It’s no wonder the sport of surfing was created in Hawaii instead of San Francisco or Nova Scotia. The warm, blue waters of the tropics present some of the best conditions a barebacked surfer could ask for, whereas, for an Alaskan surfer lets say, the decision to paddle out flaunting board shorts only could potentially be his last.
Before the invention of the wetsuit in the mid-1950’s by Jack O’Neill (you may have heard of him), surfing was, at its foundation, a warm water sport; That is, unless you were brave enough to bear through the sharp pain of brutally cold water until all feeling was lost, you probably didn’t surf when the water was cold. But after O’Neill - who himself resided in the cold water surfing community of Santa Cruz, CA - graced surfers with the first wetsuits designed specifically for their sport, the final impediment to the burgeoning sport of surfing was struck down, giving the world the opportunity to explore the art of riding waves no matter their latitudinal degree.
Today we take wetsuits for granted, almost as if we're unable to wrap our heads around the “harsh” world that existed before the invention of these warm, black costumes. If anything, we respect wetsuits because of their hefty price tag, and not for their capability to provide comfort in what should be extremely uncomfortable situations. Yes, it is important to value your wetsuit because of the bite it took from your bank account, but with that mentality you’ll always be the guy who simply rinses and hangs. You don't want to be that guy, if for no other reason, because your wetsuit will suffer if you are. Instead, view your wetsuit as what it really is: A piece of carefully designed, high-tech material that allows you to do what you love in an environment that would be otherwise excruciating.
The best way to start appreciating your wetsuit is to take care of it. Below are seven steps to care for your wetsuit to increase its lifespan:
Obtain A Changing Mat
You’ve just arrived at your car after the long walk from the beach. You throw your surfboard on the roof, rinse off by pouring a jug of fresh water on your head, and begin to strip down. Here, you’re going to need a changing mat. Some use Rubbermaid bins, others use bamboo mats, but my personal favorite is the Surf Grass mat, which mimics a miniature patch of bristly grass.
Changing mats are used to prevent a wetsuit from coming into contact with - often oily - asphalt or dirt while changing. Neoprene doesn’t take well to being rubbed against rough surfaces, and changing mats reduce the risk of snagging your wetsuit on the ground. Get one! Find one! Make one! Do what you need to do to make it happen.
The Mandatory Freshwater Rinse
Unless the world is ending, ALWAYS rinse your wetsuit, inside and out, after a surf session. Apart from sunlight, salt will will destroy your wetsuit faster than you ever knew was possible, which is why it is vitally important to make sure you rid your suit of harmful NaCl after every salt watery encounter. The aforementioned jug of fresh water is a good resource to keep around to ensure that you alway rinse your wetsuit right after getting out of the water. Otherwise, make sure to thoroughly douse the salty thing as soon as you get home.
(Even if you’re planning on paddling out a second time in one day, be sure to follow this rinsing ritual. For every moment salt is left to burrow into the seams of your wetsuit, its overall longevity is correspondingly diminished.)
Strip With Caution
Up until recently, all wetsuits were back-zips. Back-zip wetsuits are great for when you need to suit up or undress quickly, but let a lot of cold water through their large zipper and loose neck when being used. Our back-zip woes were answered, though, with the introduction of the chest-zip wetsuit, which requires its wearer to slip through the neck for a near water tight seal. If you’ve ever worn a chest-zip wetsuit, you can attest to the massive amount of effort it takes to put them on and take them off. When doing so, it is important to do it cautiously. Many people will tug and tear at the fabric until, by some miracle, they are able to squirm from its grips. They might also stand on their wetsuits’ half-removed leg, while trying to shimmy their other leg free (one can only hope they’re using a changing mat). The best way to slink out of your wetsuit is slowly, applying broad pressure to avoid stressing the seams.
Hang Dry Inside Out
Assuming you were able complete the last three wetsuit care tips without completely destroying your wetsuit, the next step would be to hang dry your wetsuit inside out, indoors, and far from the sun’s wetsuit degrading rays. You may recall seeing wetsuits slung over, well, pretty much anything that a wetsuit can be slung over: balconies, surfboards, car doors, tree branches, etc. While this is temptingly easy to do, Neoprene is not a material able to handle prolonged exposure to sunlight unaffected, which is usually the case when thrown out to dry.
To hang your wetsuit correctly, start turning your wetsuit inside out and using a metal or plastic hanger to hang, pulling it halfway through so that it folds in the middle. Make sure never to hang your wetsuit by the shoulders, as the weight of the material will cause it to stretch. The best places to hang dry leave your wetsuit to hang dry are in the bathroom or garage, as these are water friendly places sheltered completely from the sun. If there is absolutely no way to hang your wetsuit inside - i.e. when you’re surfing intermittently throughout the day - try to find the shadiest spot available, and hang it there.
This tip for wetsuit care draws from the last, and is, surprisingly, a routine many people do not perform. While your wetsuit is hang drying, flip it from inside out to right-side out once you see that first side is mostly dry. Primarily, this prevents the non-exposed side of your wetsuit from becoming a cesspool. Subsequently, though, flip drying makes for a very pleasant experience when suiting up for your next surf session feels like wrapping yourself in a cashmere. Of course, daily surfers have learned to live with the suffering of putting on wet wetsuits, lacking the time needed to allow their wetsuits to fully dry. However, if you have a day or more to spare, this method should leave your wetsuit feeling like new... or cashmere.
If you’re feeling really proactive, it’s never a bad idea to dunk your wetsuit in a sudsy bucket to remove stubborn salt deposits. A post-surf rinse will rid most of the salt from your wetsuit, but water - the universal solvent - will never be as effective as good ol’ chemicals. Using some cold water, wetsuit cleaner, and a bucket, make a wetsuit cleaning cocktail. Knead the cleaner into the fabric and zippers, making sure to hit all the nooks and crannies where the most rebellious salt particles hide. Performing a wetsuit wash like this monthly, or even bi-monthly, will extend your wetsuits’ lifespan substantially and will keep it from looking crusty.
The last, and least important, tip for wetsuit care, has to do with stench. The reason that I call this the least important is because I’ve never actually smelled someone - good or bad - while surfing, nor do I think having a scent - good or bad - is relevant in any way to the sport of surfing. However, in those brief moments when I'm slapped by the stench of a forgotten wetsuit as I open my car door, I remember regretfully remember this tip:
To neutralize the stench of piss and B.O. that notoriously lingers on commonly used wetsuits, make a mixture of Listerine and white vinegar, soaking your wetsuit for 30min inside out, and 30min right-side out. After an hour of soaking and few more hours of drying, your wetsuit will be ridded of its pungent smell, and replaced by the minty fresh scent of Listerine. And, for future reference, try leaking your bodily fluids before you paddle out. Easier said than done… I know.