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.
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!).
Types of wetsuits
Wetsuits come in different sizes, thicknesses and styles. Names will vary around the world, as will the slang terms for them, but below is a basic breakdown of wetsuit types…
Full suits are as they sound really, 'full' body coverage, long arms and legs. They are designed for cold or cool water temperatures and enable you to stay out in the water longer. A full suit is your 'main' wetsuit if you like, if you're only going to get one suit, you're probably best off with a full suit that'll keep you warmer in the winter months, but maybe not too warm in the summer months, depending on where you are in the world! You may hear some people referring to 'summer-suits' or 'winter-suits', these refer to the thickness of the neoprene… For example, you may opt for a 3mm thickness in the summer and a thicker 5mm in the colder winter waters, it's your choice.
Shorties just means shorter sleeves and legs. Obviously not suitable for cold water and supposedly gives you more ease of movement, but then wetsuits are so good nowadays that most full suits are stretchy and agile enough for you to move freely.
An extension of the 'summer-suit', with long legs and short sleeves. Doesn't keep you as warm, so maybe not the best choice for cold water, but can be more comfortable in warm water.
Rash vests or 'rashies'
A rash vest is not a wetsuit, but a simple, thin, stretchy, long or short sleeved top most commonly worn with boardshorts in warmer water or tropical climates. Unlike wetsuits, they are not intended to keep you warm, they have a variety of other uses… They can be used to protect you from the rough (waxed) deck of your surfboard... and more important for guys here, but the warmer water can melt the wax on your board, which doesn't mix too well with hairy chests! Additionally sand can stick to the wax, which effectively turns your surfboard into a block of sandpaper… ouch! Rash vests are also worn to cover up from the sun, important for longer sessions in tropical locations! And also in competition surfing, different colour tops are worn to identify the surfers in the water for the benefit of the judges and spectators on the beach.
At the end of the day, there's no right or wrong wetsuit, it's down to your own personal preference, what you feel comfortable in, how much or little you can brave the cold water, or how much or many you can afford!
One final piece of good advice… It's well worth spending a bit more money on a wetsuit, you can save pennies on them, but you'll probably regret it once you're in the water!