Will a state-of-the-art wetsuit make me enjoy surfing in freezing cold water?

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You know how some people think a cold shower after a hot day feels great? Not me. I hate cold water. I am the type of person who likes warm showers even on tropical islands. At home, I barely turn on the cold knob because I love the sensation of tingly hot liquid on my skin. So when some friends started surfing at Pacifica &mdash a beach half an hour south of San Francisco where the water is 50 degrees, not 80 like Hawaii &mdash my gut instinct was to say, no thanks! I don’t even want to put my toes in the water in Pacifica.

The few times that I did go surfing in Hawaii, though, I really liked it, so I wanted to see if a high-end wetsuit would make the cold water experience less painful. A good wetsuit, apparently, is the key to plunging into the Pacific in Northern California &mdash it works by heating a thin layer of water between the suit and the skin, preventing hypothermia. I decided to give it a shot. My boyfriend signed me up for a three-hour surfing class in Pacifica, so I let that be my virgin outing into the cold cold sea.

Our class met at 9am, and we spent an hour on the beach drawing diagrams in the sand in our plain clothes. Even for NorCal, it was a particularly cold day with lots of wind and not a hint of sunshine. My fuzzy fleece and hooded jacket barely kept me warm, so suffice it to say that I was not psyched about getting into the water at all.

But when I actually slipped into my wetsuit, everything changed. The suit I tried out was the O’Neill Psycho 2, a gorgeously designed piece made of super-flexible “Ultra XDS” neoprene. I got it in a 4/3 thickness, which is what 90% of the people in the water here opt for, according to the local surf shop. The Psycho 2 has things like an extra chest layer, knee pads, and watertight edges at the wrists, ankles, and neck to keep the brutal cold water from seeping in through the cracks. At $420, it’s a top-of-the-line wetsuit with the latest materials. Oh, and did I mention that it looked and felt awesome? Unlike some of the cheaper rental versions that my classmates were wearing, it was so soft and flexible that I could do jumping jacks and yoga poses in it. The skintight charcoal black outfit with the shiny seam taping also made me feel like a superhero &mdash powerful, sexy, invincible, and immune to harsh weather conditions. I grabbed my foam surfboard and marched out to the battlefront with my fellow newbie surfer troops.

I was able to tell how important good wetsuit material was right away. This is because I was wearing ghetto rental booties on my feet which not only smelled like musty ass, but leaked cold water in between my toes the instant I stepped in. The rest of my body, which was wrapped in O’Neill’s high quality neoprene, didn’t feel a thing. It was amazing. This might sound obvious to those of you who have worn them before, but wetsuits really work! And the one I had on was so easy to move around in that paddling in it was no different than paddling in a bikini in Hawaii several months ago. I stormed into the rushing white water, saddled my board with fierce determination, and caught a couple of waves on my own. It was awesome… for about forty-five minutes.

Then things started to go downhill. I sprained my thumb when a wave slammed the wimpy foam board into right hand. I swallowed a bunch of sea water. My exposed head started to freeze (there were icicles in my hair, I swear). I stopped catching waves. My body wasn’t cold, but my feet and hands were. I had to stop myself from running to Taco Bell for refuge several times. I didn’t feel like a superhero anymore, I felt like a super wimp. It sucks being a super wimp.

By the time the lesson was over, the Psycho 2 was clinging to my skin like ten thousand leeches. My fingers were completely numb (gloves would have helped, but I didn’t have any) and I was drenched in freezing cold water. The wetsuit had suctioned into my ankles and wrists, and I had a really hard time taking it off. I’m not a girly girl, but at that moment I was so cold and so desperate to get out of my neoprene shell that I felt like crying.

Back in my street clothes, it took me 20 minutes of driving with the heat on full blast and another 20 minutes in a shower &mdash scorching hot &mdash to defrost. I felt completely tattered, but the Psycho 2 made it back without a scratch. Hanging in the sunroom at home, it looked as strong and sexy as ever.

Would I wear it again? Maybe, if I had booties and gloves and a hood that were as comfy as the wetsuit. And maybe if O’Neill comes up with a mechanism where the sticky wet suit slips or falls off of me at the push of a button. That, in my mind, would be a true breakthrough in wetsuit technology. Meanwhile, I think I’m gonna stay on land until my next Hawaii vacation.

About Lisa Katayama

I'm a contributing editor here at Boing Boing. I also have a blog (TokyoMango), a book (Urawaza), and I freelance for Wired, Make, the NY Times Magazine, PRI's Studio360, etc. I'm @tokyomango on Twitter.
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8 Responses to Will a state-of-the-art wetsuit make me enjoy surfing in freezing cold water?

  1. Michiel says:

    The instructor should have known the water temperature and advise you to wear neoprene boots, gloves and a hood.

    I’ve learned to dive in cold water with all that and a full thickness wetsuit. The initial plunge nearly stops your hart, but after you warm up, you shouldn’t be able to feel the cold any longer. If you do, you aren’t wearing enough. (peeing also helps to warm up, by the way. Don’t do this in a rental suit, though)

  2. ColdWaterSurfer says:

    I have been surfing in New England for over ten years, year round. Through snow storms, ice storms, 32 degree water etc etc..

    The thing to remember is that they are called ‘wet’ suits for a reason, they need water in them in order to work. So you have to let some in to the suit, just pull on the neck a bit let it flush and then let go and make sure it works its way down there. Then that water stays in there and your body warms it up and you stay warmer for longer. The reason the suit was sucking to your body is because you weren’t letting water in there first. That won’t happen if you let some water in.

    Also when buying booties and gloves and a hood, which you should have, you don’t want them to be too tight. You need room in there for water and to prevent cutting off your circulation which makes you cold.

    And believe me the newer suits are a dream compared to the stuff just 7-8 years ago.

  3. Nelson.C says:

    I like hot baths when I’m hot, perverse as that might sound. But it serves to make me feel cooler when I’m done, by some quirk of physiology.

  4. seabass says:

    The effectiveness of a wetsuit has almost everything to do with with how well it fits you. A cheaper wetsuit that fits properly will alway be warmer than an expensive but poorly fitting one. Each manufacturer cuts it’s suits a bit differently, so your best bet is to go to a shop with a wide selection of suits from different manufacturers and then get an experienced salesperson to help you find the one that fits your body type best.

  5. Dan says:

    Taco Bell at the edge of the universe FTW! Perhaps the best chain store real estate move ever.

  6. canadiantourism says:

    Tofino is a hotbed for cold water surfing on the Pacific Coast of Vancouver Island. A wetsuit is a necessity for most of the year, but the sandy bottom makes it an attractive destination for beginners.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Rock Patagonia suits, only. Don’t even both with that other junk.

  8. rubber tux user says:

    ANONYMOUS ANONYMOUS says
    “Rock Patagonia suits, only”

    kook.

    hook line and sinker, go clean ur roofrack

    As the bass said it’s about fit and cut, all the players in the game have quality suits.

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