I hear birds, the days are getting longer, summer is coming. Any of us who live in climates that include winter understand how eager we are to ditch the snow gear and get the boat in the water. But spring water is cold – as in there might still be ice floating! So how do you enjoy boating when temps aren’t balmy? You dress for it! Every spring and fall I get lots of question about neoprene and cold-water boating. And I’ve definitely learned what works and what does not. So, here’s the skinny.
What do I wear after the snow has melted but the water is still freezing? You might think my answer will be a dry suit but it’s not. I’ve found that neoprene wetsuits are made so well that they truly keep me warm enough while surfing even in the coldest water. The ticket is to be sure the wetsuit has taped and sealed seams, a secure chest zip and fits tightly to minimize water infiltration. If you are surfing but not exerting a lot of effort, go for the 4/5mm suit in these temps. However, if you are an active surfer, I would consider a 3/2mm. I’m busy enough behind the boat that I actually get too warm in the 4/5mm.
So, we have the body covered but don’t forget about your hands, feet and head! I’m not too particular about gloves; dexterity isn’t too important (when wake surfing especially since you’ll only have the rope for a minute), so I say the warmer the better. Go with at least 3mm in the cold water. I have more opinions about booties, however. My favourites are 2mm with a split toe, soft bottom and a strap by the ankle. The split toe and soft bottom help with dexterity so you can “feel” your board. The soft bottom also helps to preserve your traction; a hard sole will shred it and the ankle strap prevents the booties from filling with water. I’ve tried the same bootie without the strap and it always fills. Finally, if it’s really cold or windy, I like a neoprene beanie. So much heat leaves the body via the head so cap it! Neoprene hoods are also very warm but a little much for me.
“Time in the water is only part of the process, staying warm in the boat is the other part.”
Okay, so that’s it, right? Not quite. Time in the water is only part of the process, staying warm in the boat is the other part. For starters, put your full suit on in the house/car before you get to the boat – it’s warmer and more efficient. Then throw a parka over top- think of the long jackets you might see at ski races, swim meets, etc. They are usually lined with cozy fleece and the outer shell is wind resistant. Once in the boat, pop a pair of warm slippers on that have a hard bottom. Steer away from wearing socks only as boats are wet so most likely your socks will be too. You’ll want a warm, dry hat (remember, cap that heat) and warm gloves or mittens you can drive in. Ladies, leave the leggings at home, they are more difficult to pull over wet skin, especially if your fingers are getting chilly. Instead, grab sweat pants and a zip up hoodie.
After your surf, towel off, ditch all neoprene, throw the parka on – which acts as a warm changing towel – pop off your suit and don your hoodie that zips and sweats all while in the parka. Put your slippers, gloves, and hat on and you’re set to drive. You will also want to turn boat heaters on if you have them, of course. Your passengers will love a blanket or dry towel to put over their legs and trap that delicious boat heater heat. You might be tempted to leave your neoprene on as you’ll likely be quite warm when you get out of the water but don’t make that mistake! Wet neoprene gets cold fast when you’re not moving.
So, the ice is gone, and the water is warming, is it time to put neoprene away? Not exactly. I use different levels of neoprene through the summer. Sure, your friends might roll their eyes when your throw a neoprene shirt in the boat in July, but I always say, “Neoprene doesn’t make you a bad person, just a warm one.” When the lakes are still a bit cool, I like a 2mm shorty (long arms, short legs) – it will keep your core warm, but you won’t overheat. When the water is warm, but the air is cool (or vice versa), I wear a 1mm jacket or shorty spring suit (long arms, short legs). This takes the edge off the initial plunge, but you won’t get too warm once you’re riding and it acts as sunscreen. If I’m warm, I’ll try more tricks. If I’m cold, I am subconsciously trying not to fall.
Finally, be sure to dry your neoprene properly. Hang suits inside out and then flip them outside in so both sides dry. We have a rack in our garage to hang the suits so all the water drips into a floor drain. If you can dry things out of the sun, you will preserve neoprene life and colour. I like boot dryers that plug into an outlet for gloves and booties. Just don’t forget them in a compartment in the boat (yes, I’ve done that too). Having the right gear can help to extend your surf season while keeping you warm and focused.