My first wetsuit was a “short john” I got at a diving shop on Coast Highway in Newport, a one-piece, knee-length suit with a tank top, and metal zipper down the middle of the front. It would be considered summer wear by today’s standards, but that’s all we had.
Now someone may tell me that Jack O’Neill and the Santa Cruz guys had this or that but I wasn’t aware of it. Diving suits were too heavy and restrictive to be practical for surfing, as attested by Rat Jr.
“My first wetsuit was from a guy whose father was a Navy Frogman,” he said. “That thing was so heavy I could barely paddle in it. And it was so hot and sweaty I could only stay out for short periods.”
Some guys did wear the diving jackets with the “beaver tail” with surf trunks but as I remember, wetsuits didn’t get very good until the mid-70s. The innovations in rubber materials, stitching, zippers and taped seams took a while. I had an O’Neill “Otter Suit” that represented the start of the really good modern full suits.
The reality is that before that we just got a lot colder, bitterly cold at times.
One time as a teenager, around Christmas, the waves were really good at the Newport pier. The water was cold, the air was cold and a howling offshore wind really kicked up the chill factor. My friend Phil Marshall and I decided to put wool sweaters and windbreakers over our sleeveless short johns and go out.
We surfed for about an hour and then had to retreat. When we got to the car our hands were so cold we literally couldn’t open the door. Keyless entry was still science fiction and you really had to turn those narrow 60s keys to open the locks. We both tried but couldn’t do it. On the verge of tears, one of us finally got the door open and we sat in the car for about half an hour shivering uncontrollably, too cold to speak, with the heater blasting until we finally warmed up enough to drive.
When I got home I stood in the shower in my wetsuit and regalia until the hot water ran out. We never wondered about what our moms thought about wearing our Atkinson’s V-neck sweaters, which cost a pretty penny even then, into the ocean. I’m glad to have those days behind me and this Thanksgiving I was grateful for my toasty 4:3 modern wetsuit.
JOHN BURTON’S surf column appears Fridays. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.