Cold Water Warriors

How neoprene makes winter surfing bearable — and fun

By John Wolfe

They are the die-hards, the true believers who cannot wait for warm weather. So they squeeze into thick black neoprene suits, pull on rubber booties and gloves and head-restricting hoods to battle the cold sea of winter.

They are not the first surfers to do so; perhaps without realizing it, they tap into a tradition of cold-water surfing on the Carolina coast which dates back over a century.

On April 7, 1910, the Honolulu Pacific Commercial Advertiser published a letter by Wilmington resident Burke Haywood Bridgers, who had written to an early ambassador of surfing named Alexander Hume Ford to ask for specific details about the construction of Hawaiian surfboards. In his letter, Bridgers describes what the local surf was like back then: “The surf on this coast usually breaks within a hundred to a hundred and fifty yards of the shore, except in storms. So far, no one has been able to force a board out beyond the breakers in stormy weather. A pier is now being erected (Note: Bridgers was referring to a steel pier built by the Seashore Hotel, where the Blockade Runner stands today. This pier was destroyed by a nor’easter in 1921.) which during the coming summer will enable us to obviate this difficulty; and if the waves here are sufficiently large, or the wave-speed sufficiently fast, we should be able to do all that can be done in other places.” A century ago, early Carolina surfers like Bridgers were already plotting to jump off the end of piers to ride our coast’s massive storm surf in to shore.

“Locally, from the beginning, fishermen and surfers recognized the September rollers, generated by large storms out in the middle of the Atlantic. That’s where we get our ground swell,” says Skipper Funderburg, local surfing pioneer and historian. The waves are better in this area in the fall and the winter, due to the natural patterns of the North Atlantic Ocean. This fact, on June 29, 2016, prompted Gov. Pat McCrory to issue a gubernatorial decree proclaiming September 2016 as “Surfing Month” in North Carolina. Among other things, the document signed by the governor states that “favorable surf conditions exist during the fall months when surfers seek out big and well-groomed waves that grace our shoreline.”

The obvious challenge to the early surfers who paddled out in fall and winter was the cold temperature of the water and air. “The first thing (when you’re surfing this time of year) is not to get hypothermia, or get so cold that you get disoriented,” says Funderburg. In the early days, surfers would wear knit garments of thick wool to keep warm (which I can’t imagine were very effective — or comfortable). But shortly after the Second World War, two technological innovations developed by the military unexpectedly transformed the surfing culture: fiberglass, which replaced wood as the preferred surfboard construction material; and thick wetsuits, made of rubber. Divers had used them during the war, and the surplus soon leaked into civilian life. Manufactured primarily by a company called U.S. Divers, these suits were thick and cumbersome to move around in. A codpiece wrapped between the legs and buttoned in the front; if it came loose you had a “beavertail.” Still, it was warmer than wool.

California surfing innovator Jack O’Neill, while flying on a DC-3 passenger plane in 1952, claims to have noticed a thin layer of neoprene beneath the carpet underfoot, used to insulate the cabin from the freezing high-altitude air. This, he says, was the inspiration for the first modern neoprene wetsuits — form-fitting, flexible and warm, a garment truly fit for a surfer. One can almost picture him hunched over with his trademark wild beard, sawing out a sample of airplane carpet with a pocketknife as surrounding passengers urgently mash the overhead button to summon the flight attendant. But that’s only part of surfing lore. The real story is that neoprene wetsuits were actually invented one year earlier by Hugh Bradner, an American physicist and UC Berkeley professor who helped develop the atomic bomb with the Manhattan Project. He invented them while working with Navy Frogmen after the war, but never patented his invention, saying that he saw “no large commercial application.”

Jack O’Neill, being more charismatic and the first one to market it successfully, often gets the invention credit. But regardless of origin, the popularity of the neoprene wetsuit spread nationwide during the first American surf boom of the 1960s, reaching across the country to our own Eastern shores.

Which is why the die-hards now wear neoprene while paddling out, carrying on their cold-water tradition. One must wonder, still: Why do they brave that cold, cold water? “For the love of it, man,” was one surfer’s response, when asked one November evening at Carolina Beach. Summer is both a memory and an anticipation. A wetsuit is a tool to combat nature’s chill; a surfboard is sculpture which channels the ocean into one’s heart. Who can wait until warm weather to taste the salt of this life when that fiery feeling of standing on top of the watery world is out there now, demanding to be stoked?

Skipper Funderburg remembers that feeling well. Although, these days, he says with a chuckle, “If I was going to go through all that trouble, squeezing into a suit and putting on the booties and gloves and hood and all that crap, I’d just as soon fly to where the surf is better and it’s still warm: Hawaii!”

John Wolfe writes regularly for Salt’s “On the Water” column.

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