While this observation is specific to those of you in Southern California, it will probably turn the screws of surfers everywhere. I grew up in Maryland. I started riding bodyboards and surfboards in Ocean City, Maryland in 1979. Anyone from the mid-Atlantic or northeast (or anywhere on the east coast for that matter) understands that if you really want to ride something other than the prevailing summer drivel on offer, you have to extend your wave riding into the “off” season. This is when all the annoying tourists have retreated to their inland hamlets. Between the fall hurricanes and the winter and spring Nor’easters, there is more juice on offer than any other time of year. But, there is a price to pay with the brutally frigid water temps.
In this part of the Atlantic, the water temp peaks in the mid-to-upper 70s in August and September. After that, it dives faster than Billy Bush’s career following the release of an Access Hollywood tape. By January, water in the upper 30s will send even the hardiest among us into a world of misery without the correct gear. Of course, back in 1979, Water Barriers, SuperSeam Welds, and TechnoButter Neoprene didn’t exist. It all “sort of” worked if you were good at ignoring pain.
I was one of those people out there no matter how cold it was, assuming the waves were good. Snow on the beach? What snow? Wind chills in the teens? Soldier on! Of course, as the years passed, wetsuit technology improved by leaps and bounds, and it got easier and easier to tough out those bone-chilling winters.
I moved out to Southern California in 1987 to pursue a pro bodyboarding career and eventually build my own business, relishing in the comparatively balmy winter water temps near my San Clemente home. No booties, gloves or hoods for me. I sold my 5/4/3 suit and accessories and powered through the winters with my trusty 4/3 in comfort. But a funny yet all-too-familiar thing happened. I got older. I also became less tolerant to the cold. I found that when I was younger, I could handle some discomfort on those 45-degree dawn patrols, but still being in the water more than 200 days a year now at age 53, discomfort didn’t seem like something I should have to endure.
By my mid-40s, I decided that it would be okay to snag a 5 mil for those chilly dawn sessions at Uppers, when those cold offshores were howling out of San Mateo valley. The built-in hood would keep my now sparsely covered head warm, but jeez, my hands and feet were not digging the chill. Constantly tucking my fingers into my armpits between waves just wasn’t cutting it. So gloves and booties became part of the uniform again.
It felt like I was back on the east coast in mid-winter all over again. The only difference was the water and air were both 20 degrees warmer, and my tolerance for cold was 80 percent lower. The end result was being toasty, and I didn’t dread that first duck dive or the feeling of numbness when I got out of the water.
Now I’ve noticed a trend at most of the spots I frequent here in south Orange County: a lot of guys are wearing hoods. I’d say the prevalence of surfer’s ear and an aging surfing population have certainly contributed, but strangely to me, I see very few fellow wave riders rocking the gloves. For reasons I can’t validate, there is still a stigma about wearing gloves. Hoods and booties? Okay. But gloves? Instant goon status. For me, whether I’m on a surfboard or bodyboard, gloves simply help me maintain full dexterity and grip when I’m getting to my feet on my surfboard or holding on to my bodyboard. It’s a matter of utility for me. I get secret satisfaction watching guys sit on their boards blowing on their hands or tucking them into their pits because they apparently don’t want to be seen wearing gloves. You’ll spend $500 on a wetsuit and wear a hood and booties, but for some reason, the gloves are a step past the threshold of looking “cool.” When you get to a certain age, my age, you don’t give a rip about looking goofy for the sake of comfort and warmth.
So, when you see an old dude in the water rocking the full cold water gear and think, “What kook wears booties, gloves and a hood in SoCal?” Well, that would be me.