If you have surfed in different latitudes, or at different times of the year, you know that your attire can vary—and by quite a bit. Cold and sun exposure will likely enter into your equation. If you have lived in southern latitudes all your life, perhaps among the eight main Hawaiian islands (19-22 degrees North), you may blink at the mention of wet suits, likely never needing one. It all depends on what you are used to, and what your body’s thresholds are.
A few words about wetsuits. Okay, more than a few. A full 3/2mm wetsuit has three millimeters of neoprene thickness around the body’s torso, giving additional warmth to the key body organs, and two millimeters for the extremities where a thinner suit doesn’t hamper the flexibility needed by the moving arms and legs. A shorty has short legs and arms for warmer water temperatures. A wetsuit vest is simply a top with no arms, keeping only the torso warmer. There are also battery-powered heated wetsuits and undergarments. Nice! What about dry suits? They provide additional compression-resistant insulation, keep the cold water out, and you can wear additional undergarments. However, though they fit tight around the wrists, legs, and neck, the rest of the suit is loose-fitting. This provides drag, which no surfer wants.
Surfing here puts you in tropical waters. Being this close to the equator, the water is warm. September and October hang around 81 degrees Fahrenheit. In the winter, it decreases a whopping five degrees to about 76. That’s wintertime! If you laugh, you haven’t lived where it’s warm year-round. You begin to notice small changes in temperatures.
It may go without stating that women wear a range from skimpy bikinis to shorts and abbreviated tops. Given how wispy women’s suits can be, keep in mind that some are designed to stay in place even when the wave energies pick up. For the guys, it’s commonly board shorts, nothing more (check out PJ’s cool offerings!). They should have pockets, or at least one pocket, for wax and cash, with the better ones having a tiny lanyard to clip to your keys.
Rashguards? Given the sun’s intensity, they are common, akin to short- or long-sleeved Tees made of material with high-enough SPF ratings to ensure you don’t get sunburned. As the name implies, these tops keep your skin from abrading against the surfboard and the wax as your body shifts against the board. Surfer’s caps aren’t common, but they do help protect the face from midday sun exposure.
One more thing you’ll find a lot in Hawai’i: reef shoes. Island reefs are home to sea urchins (which, by the way, help to keep algae in check, keeping coral from getting smothered). The locals call them wana (pronounced vah-nah). If you are surfing in shallow, reefy water, the shoes help protect your feet from the painful puncture. You should know that walking on the coral is taboo as it disturbs and kills the coral, already in declining populations.
Southern California, Venice Beach
Depending on the time of year, you might get away without a wetsuit. In January, it’s about 57 degrees, requiring a full 4/3mm suit and possibly 3mm booties. August temps of 66 can call for a 3/2 suit, or a shorty, but many souls can brave the chill with warm-water wear, if the air temperature is hot. Since it’s a grooving part of the world, you might just see waterproof headphones and phone case to keep the tunes rolling.
Shark country: Stinson Beach, just north of San Francisco, California
Aside from the need for a 3/2 or 4/3 suit, possibly with a hood that covers all but your face, and gloves and booties, you are good to go—except for one “small” detail. You are in the breeding Red Triangle of the great white shark. No biggie. It’s not much taller than you are, right? In addition to a Shark Shield device that emanates an electromagnetic signal sharks don’t like, there’s this cool new take on wetsuit and surfboard colors and patterns. You see, great whites, tiger sharks, and bull sharks only see gray scale—black and white. If the arms and legs of your wetsuit and the underside of your board are black and white stripes, you no longer appear as a continuous body—a meal to the shark. You just look like bits and pieces—unappealing. Check it out at this Ted Talk.
Newport Beach, Oregon
Water temps run from 49 to 56 degrees. You’re looking at a 4/3 or 5/4 wetsuit, or thicker, with attached hoodie. Don’t forget the booties and gloves. Mandatory. That, or you stay indoors and drink a hot mulled wine. Maybe that dry suit would be okay, after all.
Aside from dressing for a water temperature of 56 to 70 degrees, there’s one additional recommended item: a good luck charm—not quite a thread, but hey. Perhaps it’s a Lucky 7 charm, or your favorite goddess, hanging from your neck (inside your wetsuit)—anything with a prayer attached.
Netherlands surfing on a downtown canal
No kidding. By June of 2015, a water-purifying wave pool will be built on the Steigersgracht Canal in Rotterdam. It will provide a 5-foot, 14-second wave, along with a manner of water purification. Perhaps a 3/2, and a helmet if it gets crowded. With air temperatures of 32(low) to 42 (high) in the winter, and 58 to 73 in the summer, you just might make it with a shorty in early August. If this wave catches on, urban surfing may just happen in your town.