Wetsuits for Sit-on-top Kayak Surfing by Steve Eisenhauer
Even with the water temperature in the 30's and the air in the 20's I'm still warm enough to spend 4 or 5 hours in winter New Jersey surf. It's taken a few years to figure out the best wetsuit combination for kayak surfing but I now have a system that makes me as comfortable in February as in July. On big wave days I'm actually more comfortable in a wetsuit than without one, since banging into the kayak in wipeouts is less bruising with a full-body suit of foam rubber.
My wetsuit system is as follows:
Winter: - For most of the winter an all-5mm Henderson dive suit (without attached hood) is my standard outfit. Nearly all board surfers wear suits combining different neoprene thicknesses: 5/4/3 is a common combination with the body core at 5mm and the legs and arms at 4 and 3mm. But leg movement is minimal in a kayak and arm rotation is less than with surfboards so a 5mm dive suit is a warmer alternative for kayak surfers. 12-11-12 update: After wearing out my first Henderson dive suit, and buying and using new 5mm and 3mm dive suits, I now use only surfer-style suits (a 6/4 and a 4/3) with the super stretch E3 neoprene. The price is about the same, and I find them more comfortable. Rip-Curl is the make that seems to fit me best, but other quality manufacturers make similar suits. Look at their size chart carefully since different manufacturers often have different charts. I still like hoodless suits but nearly all 5/4 and 6/4 suits come with attached hoods. I keep hearing from surfers that these new mid and upper-range wetsuits have neoprene that feels like butter and, truthfully, it does.
Spring: - In the warmer spring and fall seasons, my Hyperflex 3/2 suit works well. Even with hard use these suits can last more than a year, provided you take care of them by rinsing after each use, drying carefully and applying patches on the inevitable tears, holes and worn spots. I use McNett Wetsuit Neoprene Cement, and borrow patch material from old suits, to extend the life of my suits and gloves to two to four years of use.
Hood: - A 5mm hood with 3mm neck protection works for me. Although I rarely wear it - only on the coldest days - it is almost always with me, hooked to my PFD, just in case it's needed. Hoods not only keep the head warm but, perhaps more importantly, they can help keep the ears warm and, therefore, should help postpone or prevent surfers' ear, which is a narrowing of the ear canal due to excessive exposure to cold air and water. I'm not an expert on surfers ear but have been told hoods alone are only minimally effective: properly fitted and designed ear plugs are more effective. Vented plugs - like Doc's Proplugs - allow sound in, which is important when you want to hear a warning yell of another surfer. Other protective measures, like drying out the ears after sessions, are also recommended.
12-13-12 update: Regarding surfers ear (exostosis), I tried vented ear plugs for a few sessions, and found them uncomfortable, so I asked my doctor who happens to be a diehard year-round surfer how important they are to wear. He said not to worry, since I'm too old (59) for boney structures to be growing in my ears. He said it's definitely a problem for young people who are actively growing. He did examine my ears to make sure there was no narrowing of the canals. When I review the literature about surfers ear, I find conflicting information about whether older people have to worry about it. Since my doctor didn't give me an age cutoff when surfers ear is no longer a problem, my advice to everyone is to have your ears checked out annually to make sure no narrowing has started. I can't imagine getting all teenage surfers and kayakers to wear earplugs every time they're in cold water but I can imagine a doctor examining their ears and, once the beginning of narrowing is found and the painful expensive operation explained to them if they don't take protective measures, then they might respond accordingly. From my reading of the literature, one thing seems clear: there's a hereditary component. Some people are susceptible to getting it and some aren't.
Helmet: - Any discussion of hoods should mention helmets. A 5mm hood (7mm models are also available) serves somewhat as a protective helmet. Beginning, intermediate and most advanced kayak surfers need head protection. One summer day I flipped and, seeing that my coiled paddle leash was tangled to a shortened version of itself, I shifted my concentration to untangling it while floating in the water and inadvertently pulled the kayak nose into the side of my head. It took 14 stitches to sew up the damage to my ear and head. I was lucky the result wasn't much worse. So, particularly if you have any dependents checked on your income tax form, wear a helmet designed for whitewater kayaking. I no longer introduce family or friends to kayak surfing without emphasizing safety concerns like use of a helmet.
Footwear: - 7mm toeless booties keep feet warm. I've found both the Rip Curl and Xcel Infiniti Drylock booties work well but other manufacturers produce quality 7mm booties. I also use bootie liners which are "one-size-fits-all" Hyperflex Polyolifin Hot Socks. These liners slightly increase the warmth rating and, more importantly, they make it easy to put on and take off the booties. It seems the only time I get cold is when changing out of my wetsuit after surfing, which is usually done while standing outside in the cold with a towel wrapped around me. Every second counts, and the time saved by bootie liners makes a difference.
Anyone who regularly uses booties knows of their stink potential. Every other wetsuit part can be easily dried out after rinsing: just hang outside for an hour or two to drip dry, then hang everything inside overnight in a dry place, flip the suit inside out for a few hours and every piece but your booties will usually be dry and smell free for the next day's use. But your booties will stay wet inside for days, and soon stink. I deal with this by cutting any straps off the booties (board surfers need straps, not kayak surfers) so they can be turned inside out like the wetsuit. They'll still smell some before they dry, but in a full day they'll be almost dry and in two days fully dry with no more smell. An alternative is to use a small fan to blow air into them overnight (some booties are hard to flip inside out).
After a season of hard use the 7mm booties tend to get compressed in the soles, and lose some of their warmth rating. So I buy a new pair each year, and keep an older pair for the milder fall and spring seasons. Note: Don't waste your money on 3mm or 5mm booties that many board surfers prefer; kayak surfing doesn't need the added foot sensitivity thinner booties provide.
Gloves: - Wetsuit gloves for surf kayakers are much different than for board surfers. Pre-curved fingers to minimize fatigue are important. I buy my pre-curved gloves from NRS, and have three pairs for the varying conditions. The 3.5mm Reactor gloves work well in all but the coldest months. 2mm Paddlers gloves are great for occasional cool water days and as liners for the 3.5mm Toaster Mitts. It may seem like overkill to wear gloves under mittens but kayak surfing requires finger control and a consistently strong grip on the leashed paddle; although you lose some mobility with double gloves you lose more with cold creaky fingers. But water-soaked double gloves add weight to your paddling stroke so you'll want to get the outside mitts off as soon as the water temperature allows. Your arms will feel lighter once you do.
Life Jacket: - The final warmth factor in cold weather protection is your PFD. Strapping on a well-fitted PFD adds a thick layer of foam and fabric to protect your chest and back. I like the NRS Vista PFD because of the reasonable price, two big front pockets to stash my gloves if I don't need them and its good coverage front and back. The only jacket I liked better - which I've since misplaced - was an O'Brien jet ski PFD which protected my entire torso, including the sides. It was all black, which is good on a sunny day when it can absorb the sun's rays but bad when you want your kayak to be more visible. I bought a replacement O'Brien jacket of the same model and size, but the replacement chaffed my armpits badly. Since I paddle in remote inlets on occasion, amid boat traffic, and on waves with other surfers, I've become more secure and satisfied with the comfort and visibility of my red NRS Vista. Its 16 pounds of flotation seems just right for my body type, allowing me to dive under waves after a wipeout but also bringing me to the surface after a wave "hold down" before my breath gives out. For a month or so I tried a 20-lb. flotation NRS PFD and, although it brought me to the surface more quickly, it had too much flotation for me to safely submerge my head to get away from the kayak when necessary.
Expense: So, what does all this cost? Shop around. Buy from a local surf or dive shop whenever possible, since trying on wetsuit gear is recommended before purchase and they're more likely to take gear back if you try it in the water once or twice and don't like it (for an exchange, preferably). I purchase my NRS gear from a local canoe and kayak dealer but you may have to use mail order in your area if you want pre-curved gloves or other NRS gear. My 5mm Henderson wetsuit cost about $185.00 from a local discount supplier, and the 3/2mm suit was about $100.00. Gloves, boots and hoods cost in the $30.00 to $50.00 range.
What about Dry Suits? - For anyone wondering whether to wear a dry rather than a wetsuit, I can only explain -- since I've never worn a dry suit -- why I chose wet over dry. In general, wetsuits are less expensive and more readily available from local sources. I find a well-fitted wetsuit is very comfortable. I've heard from dry suit wearers that the tight fit required around the wrists and neck can become blood restricting and uncomfortable. Going to the bathroom (no. 1, of course) is more cumbersome in a dry suit, which usually involves a trip to shore and finding a secluded location or restroom. In a wetsuit you just do it whenever and flush when you get the chance by falling in the water and stretching the neck to let water in. It's my guess that you should consider a dry suit if you don't expect to fall in much, and a wetsuit if you do. But the decision may be more complicated than that for many people. I don't see dry suit wearers in the ocean but have river whitewater friends who use them.
About the author -
In Steve's position as Regional Director of the Natural Lands Trust, his work focuses on managing 9,000 acres of preserved land and water, preserving addition acreage and running an outreach program that includes many kayak and canoe trips, often involving first-time paddlers. For information about the Natural Lands Trust's activities see www.natland.org
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