Despite popular lore, we are now firmly ensconced at the beginning of the true surf season on the East Coast —September-March. Popular lore holds that the surf season equates to "the season", i.e., the summer season, but any true surfer will tell you that the waves do not really pump until hurricane season begins. Once hurricane season ends, winter (hopefully) brings northeast swells pulsing down our coast. This brings me straight to the point of this post: you need to be prepared gear-wise if you are going to surf through surf season proper.
Right now the water remains in the mid to high 60s but air temperatures are dropping and windchill is increasing with blustery gusts from the NE and NW respectively. This makes the ocean feel like a bath while the air whips itself through your suit and into your bones. It also makes choosing the right suit a dicey proposition. Do you just wear your 3/2 fullsuit? Or do you add a hood and booties? If the water is still in the 60s can you get away with a spring suit? First of all, everyone has her or his own different comfort levels. A good rule of thumb for all things in life is to know thyself. I, for example, know that I can get away with less rubber if I plan to have a short session (under one hour), but if I plan to surf all day, then I need to wear a thicker suit and have a dry one or two on the back burner for the second or third sessions.
If you have ever chatted to me about surfing gear then you know that I espouse maximalism — especially for the wide ranging temperatures on the East Coast. On the coldest day in the middle of February the water can get as low as 35 degrees; whereas the warmest day in August can see water temps in the mid 70s. When you add this to the fact that in order to get better at surfing (at whichever level you are at), you need to surf at least 2x a week (bare minimum), it equals owning a lot of neoprene products ranging from 2mm springsuits and jackets to hooded 5/4 fullsuits and 7mm mittens. In order to take your practice through the entire surfing season here is my bare minimum gear recommendation:
- One 3/2mm fullsuit
- One 4/3mm hooded fullsuit
- One hooded polypropylene shirt or vest
- One pair 3mm or 5mm round or split toe booties
- One pair 7mm roundtoe booties
- One pair 3mm or 5mm five finger gloves
- One pair 7mm mittens (no fingers/not even lobster claws)
Allow me to explain these seven choices: The 3/2mm is for right now through the end of November and even through parts of December, water and air temps permitting. Top of the line 3/2s these days are as warm as the 4/3s of yore and a zillion times more flexible. Plus you can augment/bolster your 3/2 with your lighter set of boots, gloves, and/or your hooded polypropylene shirt or vest. For colder, windier days from now till the end of winter you'll want to don the hooded 4/3 with varying thicknesses of gloves and boots per the air and water temps. For example, last Saturday I wore my hooded 4/3 Oneill Mutant (the Mutant is a suit with a detachable hood — kind of neat) sans gloves and boots. I will often stay away from neoprene on my extremities until absolutely imperative. I hate booties because I like to feel my feet in the wax, and I hate gloves even more, but both become necessary as water and air temps dip below 50 degrees. One word on why I say a hooded 4/3 vs. a hooded 5/4 (if you have to choose): flexibility. The 5/4s can make you feel like a sausage in a casing and can really inhibit your movement. Plus you can ramp up the warmth of your hooded 4/3 in the deepest trenches of winter with the 7mm gloves and boots. When the water and air get into that dreaded 40s and below range the extremities need maximum protection while the core needs to be able to move. I recommend mittens instead of five fingers or lobster claws because your digits are better off next to one another than apart. If you have to cover your hands then it's really freakin cold, and you'll want to protect those babies to the best of your ability. I want to stress that the above neoprene quiver is the bare minimum. Here is a more maximalist suggestion:
- Two 3/2s
- One hooded 4/3
- One hooded polypropylene shirt or vest
- One crew neck polypropylene shirt
- One hooded 5/4
- One pair 3mm split toe boots
- One pair 5mm split or round toe boots
- One pair 7mm round toe boots
- One pair 1.5mm five finger gloves
- One pair 3mm five finger gloves
- One pair 5mm lobster claw gloves
- One pair 7mm mittens
This quiver will allow you to be prepared for whatever weird variations the weather throws at you. Plus you'll be able to always put on dry gear, which becomes an utmost necessity in the coldest months (Jan-March). Of course only the most diehard will go this far. Others may opt for the former suggestion coupled with plenty of trips to warmer reaches.
In terms of quality and price I must advise you NOT TO SKIMP on winter gear. This is serious. If you try to get the cheaper stuff you will freeze and it will make surfing very un-fun. Some brands, like Patagonia, Matuse, and Nine Plus, do not even make middle of the road products because they do not want you to go through that kind of pain, i.e., they have integrity. The more mainstream brands like Ripcurl, Oneill, Xcel, Billabong, and Quiksilver are all making competitive top of the line stuff but their cheaper price tag gear is absolutely atrocious and is only, if ever, to be worn in the summer months (mostly for sun and wind protection). There is also Need Essentials, the new brand I mentioned in the summer suit write up. These guys have a hooded 5/4 at about $235. I have not tested it yet. I am happy with the 3/2 I bought from them for $125. Their philosophy is to take all of the packaging, logos, and marketing out of the wetsuit design process in order to make a quality suit at a fraction of the cost. Ultimately your choice of brand is going to come down to what you view to be the most ethically sound choice based on your consideration of environmental, economic, and aesthetic conundrums. We do, however, recommend supporting local shops like Maritime Surf, Pilgrim Surf + Supply, and Saturdays' Soho and West Village locations — links to all shops are in sidebar.
Last note: the cardinal rule of surfing more than one time a day in the winter, as mentioned, is to always put on a dry wetsuit. I must add to this that if you have a choice between two dry suits and one is thicker than the other, always wear the thickest suit for your first session! You're fresher in your first surf and can handle the extra friction of the thicker suit. You'll stay warmer longer and not freeze yourself to the bone. Your second session will necessarily be later in the day when it is slightly warmer out; plus you will be tired from the first session and so the thinner suit will help with flexibility.
I hope this post helps everyone get the most out of our east coast surf season. Winter surfing is not for the faint of heart, but staying on it through the cold months will transform your belief in what is possible.