Cold water is no joke. But lifeguards have to respond regardless of the conditions, so we train in and for cold water rescues. Even when we’re building towers, working on signage, or even working in the office we have to be ready at a moment’s notice to enter the water, potentially for prolonged periods, if an emergency drops.
The water is sitting in the 50s right now but can drop into the 40’s here in the winter. This can kill you pretty quickly if you are not prepared and don’t know what you’re doing. For this reason, we buy our full time staff good wetsuits that they keep handy at all times. Few people could function for more than a few minutes water this cold without a decent wetsuit.
There’s a misconception that all you have to do is pop on a wetsuit and you’re good in any temperature of water. This isn’t at all true and there are several variables that go into effect when you’re doing rescue work in cold water, such as body mass, how accustomed you are to the cold, etc. Even so, probably the most important thing is having the right wetsuit for the air/water temperature, duration, and for the activity. But even with the right suit, the first thing that happens when you jump in is freezing cold water slips into the suit, taking your breath away. If you don’t know what happens next you may panic. Fortunately, after just a few minutes that water in your suit is heated by your body and forms a thin layer of insulative water between your skin and the suit. This layer of water acts as actually keeps you warm despite the cold water outside the suit, and to a more limited extent against cold wind above the water.
For example, if you’re going scuba diving in 50 degree water you will need a very thick wetsuit, maybe 6 millimeters, with boots, gloves, and a hood. In that same water temperature, for a strenuous rescue or swim session taking 45 minutes or less you’d want more flexibility in your suit and you’d be generating a great deal more body heat, so you might be happy with something that is only 3 millimeters thick. Some suits are designed for swimming with flexible areas around the shoulders and others are better for surfing with areas around the hips that are more flexible. But all are way better than just jumping in!
Originally wetsuits were made of rubber and designed by a west coast aerospace engineer (who was a surfer) for the military. But soon after, the use of neoprene with its flexibility and closed cells trapping air inside the material made it affordable and practical for surfers and lifeguards and later for all types of water sports enthusiasts.
As we continue to see more beach use during the cold months we’d be lost without wetsuits to help us protect increasing numbers of people recreating out in the cold.