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As someone who seems to gravitate toward Type Two Fun—rock climbing, long-distance biking, etc—and someone whose access to these activities is sometimes limited by living in New York City, taking up winter surfing in the frigid Atlantic waters off the coast of Queens somehow seemed like a logical thing to do. After years of being a seasonal surfer, riding waves in the warmer months and taking November to March off (minus the occasional tropical trip) I'd wonder why I wasn't improving as much as my friends who were paddling out at dawn in 40-degree waters.
The idea of wrestling my way out of that straitjacket with gloves on while shivering on the beach never appealed to me (can you blame me?), but this year, I finally decided to burl up and get myself a proper winter kit. But who makes the best wetsuit for winter? There's an abundance of wetsuits to choose from for cold water surfing, and every surfer seems to have a strong opinion on which is the best. (Surely anything modern design is going to be better than the back zip wetsuit you’ll find for rent at the local surf shop.) They're expensive, and if you're going to commit to purchasing one—along with gloves and booties—you want to make sure you're getting something that really works for you.
After literally running into a friend’s FERAL wetsuit hanging to dry on their porch at Far Rockaway, and being immediately impressed by the flexibility and soft handful of the neoprene—and then remembering my tendency to feel claustrophobic in any wetsuit—this more pliable option from the small San Francisco-based brand seemed a logical place to start. The following is both a proper FERAL wetsuit review and a brand history lesson. With some well earned insight mixed in. Read on and enjoy. Then log off and get out for a paddle yourself.
FERAL was founded by Alex Salz and Buzz Bonneau, two avid surfers based in San Francisco, California. They started surfing Ocean Beach together in the late '90s, and later, finding time to surf and travel in between their engineering and design jobs, they saw a gap in the market for a really good, really solid wetsuit. They were tired of stiff suits that didn't last, and with their combined backgrounds, they thought they could make something better, something by surfers and for surfers. In the years since, the company has grown to the point where FERAL has become the wetsuit of choice for the Van's surf team, but it's still just the two of them at the helm.
While many brands like Patagonia—and now Billabong—have embraced natural Yulex rubber as a neoprene replacement in recent years, Salz and Bonneau turned to Japanese Yamamoto neoprene too make a comfier, longer-lasting wetsuit. Compared to other types, Yamamoto Japanese neoprene has a remarkably high warmth-to-weight ratio and it absorbs less water, too; while traditional neoprene has up to 30% absorption, Yamamoto has less than 1%. To understand why this is important, you have to know a little about how neoprene works.
Neoprene is a synthetic rubber made from closed-cell foam called sponge rubber. Gas is distributed through the rubber during production, creating lots of tiny air bubbles within the material. These act as insulators, provide buoyancy, and act as a barrier between the cold ocean water and your warm body. The less the sponge foam absorbs, the lighter, warmer, and more durable the suit will ultimately be–hence why the 1% vs 30% makes a big difference.
Knowing this didn't ease my nerves as I watched all my friends climb through their chest zips and pull on their 6/4 (i.e. thick) suits at Rockaway Beach one morning this past January. Still, I was determined to become a year round surfer, and trusted in my fresh FERAL 5/4/3 mm suit. (For the uninitiated, these numbers denote the thickness of the suit in millimeters; in this case 5mm of Yamamoto rubber in the torso, 4mm in the legs, and ~3mm arms and shoulders. A 5/4/3 is best suited for water around 45°F - 60°F.)
As I began to put on the hooded wetsuit the first thing I noticed was a significant lack of seams, which probably aided the flexibility of the suit and definitely reduced the potential for rubbing and chafing—and eventually, leaking. And, as I paddled out into the icy water, I remained surprisingly warm.
The suit felt significantly lighter than my stiff old 4/3 wetsuit, even though it's thicker. And despite being initially nervous only having 3.5mm in the arms and shoulders, I found it still kept me plenty warm. Plus, I wasn't nearly as fatigued from paddling like I've been in my other, stiffer suit, which seemed compelled to work against me. My body stayed warm, but after 30 minutes of paddling and spotting waves, my face started to feel pretty frozen. Determined, I cinched the drawstring on the attached 2mm hood above my chin, which added a decent amount of extra warmth. Water did seem to be slowly entering my Yamamoto Japanese neoprene barrier somewhere along the neck, but it wasn't enough to make me feel like I was losing much warmth. Not enough to want to paddle in.
After multiple surf sessions wearing it, my primary praise for the FERAL wetsuit is just how incredibly flexible it is. On the first wave I paddled for during my first test session, I managed to pop up with ease, and I was so surprised to have caught one that I immediately ate it. I hadn't had a full dunk yet, and after a brief second of shock, the polar plunge felt…dare I say…good? After that, I was able to successfully catch a few more—the suit felt more like a second layer of smooth skin than the foam hindrance I was used to.
The extra confidence the suit gave me was an unexpected boon–it gave me greater incentive to paddle for bigger waves than I normally would because that was far better than waiting around in icy water for a set to pass. I could see how winter surfing helped my friends improve. And, the cold conditions also made surfing feel like more of an adventure than a normal day at Rockaway (just an hour from Manhattan by subway) ever could, and I was happy to have caught some good waves on my first true winter day.
Out of the water, after running back to the car through the winter streets, trying not to let my surfboard fly with each wind gust, I was astonished to be able to slide out of the FERAL wetsuit on my own, with ease I might add, no pit crew necessary. This alone sealed the deal for me: winter surfing ain't bad.
Though I'll still never say I like it better than bikini surfing—and lounging on the beach afterwards—spending early mornings in freezing water is getting added to my ever-growing list of pursuits. That something as simple as a change of wetsuit could lead to as drastic of a change of heart is pretty impressive. A testament to the results of this FERAL wetsuit review. Paddling out in the winter was the logical next step in my journey with surfing, but leaning up against that FERAL suit on my friends porch can only be called serendipitous. The quality of this suit speaks for itself.