Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Winter Surfing, Staying Warm

Do You Really Need A Heated Wetsuit?

The winter surfing season is upon us, we often think about how we stay warm in the water.

Actually, the coldest water I have experienced here in Half Moon Bay is not in the middle of November or December but in May when strong winds blow across and bring a lot of cold water up in the phenomenon called upwelling. This is the time when the average water temperature dips below 50 degrees F. Getting in and out of the suits in the winter is another story.

I have been surfing here in Half Moon Bay area for many years now with 4 mm suits, but I have not yet switched to a 5 mm suit, and I do not think I ever have to. There is nothing wrong with 5 mm suits, but I also use 3 mm suits in the summer and I can tell how light I feel in and out of the water, so while it is a pure guess I would think I feel significantly heavier with a 5 mm.

In the past couple of years, the suit technology has made a significant evolution. The rubber material feel much lighter, and also many makes started to use welded seams rather than blind stitches. I think that's a great improvement since a break in a string in a seam often cause splits and blind stitch repairs take time. In most warranty repair situation it can take 2 to 4 weeks to get your suits back from the shop.

In addition to the whole suit material they have started to add more heat retaining materials in front of the chest. This firewalling does make quite a bit of difference and when I am paddling hard, I feel the heat reflecting off the chest.

So today's 3/4 mm suits are significantly warmer than the ones just a few years ago. I am not sure what they will come up with next, but I am sure more lighter and warm materials will come in the future.

This year I got two new suits, one is Rip Curl F-Bomb and other is O'Neil Mutant. It just so happened that I have ruined two of the Excels that I have been using for a couple of years. On the average I buy one suit a year alternate them each session as I go in the water 3-4 times a week, often the first thing in the morning and also they stay salty and wet in the car all day until I come home in the evening.

I have used both brands of suits recently and I must say that these are significantly warmer than the others I had in the past. Especially when I am paddling I can actually get hot inside the suits, but that's one of the points of staying warm which is to keep on moving. So I do that a lot by adjusting my lineup positions or going to other peaks throughout the session, I usually am not just in one spot. Trying to get to the next peak before others find out is part of fun in surfing.

In terms of the styles of the suit, I tend to like the front-zip ones. Especially during duck diving, the front-zip ones tend to leak less water. The integrated hood also does help to this effect. The part I do not like about the rear-zip ones are two folds. Most rear-zip ones require a verclo closure. This material tends to lose the grip before the rest of the suit goes. When that happens you have one heck of a leaky suit. And anyone who have forgotten to tighten the neck closure or forgotten to zip up fully know this.

Another irritations with verclo are if any part of it is exposed to your skin, it makes a rash, and also it sticks just about any place and damages the jersey material inside the suit when washing or handling it after a session.

Most front-zip ones do not use verclo. In fact it is so much so that Excel front zip Infinity suits I had did not have any verclo on the suit. I was amazed with the clever design of that too.

The next key to retaining the warmth is to wearing a hood. If your suit does not come with a hood, I recommend you either get a Squid head type or a vest with an integrated hood. The vest kind is a bit warmer as it helps seal the water around the neck too. Often I actually get hot so I take it on and off in a session.

Another important thing may be is preventing the surfer's ear condition, which is an unwanted bone growth in the ear canal. It is said to be triggered even from the outside of the skull. So keeping the whole head warm may be important especially if you go out a lot.

If your suit is a bit older and you want to hang on to it (I'd rotate that into a spare stock myself), get a thicker under-garment called Mysterioso which is available in surf shops or outdoorzy places like REI. Pull the collar as high as possible after you put the suit on. This helps seal (i.e., slow down the speed and volumes of water coming in) and so makes a significant difference over plain rash guards.

So in summary, I would;
  • Invest in a newer mid to high range front-zip wetsuits with welded seams. Invest $60 to $100 more than the lowest end ones (almost always a rear-zip type) will get you a significantly better deal, I paid < $400 with tax for mine. No need to get into a high-end costing $600 or above with fancier materials. You are reaching for an incremental improvement there. I'd rather get new suites more often.
  • Get a hood.
  • Keep on moving in a session.
  • Ask or Share Your Experience On This Blog.