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A good wetsuit is like gold for California’s year-round surfers

By Elizabeth Glazner

©iStockphoto.com/LachlanCurrie

Surfers use the word “heavy” to describe the cold, dark waters of the ocean in winter. While it is true that cold water weighs a bit more than hot water by volume, it is the actual temperature of the water and the resulting physical difficulties that make cold-water surfing so much more serious than warm-water surfing.

The Pacific Ocean seasonally fluctuates only about ten degrees off the Central Coast, but any surfer or open water swimmer knows that those ten degrees are huge. For example, a sixty-degree ocean on a hot day can be pleasantly refreshing, but fifty-degree water on a cold day can cause fatal hypothermia in minutes, given the right circumstances.

The evolution of the wetsuit has gone far to reduce the dangers associated with cold-water surfing, but this is no reason to let your guard down. Again, hypothermia can kill you in minutes, and its effects can be subtle and insidious. It is estimated that half of all drowning deaths in America involve hypothermia to some degree. The reason for this is that hypothermia can kill in four distinct stages, and cold-water warriors should understand them all:

Stage 1: Cold-Water Shock Cold-water shock occurs in the first few minutes of getting in frigid waters. In extreme cases, cold-water shock can cause the victim to involuntarily inhale water and drown, or it can cause a sudden increase in blood pressure resulting in cardiac arrest. To help prevent cold-water shock wear the right wetsuit and perhaps invest in a neoprene hoodie. If you aren’t wearing a hoodie, don’t immerse your head right away and get into the water slowly, carefully monitoring how your body is adjusting to the cold temps.

Stage 2: Cold Incapacitation Also known as short-term “swim failure,” cold incapacitation is when your body has a difficult time with movement and can result in the inability to paddle, swim or get back on your board. Swim failure can happen from three to 30 minutes after immersion in cold water. Again, wear proper gear and try to regulate your breathing before you start charging. Monitor yourself while you are in the water.

Stage 3: Immersion Hypothermia Spend enough time in the ocean and you will experience mild hypothermia at the very least. Hypothermia generally sets in 30 minutes after immersion, but varies depending on water temperature, body type, gear and activity in the water. In extreme cases, the body’s core temperature begins to fall, which can lead to unconsciousness and eventually death. Knowing the signs of hypothermia, and the ability to self-diagnose the onset of hypothermia is a must. I once fainted while sitting in the frigid lineup at a Central Coast surf contest. It was on that day I vowed to never move to the Central Coast. If you are shivering and someone tells you that your lips are blue, take it seriously.

Stage 4: Post-Immersion Collapse This can happen during or after a cold-water rescue. Hypothermia impairs the vascular system and its ability to move blood. As the body begins to re-warm, cold blood that was trapped in the extremities can rush to your body’s core, possibly leading to heart failure. Inhaled cold water may have damaged the victim’s lungs as well. Hypothermic victims need to be handled with care throughout rescue and recovery. Leave it to the professionals.

Most dedicated winter surfers employ a few “tricks of the trade” to stay in the water longer. I won’t try to list them all, but these tricks can make all the difference. For example, they say you should eat root vegetables before a winter surf session, because it stokes the internal fire. I haven’t tried that, but I do have a trick I swear by. Pour a jug of hot water into your wetsuit as you’re suiting up—it works better than pee for making you feel warm all over.