As a relative newcomer to surfing, I’m in the “getting the right equipment” phase (although my friends with a half dozen boards in their quiver lead me to believe this phase never really comes to an end). This entails a lot of research, a bit of patience, and occassionally taking my knocks. Here’s my wetsuit story, with the verdict: it’s worthwhile to get a quality suit as soon as you can.
I casually jumped back into the sport during a mid-summer Cabo trip, and was quickly hooked. First step: wetsuit. Returning to LA, I played it safe and got a barely used, entry-level O’Neill Reactor from Play It Again Sports in Pasadena. Size: L, Cost: $85. It worked well August through early October, with water temps around 68º or 69ºF. The arms and chest looked a bit loose compared to my friends’ wetsuits, and some subsequent reading confirmed this is an undesirable quality. But its condition, decent price and immediate availability allowed to enjoy being in the water. Even if I was occasionally the only person not in boardshorts.
But then the currents switched and the water temperature plummeted to the mid-50s. My feet and hands froze up, my lower jaw became numb, and I was frozen too stiff to even pop up onto my board. Wind cut right through the seams on the Reactor, which was the death of me. EPF surf pal Chrissie informed me that the Reactor is rated for tropical conditions (68º and above) and offers almost no cold protection whatsoever. And, she confirmed it was too large for me, allowing cold water to flush right through. It was already time to upgrade.
I started my research and found that top-quality suits run into the $200-400 range. They have what O’Neill calls a “firewall” – an added fleece-like padding on the torso and lower back that keeps your core warm. The seams are glue-sealed, and the neoprene is much suppler. Everyone recommended O’Neill as the best, and told me to consult their sizing chart for pretty accurate fittings. I visited a local shop to try on the O’Neill Heat in size M, and found it to be concerningly restrictive, especially on my neck. Everything else there was out of my price range.
Next step, Craigslist. There are a number of suits available, at decent prices. Buying used on CL is always a roll of the dice though. I drove across LA to check a top-line, couple-years-old O’Neill Psycho 2, also size M, that was listed for $150. First look: decent condition, but seemed way too small for me. But the magic of that high-quality neoprene had it fitting on me like it was painted on, and the neck felt great too. The flexibility was unbelievable. Even with a slight mildew smell, appearing to have been folded incorrectly for storage, and a few re-glued seams (supposedly by O’Neill), SOLD.
I tested the new suit out the following morning, a smallish November day. Water temps had come up just a tad, about 61º. First thing I noticed was how effortless it was to jog out to the water. Like, crazy effortless. Almost like being naked, but warm. I ran down the beach because it felt so good. Then I got in the water. For the first time ever I didn’t feel the wetness nor any temperature drop. Getting in and paddling too no effort at all. For almost 90 minutes, I paddled around the mid-November ocean as comfortable and content as could be. No water intake (except when one decent-sized wave crashed down over me), and it was easily put on and taken off. Warmth, flexibility, and a decent (used) price. Winter, here I come.