By Tim Ryan
My pre pre review of the Thermalution Heated Wetsuit was done about three weeks ago in the tropical waters of Hawaii. The wetsuit top is not necessary in 76-degree water. But this was mainly a test of how the vest fits, works, and how easy it was to make adjustments while in the water.
I gave it an “A” rating and was looking forward to a real test in the frigid waters of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, Santa Cruz’s Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point, Big Sur River mouth and destinations further south.
My “A” rating hasn’t changed and remains solid.
Ocean Beach is a rugged stretch of usually gnarly waves, strong ocean currents, 51-degree water – or lower in the dead of winter – and bone chilling wind.
It’s isn’t a point break where you can paddle around the surf and not get wet from incoming waves. Not even close. At Ocean Beach you must paddle through the surf. That means you’ll definitely be drenched continuously until you make it outside. If you can.
As Matt Patton, president of Heated Wetsuits in North Carolina told me early on, the heated top is ideally suited to be worn under a full suit – like my Patagonia full suit – as an additional aid to warmth. And he’s right.
The top is a lightweight polypro and nylon blend material. Strands of insulated wire lace over the back from hips to shoulders. Two 7.4-volt lithium ion batteries fit in sealable pockets on each side of the top. They connect with more heavily insulated wire to the controller that has a temperature range from about 120 degrees to 141 degrees. And it heats up smoothy and quickly.
I wore it under a Patagonia temperature-rated R4 wetsuit – the warmest suit Patagonia makes – stringing the controller inside the wetsuit’s left arm to my wrist. If I needed to adjust the temp I could simply pull the controller out from inside the sleeve and adjust it down or up.
Before heading out at Ocean Beach, I set my heated top to the maximum, 141 degrees. I figured I was going to be very cold. My surfing companion Steve, set his on low, 120 degrees.
I was certain that despite the Patagonia suit and the heated top, hoodie, booties and gloves I was wearing, I would still be cold. I’m a pessimist. Steve and I both got slammed by smallish waves paddling out. But even before I touched the water I could feel the heated top quickly warming me.
My exposed face chilled but no water entered the wetsuit so I pretty much stayed dry by the time I made it outside.
Beyond the break I felt more than comfortably warm from the heated top. It was like standing with my back to a heater where the warmth permeates your skin spreading in tiny waves but not burning.
I’ve never felt more comfortable surfing cold water. Ever.
The onshore wind could have been hypothermic to me if I had not been wearing what this gear. After catching a few waves, I was warm enough to adjust the heated top down to 130 degrees then to 120 degrees. I was beyond comfortable.
In all fairness I confess to being a devoted Patagonia customer. That being said, I’m pretty sure other surfer wetsuit manufacturers also make equally water tight gear. But on a scale of one to ten, my Patagonia R4 was a 9.5 in keeping water out and me dry.
I’m telling you this because unlike a scuba diver who is submerged in water for long periods, I didn’t have to worry about needing heat. That’s why a lower temp was pretty much all I needed. And since my core was mostly dry, my own body heat also contributed to my comfort.
A few bigger Ocean Beach sets nailed me that did allow some water to creep through the Patagonia’s front zipper. O.K., that did feel cold, but momentarily. The water slowly seeped around to my back but immediately the heated top warmed it, actually providing even more comfort as the warmed interior water slid down my legs.
It was disconcerting. Warm and comfortable in Ocean Beach ? Who’d believe that!
The temperature variances from high to low or low to high are subtle. The controller never got in the way of paddling or standing up.
After two hours in the surf, I took a wave in, walked to our camper van, rolled down the top of the Patagonia suit, then stood in the wind letting only the heated top warm me. Nice!
Half a dozen curious surfers – men and women – asked me “What is that?” I explained in detail, emphasizing that the the heated top adds very little weight and doesn’t get in the way of paddling, or riding waves.
I gave them my reoccuring mantra: “What price warmth?”
“Do you just want to survive the cold or be as little affected by it as possible?” Isn’t the answer is obvious? I chose Heated Wetsuits because of all the reviews of competitors I read,this one was the highest rated.
A few days after SF, my surfing buddy Steve, also wearing a heated top, and I headed to Santa Cruz where a west swell had already hit. Pleasure Point was a solid 3-4 feet with an occasional higher set.
We suited up and paddled out. Steve didn’t wear his heated top. I did and I joined a group of similarly full-suited men and women in the lineup. Two women had their arms wrapped around their chests trying to keep warm.
One, Angie, quickly me asked me about my Patagonia suit. I explained, adding that I was also wearing a heated top. I gave her the full spiel.
“Aren’t you even a bit cold?” she said.
“Nope. I’m toasty actually.”
“How much water gets inside?” she continued.
“Almost none. And what does is heated within a minute or two by the heated top.”
I taunted her by pulling out the collar of my wetsuit and cupping a handful of water into it.
“It’ll be warmed in a minute,” I said.
“I so need that,” she said. Later, I provided her and her friend the Heated Wetsuit information.
When I exited the water two hours later, I wasn’t rushing to get out of the gear. I took my time because I wasn’t even chilled.
But I did made one mistake.
The Heated Wetsuit’s instructions specifically emphasized to run fresh water over the suit after use, especially the control button and battery connections. I didn’t.
During my go out the next day, the toggle on the tiny control panel was sticking. An email to Matt at Heated Wetsuits brought a quick response.
“There are a few things you can do to help with a sticky controller. First off, if you are on a dive or surf session and find the controller starts to stick, you can simply manually push the button back down, vs. relying on the spring to push it back down for you. The controller turns the suit on or off if it is held for more than 1.5 seconds. So, if you wished to change to medium, but your controller button was sticking in the up position, you would need to manually slide the button up, and then immediately slide it back down with your thumb to change to medium or high. To clean up the button a little bit and free up whatever salt or sand found its way into your controller add a drop of WD40 to the controller button. That will usually help to free up most any buildup or sand that might be caught in the controller…Any plastic-friendly lubricant will do the trick.
Just add a drop and then manually move the button up and down 10-20 times. Follow this with a rinse of fresh water on the controller. You want to make sure that you move your controller button up and down when you are rinsing it out after each session or dive. Salt can build up in the controller switch if it is not moved around during the rinse process.”
His solution was right on and I got it working. My bad.
For the rest of this nostalgia surf trip neither Steve nor I had to use the heated top because our wetsuits and booties were just enough for Southern California. But remember, our trip was in April -springtime – when the California sun is usually out.
From November through February – maybe even March – the Pacific Ocean off California ranges from the mid 40s to mid 50s. That’s cold, hombre, especially when the north or northwest winds are howling.
I may be moving back to California or the far more chilly Northwest in the coming months. I want to surf all year round and stay warm. Is that realistic?
I think so because the Heated Wetsuit will always be part of my thermal arsenal. It should be part of yours as well.
– Heats up in under a Minute
– Battery Duration: 1.5-2.5 hours (depends on temperature setting)
– Product Includes: Undershirt, Two Batteries, Charger and Controller
For more information, visit www.heatedwetsuits.com for more information pricing and dealers in your area. The owners are a group of surfers, kiteboarders, and divers out of Wilmington, NC.