before the next morning.
Keeping your wetsuit clean
If you tub rinse your suit in fresh water twice and hang it dry, it shouldn't smell. However, just hosing down your suit doesn't remove dirt and bacteria in the rubber cells. You can give the suit a good, thorough wash in a tub with a small capful of dish detergent or Woolite to wash out these elements. Do this either once a month or week, depending on how much you go out.
There is also a product called McNett Myrazyme -- an enzymatic product that decomposes the smelly elements trapped inside the suit. Just add a capful in the rinsing water and hang the suit to dry. Myrazyme is available at surf shops, scuba equipment stores or large sporting good stores. Whatever you do, rinse the suit in fresh water and hang it dry every time you go out -- the suit will last longer.
If your booties start to smell, wash them with soap or a shot of Lysol. Under no circumstances leave them wet in your car for several days.
Thanks to wetsuits, cold weather is no excuse for not hitting the surf. Find your second skin, take good care of it and watch how fast you'll improve once you're surfing year-round.
Manabu Tokunaga shares his surf experience and knowledge through StokeMaster.com -- a collection of dynamic information from Tokunaga and other members of the surf community.