Andy's Guide to Wetsuits
Unless you're lucky enough to be in a tropical climate, are hard as nails, or you just don't feel pain, you'll need a wetsuit to surf. Unfortunately, the sun soaked lineups you see in the media, where a pair of boardshorts and a surfboard is all you'll need, is not a reality for the majority of surfers worldwide. For the vast majority a wetsuit is a must, especially if you want to surf all year round (and not die of hypothermia in the process).
The wetsuit first came about in the early 1950's in California, invented by a man you must surely have heard of… Jack O'Neill (yes the guy you see in some O'Neill ads is a real person, not a gimic!). The first suits were stitched together pieces of neoprene in the form of vests. At first they were prone to ripping and not a patch on the suits around today, but all the same, a huge relief to the surfers freezing their nuts off in the Californian winter swells, who, before the wetsuit came along would paddle out with a few wooly jumpers on and try their best to keep dry!
Most modern wetsuits are still made from neoprene, which is a stretchy synthetic rubber material. New features and innovations have seen the wetsuit improve rapidly over the years, some wetsuits now are made from recycled plastic bottles, others are battery heatable enabling surfers to investigate new breaks in ice cold locations, and I've even heard talk of wetsuits that allow you to paddle out with a personal stereo!
Wetsuits are designed to allow plenty of shoulder and knee movement for maximum manoeuvrability, and are available in a range of thicknesses. The thickness you get depends on the temperature of the water you are surfing in, or how little you like the cold!
Wetsuits are not designed to keep you dry as you may think. They let small amounts of water in and work by sealing this thin layer of water between the surfers skin and the wetsuit. As the surfers body temperature rises, the trapped water is warmed up and acts as insulation. The black colour of your wetsuit also absorbs the suns rays to further aid the insulation process.
Wetsuits - Dos & Don'ts
It is important that your wetsuit fits well and doesn't let too much water in at the neck or elsewhere, otherwise the water will not be sealed well enough to warm up. Plus, if the wetsuit isn't warming you efficiently enough, then you'll be wasting valuable energy trying to keep warm, energy you'll need for paddling and fighting those currents and rips! However, it is also important that your wetsuit isn't too tight, or it can both restrict your movement making it harder to paddle, and also cuts off circulation making you lose valuable energy/strength.
Getting in and out of your suit can be exhausting… but well worth it! And if you're surfing in a really cold environment, your post-surf numb fingers ain't gonna make taking your wetsuit off any easier! For added extras you can get neoprene shoes, boots, gloves and hoods, which may look silly, but you'll appreciate them once you're out there (…especially in the winter!).