A couple years ago, I copied down this quote from writer and surf-intellectual Ted Endo: "Wetsuits are the airplanes of the surfing world. They allow us to do something miraculous (survive cold water for hours on end) and yet they are completely taken for granted." I don't know what article the quote came from, or where it was published. I'm certain that Endo went on to articulate why the wetsuit is up there with the surfboard at the very top of the surf gear pyramid, and I'm certain that I agreed with Endo on every point. I've never lived in the tropics. Wetsuits, therefore, have allowed me a surfing life. When Saint Peter meets me at the gate, his tablet all queued up to a well-edited compilation of my best 100 waves, in 90-something of them I'll be swaddled in neoprene. Shorty, beavertail, fullsuits in every possible zipper configuration, long john, springsuit, hood, gloves, booties—I've gone through a rubber mountain's worth of wetsuits. Hell, the best 20 years of my surfing life were spent in San Francisco. Remove wetsuits, and I would have been the creepy old guy skating Embarcadero Center and treating Omar Salazar at Starbucks.
Yet only grudgingly can I bring myself to celebrate the wetsuit. As Endo suggests, mostly I take the wetsuit for granted. Or no, worse. Mostly I think of wetsuits as a necessary, permanent annoyance, the way I thought of my little brother when we were kids. Something I can't get rid of, but hate having around. Vaseline-smeared armpit rash—Nick Carroll, David Carson, can I get a witness? The smell of wetsuits. New ones smell like an distant upwind chemical factory. Old ones smell like the back of your tongue, the U-joint of your shower drain. Wetsuits and ingrown hairs, cause and fucking effect, right there. It was almost 40 years ago, but the embarrassment lingers over the fact that, for a short period, I ordered custom yellow-on-black wetsuits to match my black-on-yellow boards, because that was my look.
These days, it comes down to how much worse I surf in a hooded 5/4. True for everybody, I guess. But a step too far when you're in the back end of your 50s. Hence my vow to never again surf the Pacific Northwest. I need the opposite of what happens when you put on a 5/4. A week in Nicaragua with plenty of sunblock and a full bottle of Advil—that's what I need.