Wetsuits: The Achilles Heel of the Dude

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We sat at the edge of the lake, side by side in our wetsuits like a pair of ninjas on a lunch break. We were eating yesterday’s pasta straight out of the saucepan that we’d shipped across the water in a rubber dinghy. The sun was blazing, and in front of us, as if we had stumbled into someone’s fantasy, a topless woman drifted across the water in a canoe.

It was a nice day for many reasons, but mainly because I made peace with that which has tormented me for years, the wetsuit.

I hadn’t anticipated making such a fundamental life decision when I got up this morning. We were driving inland from the Austrian border towards the Großer Alpsee (a lake in Bavaria, South Germany). It was day three of life in a van during a pandemic (find out more here!) and we’d decided to take the dinghy out on a lake, seeing as it was taking up a quarter of the boot.

On arrival at the Alpsee, we opened the van to the brute cold of a Bavarian winter. Huddled on the backseat, I watched as the cogs began to turn in Valentin’s mind. His eyes had glazed slightly, and he’d become very quiet. (I sometimes have the feeling that he was a Tibetan monk in a previous life.) On an imaginary mountain, I watched the clouds of contemplation begin to life. Slowly, with the sheepish look he uses when he wants to drive with the windows down, he said:

“It’s quite cold; d’you want to use the wetsuits?”

My heart sunk. There are really only two good things about wetsuits: pretending to be a superhero (yes please) and Valentin (we met at a surf hostel).

There are, however, many pitfalls.

Getting in, getting out, and getting in, then out, then in again

I’m doing the Hokey Cokey as I write this. For those who can’t do a roundhouse cutback, a tube ride or an aerial flip, there’s always the trial of getting into a wetsuit in the first place. Working in a surf hostel, I saw everything from a fully grown man trying to fit into a suit, age 6-8, to a woman who’d come back from a surf and got so physically welded to the wet material, it had taken two people to pull her out. Alright that last one was me.

The point is, the degrading battle to don a wetsuit seems incongruous with those most likely to go through the ordeal — the “surfer dude” stereotype. At the hostel, I saw a bewilderingly large number of dudes (Valentin included). These are your paragons of effortless cool, the people who say incomprehensible things like, “I was riding the pocket and this kook got his leggie wrapped round my dingle and I totally wiped-out”, the people who drive jeeps without shoes on, the people who say “dope” and mean it (Valentin excluded).

And yet these are the same grown men and women who will shiver on the side of the road, wearing an oversized towel dress that doesn’t quite cover their backside. So how do they do it? Keeping up the dude reputation must surely be a life’s work, for how can anyone seem “dope” after baring balls to the wind? I suppose to maintain this deception, they must really have the right contacts, a form of secret police hidden in boot spaces and surf rental cubicles, ready to pay off any witnesses to the humiliation of a dude employing Lurpak Original to help peel his wetsuit off.

Perhaps they were just born cool…

How not to put on a wetsuit

The first time I wore a wetsuit was on a British seaside holiday. It was October half-term and exactly what you’d expect — bleak in a nostalgic sort of way, the kind of holiday that requires stoicism to really enjoy. We were on a windswept bit of the Cornish coastline, and I’d naively agreed to learn how to surf with my sister and two other unfortunate children after the strong winds had taken my cheese sandwich. The water temperature, we were told, was at a balmy six degrees.

“Positively tropical!” mum encouraged, mentally preparing for the child cruelty case.

In retrospect, we must have looked like a scene from SAS: Who Dares Wins — the Channel Four reality tv show that sees 30 men half-tortured to death by ex-special forces soldiers. At any point in the two weeks, the contestants are allowed to quit. Most choose to stay until the end, some for the hope of attaining the golden pass mark, the rest for pride.

The children were taken from their families and lined up on the cliffside carpark by a blonde man who’d clearly come from a Billabong catalogue. One by one we were presented with wetsuits that looked like something Davy Jones had used as a dishcloth. Picking off the larger pieces of seaweed, we got dressed in the parking bays as the gale swept bracingly between our bare legs.

“Oh, they’re going to really enjoy this,” said a family friend to my mum.

I was only eight. It was an arduous process, getting dressed. Ten minutes in, I’d got an arm through the leg hole and was partially blinded after a particularly forceful buffet had thrown sand into my eye. On seeing me struggle, various members of the family had joined in to stretch and pry me into position like one of those little, yellow rubber men that delighted kids of the noughties. Around me, children of the same age were undergoing similar feats, parchment-coloured faces shaking, as flustered mothers checked for the 3rd time they were “sure they wanted to go in.” We were resolute; nobody wanted to be the big girl’s blouse.

I couldn’t hear a word. The wind was having a roaring match with the waves at the bottom of the cliff. Against gale-force conditions, Dad tightened the Velcro around my neck, setback by an unfortunate case of sausage fingers. Somewhere at my feet, someone else was helping me pull on the jelly shoes, skin-tight gloves to protect the hands from cold, and that thing that goes round your face like a neck brace. Perhaps it was. I felt like a formula one driver. By the time I’d been prepared, my team were blue, having taken close to half an hour, and narrowly avoiding losing Dad to hypothermia.

“Great to see them outside.” Gushed the family friend as we finally hobbled away.

We assembled ourselves like child soldiers outside “Maybelle’s seaside rock shack,” one of the smaller kids desperately trying to disguise the fact that he couldn’t lift his board. Collectively, we looked like we’d already spent the morning in the Atlantic. For a moment, there was just the sound of the wind, then with a pained expression, Mr Billabong informed me that I had my suit on inside out.

It was this error of judgement which stayed with me throughout my days working at the surf hostel. Sadly, I hadn’t enough melanin to be a surf dude, and not enough skill to pull off the wetsuit, physically or aesthetically. That’s why I have Valentin.

Little Victories

Back in the van, he’d broken my resolve. I had to agree, using a wetsuit was preferable to hypothermia. Besides, Valentin wanted to try out the hospital gown for dudes.

Today was a little victory. The sun had come out, and we spent the afternoon drifting about on the Großer Alpsee, reading and eating honey and mustard pretzels.

Sitting in a dinghy reading poetry.

Alright we weren’t surfing, but neither of us, nor the books fell in, and when I took my wetsuit off in the van that evening (without needing assistance) — well, let’s just say I felt the tingle of a previously unattainable “dudeness.”

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