The ocean smoked early on the morning of Jan. 15 as it relinquished the last of its summertime heat to 19-degree air. At Ditch Plain in Montauk, Steve White paddled into an ankle-snapper (small wave) and rode it to shore, a sight that would have spawned a myth 100 years ago.
White wore a black Patagonia wetsuit, five millimeters thick, lined with merino wool, and with an attached hood. His boots and gloves were of seven-millimeter neoprene, a knight in state-of-the-art armor — almost.
It only lacked a heated vest, what surfers have been dreaming about for decades, a magic doublet that could turn the northeast Atlantic into the Caribbean Sea. Well, it’s here!
“It’s like feeling the sun on your back in the gray, dark, cold winter,” Lutha Leahy-Miller said as he hugged a headless, legless mannequin, the torso adorned in a Quiksilver Cypher Electric heated wetsuit vest.
“It comes with a car charger. I plug mine in at home at night then put it on in the car. Takes three to five minutes to heat up. You don’t get that cold, tense back thing,” he said referring to the stiffening that occurs when a surf session goes beyond the ability of a suit heated only by a stack of pancakes to fend off the cold Atlantic.
“Even when you duck dive [push the nose of a surfboard under a breaking wave] your back stays hot.”
The Quiksilver vest is made of thin nylon with two heating pads located left and right at about kidney level. A lithium battery slips into a sleeve on the right side. Leahy-Miller said the ocean temperature was now about 48 degrees, warmer than usual for this time of year, but still very cold. The vest has a high and low setting to match the water temp.
He explained there was always a tradeoff between warmth and flexibility. Winter suits are thicker and by and large less flexible. Suits generally come in three thicknesses, three, four, and five-millimeter for early summer, late fall, and winter respectively.
Leahy-Miller said that he’d found he could experience greater flexibility while staying warm, “up until Christmas,” by wearing the electric vest under a four-mil suit instead of going to the five-mil he’d wear without the vest. “As long as it’s not arctic air.”
When the water drops to its usual deep winter low of 35 degrees, he recommended the wool-lined Patagonia five-mil suit even without the heated vest. “The water was 39 degrees at Turtles the first time I wore one and I was still hot when I got out,” the surf salesman said, “Turtles” being Turtle Cove, a popular surf spot in Montauk.
Leahy-Miller works at Main Beach Surf and Sport in Wainscott, but the Quiksilver vest is available at the Air and Speed Board Shop in Montauk and online. Stu Foley at Air and Speed swears by it.
It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention, but panic or extreme discomfort more likely deserves the credit. Winter surfing in the northeast was simply impossible before the invention of wetsuits.
Neoprene suits already had been invented for divers by the late 1950s, but they were stiff, leaked all over the place, and featured a “beaver tail” that was attached to the back of the top half of the suit. The tail was pulled under the crotch and fastened to snaps on the front in order to hold the top and bottom of the suit together. This arrangement was too confining for surfers so they left the tail unsnapped to flap in the wind and let cold water attack one’s tender torso in a wipeout.
There is such a thing as a watertight drysuit under which one wears long underwear, but most surfers dislike the feel.
Over the years, wetsuits have become fitted for surfers. The material itself improves continually, thinner, stretchier stuff with no leaky seams or zippers, one-piece cocoons against the cold. Even so, when slush begins to form in the shore break like it usually does this time of year, the cold will eventually creep in, especially when sitting exposed to a 20-degree wind.
The magic vest’s power supply will get you through a two-hour session at maximum heat. Leahy-Miller said a quick recharge in the car will buy enough time for another go-out. Two hours are needed to fully recharge the battery.
“It’s just one other thing with wires that you’ve got to plug in, but I guess I’ll get one eventually,” White said. Suiting up to beat the elements is not cheap. A Patagonia R-4 winter suit goes for around $650, boots and gloves another $130, and a Quiksilver vest for another $250. The total comes close to the cost of a plane ticket to the Caribbean or Hawaii. Tough choice.
White leaves for Hawaii this week.