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Dressed for the season. Photo by T-Roc
Columns Waterspot

Waterspot: The season for wetsuits

As a surfer I haven’t given much thought to the collective debt we owe to Jack O’Neill.

O’Neill, as many of you know, designed the first surf wetsuits and while he has passed, the company he founded continues being a leader in the wetsuit industry.

I shiver to think how cold I would have been today without his research and development.

Thank you, Jack!

My first wetsuit was one of those thick, stiff zip- front jackets with a beaver tail that I never snapped. While not really functional, the tail flapped in the breeze like some kind of speed indicator. 

A company called Sea Suits made that first suit, and while it created a decent second skin, the rash that came with it was nearly as bad as being cold. Apparently nobody thought to invent the rash guard for a few more decades.

It wasn’t until the winter of 1970 when I saw someone wearing a “farmer John,” a full-length wetsuit without sleeves. Next came the “short John,” which is a farmer John with the legs cut off. 

The surfer I saw wearing that garment in 1970 commented to me that it was like surfing in his pajamas.

I don’t recall when the first full suits hit, but they changed everything and surfing year-round became a reality all the way up the West Coast to Canada.

When combined with gloves and booties, the full suit made previously off-limits cold-water spots attainable and soon surfers were reporting riding waves in Oregon and points north.

All that rubber is nice in a way, but in another way it’s a bit claustrophobic. It also cuts a surfer off from the elements to the point that it can resemble a sensory deprivation experiment. 

Or, so says my friend and sometimes surfing partner, Rob Morton. Morton and I agree that we would rather be a bit cold than too insulated and isolated. Obviously not everyone agrees.

The coldest water I ever surfed was at a river mouth in southern Canada where fresh water poured in from a melting glacier, and the water dipped into the mid ’40s. When I tore a small hole in one of my booties, the shock was so severe I was forced to paddle in from perfect, lined up 3- to 4-foot point waves.

These days I stay closer to home where water temperatures rarely dip below 60.

Sixty degrees Fahrenheit is only about halfway to freezing, but after more than an hour of immersion it can leave the body so rigid that it is sometimes difficult to stand up after returning to the sand.

When I see shots of surfers at Mavericks riding waves up to 30 feet high, I wonder how they do it.  Of course they are wrapped head to toe with the finest rubber available, but that presents another problem.

When 30 feet of whitewater explodes like a bomb within feet of you, you need to get deep quickly. Have you ever tried swimming for deep water with all that rubber keeping you buoyant? 

This is the stuff nightmares are made of — ice-cold nightmares.