I had a suggestion from a friend this week to write about how we deal with the cold water and air while working in the beach environment.

It’s an interesting topic since 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 last week dropped into the 40s, which is no joke. Water in the 40s 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 wet suits that they keep handy at all times. Few people could function for more than a few minutes in 48-degree water without a decent wet suit.

There’s a misconception that all you have to do is pop on a wet suit 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 wet suit for both 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 water between your skin and the suit. This layer of water acts as insulation and 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 wet suit, maybe 6 millimeters thick 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, wet suits 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 wet suits to help us protect increasing numbers of beach users.

Peter Davis is chief of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. The views in this column are Davis’ and do not necessarily represent those of the Beach Patrol, Galveston Park Board of Trustees or any other entity.

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