In Praise of the Wetsuit, Essential Gear In Pandemic Times
Let us all now praise the wetsuit, the single greatest item of gear to help you stay sane amid our current end-of-times days.
To be clear: I’ve lived in Oregon for 20 years now, and up until this summer, I never saw any need for such an item. In fact, I’ve never ventured much farther into the ocean off the state’s 363 miles of coastline than my knees.
Can you blame me? Ocean temperatures off our craggy coast stay at a chilly 51-58 degrees year-round. The Oregon-born among us may be blasé about that, but those of us who grew up near the Atlantic, swimming in California, or even dunking into Midwestern lakes know we are no match for the Northern Pacific.
And yet. As an avid lap swimmer, the closure of the public pools in Portland hit me especially hard this summer. I’m longing for my regular swims, to not have to swerve constantly and pull my mask up every time I pass another jogger, or to not have to stare at a screen during another live-streamed exercise class.
That brings us to the wetsuit. By August, it felt relatively safe to venture to the Oregon coast, masks in hand and food packed in the car so we wouldn’t infect anyone at the Red Apple Grocery Store in Manzanita, our usual pit stop. As soon as we arrived at our Airbnb, my whole family ran giddily down to the beach, reveling in the sheer space of it all.
Still, it wasn’t the same as past trips. We might normally have walked the narrow, magical half-mile trail to Short Sands Beach, or climbed Neahkahnie Mountain—this time, we stayed away, fearing too-close-encounters with other hikers. Leisurely browsing at the Cloud & Leaf bookstore was off-limits—the well-curated store is still open, but allows in only four people at once, and my impulse was to buy my books and quickly step out, to make room for more customers—and we couldn’t settle in with a coffee and a magazine at Manzanita News & Espresso, either.
What we could do was rent wetsuits, booties, and boogie boards from Bahama Mama’s Manzanita, at 123 Laneda Avenue ($30 for a 24-hour rental), zip ourselves in and wade gingerly into the waves.
It was hard, at first, to shake the feeling of getting away with something—I wasn’t supposed to be in the water, was I? Wetsuits are for surfers, around these parts—who did I think I was? And muscle memory is a powerful thing; my brain told me I was freezing for a few minutes, even with the wetsuit on. But you warm up quickly, it turns out, when the waves are rolling in, and you push off at just the right moment, and hurtle all the way to shore, born aloft on the top of the curl.
We stayed in for a solid two hours, and I will remember that first time as the best two hours of this entire summer, when I forgot, for a brief, much-needed mental health moment, all about the pandemic and the politics and thought only of salt water and sand and sky.
Back home, I googled wetsuits and found that they were obtainable online via summer sales for less than $100, probably not the high-tech versions worn by the sleek surfers who congregate at Oswald West State Park, but perfectly serviceable for future coastal trips.
Since then, I’ve suited up for swims at wide, white sand South Beach State Park, outside of Newport, and at Hobbit Beach, just north of Heceta Head lighthouse on the central coast. Every time, I emerge from the water sputtering and grateful to those who kept the entire astounding Oregon Coast accessible to future generations. With my wetsuit, I can swim all winter long—and it looks to be a long winter coming up—and emerge clearheaded, ready to face the weary world again.
Try Before You Buy
Rent a wetsuit at any of these fine coastal establishments:
Cleanline Surf Shop: 60 N. Roosevelt Drive, Seaside and 171 Sunset Boulevard, Cannon Beach. Cleanlinesurf.com
Ossies Surf Shop: 4860 Oregon Coast Highway, Newport. Ossiessurfshop.com
Moment Surf Company: 33260 Cape Kiwanda Dr., Pacific City. Momentsurfco.com