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Waterspot: What’s so hot about being warm?

In this, a winter of summer, the ocean temperature still hovers in the low 60s. This, for most surfers, means full wetsuits and sometimes hoods, booties and gloves. But not everyone is quick to subject themselves to neoprene sensory deprivation.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen James, a local Swami’s surfer, ever wear anything so much as a rash guard while surfing, even on the coldest mid-winter days. Two surfers who are known to “skin it” when temperatures plummet are underground local legend Colin Smith and Hawaiian big-wave charger Shawn Briley.

Smith, a former pro and one of the best surfers ever to come from North County, was recently spotted surfing for hours in nothing but surf trunks and a rash guard. The water, at the time, was a frigid 58 degrees and he was out for hours. When asked about it, Smith said that colder water helped him to keep moving and to be more alert. He also mentioned that he felt better after having surfed without a wetsuit.

There is a famous photo in an old Surfer Magazine of Hawaiian pro surfer Shawn Briley climbing into the boat at Todos Santos Island off the coast of Baja. Briley, who is known for taking risks in big surf, nonetheless had us wondering about his unusual approach to that well-photographed season. Recently, I had an opportunity to ask him about it. According to Briley: “I actually had surfed Bells Beach and J Bay (cold water surf spots in Australia and South Africa) without a wetsuit. Anything in the 60s is fine. I hate — and I don’t use that word lightly — wetsuits. They make me feel claustrophobic, my heart rate goes up, and I just hate them. At Todos I wore shorts and surfed for four hours, and I was OK.”

Like some of you, I began surfing in the early ’60s when wetsuits were either bulky, still pieces of rubber or nonexistent. We often surfed without wetsuits in those days, but it had been decades since I “skinned it” in winter. After hearing from Smith and Briley, I decided to voluntarily give their theory a try. I looked at my nice warm wetsuit and passed it over in favor of nothing but a rash guard and trunks for protection against the frigid elements.

Gearing up to paddle out was the worst part, as everything in me suggested I wear my 3/2 full suit. Once I overrode that initial internal objection, I suited up and paddled out. The first few steps into the ocean were a bit of a shock to the system, and I cringed as the first lines of whitewater rolled toward me. After ducking beneath them, I broke the surface completely soaked, but not feeling much colder than usual. I caught a few waves and things went well for a while. Then, about an hour later, I noticed my feet were numb. Looking down I saw that my hands and feet were purple, and I felt a bit off balance when I stood up.

I paddled in and enjoyed the expected invigoration that being immersed in cold offers. I felt alert and alive, but must admit, the best part of my session was drying off and putting on warm clothes again. The car heater beckoned.

My conclusion is that surfing sub-60-degree water is not for everyone. Still, I recommend you try it at least once, even if it’s only to appreciate surfers who rode waves before such insulation existed.

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