SAN FRANCISCO—A year ago, Adele Gower used to cherish daily 90-minute swims in the frigid Bay here. Now she can only stand it for 30 minutes.
She abandoned her wetsuit after being shamed by fellow San Francisco Bay swimmers—a peculiar, zealous breed, who jump off boats near Alcatraz Island and swim with seals in the city’s Aquatic Park.
One day while struggling to take her wetsuit off, a swimmer friend—a burly former Marine—came in to help her. “He wades into the water and grabs my wetsuit and he just yanks it right off,” she says.
Ms. Gower recalls the swimmer saying: “You can just let the ocean take that. Let it float away.”
Cold-water immersion is having a moment these days, with growing numbers of fans plunging into low-temperatures to try to feel better. But in San Francisco, the chatter about chilly water goes much deeper than in most places.
It is home to the great wetsuit divide.
The wetsuit has a long history in San Francisco, popularized by Jack O’Neil in 1952 to ward off hypothermia in surfers. With the water hovering just above 50 degrees this month—and air temperature in the 50s too—that is just one of many hazards Bay swimmers face: they could exhaust themselves fighting strong currents, be bitten by aggressive sea lions, or even cross paths with the occasional ocean tanker. And yet, some Bay swimmers refuse to wear these potentially lifesaving devices because they consider them a form of cheating. Or, even if they like them, as did Ms. Gower, they don’t want the hassle of wetsuit shaming.
The wetsuit split is legendary in Bay aquatics. Some local triathlete pages call wetsuits “wuss suits.” Over the years, in actual cold cases, wetsuits have mysteriously vanished from the changing room at the South End Rowing Club, a 150-year-old home to many of Bay swimmers.
Later, the suits turned up in garbage cans or, in one case, hanging outdoors from a nail on the second floor of the building, according to Bill Wygant, a member and past club president. He denies involvement in the disappearances, but adds: “They knew the risk.”
Tom Linthicum, a swimmer called “Reptile,” has made the mile-and-a-quarter water trek from Alcatraz to San Francisco more than 200 times, but never in a wetsuit. With a wetsuit, he says, “you’re not really enjoying the cold.” For swimmers such as Reptile, the bone-numbing cold of the water is the whole point, and never something to be avoided.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be in that water and to let your body react,” Mr. Linthicum explains. “There’s nothing like it. I have no desire to ever wear a wetsuit.” He says he harbors no ill will toward those who do.
Mr. Linthicum’s wetsuit-less code has led to tough moments. On some days, he concedes, he stares into the dark cold water of an early morning swim, and a part of his mind he calls his “land brain” begins whispering.
“The land brain wants to go home, take a nap, forget about it,” he says. During times like this, he instead channels his “reptile brain,” which he believes to be an evolutionary vestige. “The reptile brain just comes out and says, ‘enjoy the water; enjoy the cold,’ ” he says. “Our ancestors may never have had a warm shower in their entire life.”
Swimmers have been known to drop in the South End Club’s showers due to the effects of cold and Mr. Linthicum has seen more than one sent to the hospital. From time to time he can’t feel his feet when he emerges from frigid water. But that is neither here nor there. “Whatever happens to you after the swim—as long as you got the swim in—it doesn’t matter,” he says.
The South End Club’s president, Fran Hegeler, says while hypothermia is a serious condition, regular Bay swimmers learn to identify early signs and get out of the water, and to swim with a buddy. San Francisco’s annual Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon recommends participants wear wetsuits.
In 50-degree water, the first stages of hypothermia can kick in after just 10 minutes, according to John A. Downing, a professor of biology with the University of Minnesota’s Large Lakes Observatory. “Wetsuit shaming. I find that hysterical,” he says. “Why would you shame someone for trying to stay alive?”
The U.K.-based Channel Swimming Association, which keeps official count of English Channel crossings has set the gold standard on what is and what isn’t permitted in competitive open-water swims. For a channel journey, swimmers may wear goggles, one cap, a nose clip, ear plugs and one swimsuit. Wetsuits and any material offering “thermal protection or buoyancy” are forbidden. Body grease is OK, according to the organization’s website.
The South End Club, which currently has about 1,700 members, including this reporter, has likewise maintained a minimalist attitude toward swim gear. Goggles only became standard in the 1980s.
“In the old South End, people used to think you were a sissy if you swam with goggles,” Mr. Wygant says.
Around 25 years ago, the South End’s anti-wetsuit culture sparked a rubber rebellion, he recalls. Protesters, angry with a club policy that bumped wetsuit-free members to the front of the line for certain swims, protested the rule in the only way they knew how. “They all dressed up in wetsuits,” Mr. Wygant says. They were chanting, ‘We’re here, we wear gear. Get used to it!”
Letting your wetsuit float away can prove costly. Ms. Gower, who was encouraged to do just that, held on to hers. It sells for $600 new, although she got it used for $125.
The South End Club still doesn’t allow wetsuits in its changing room. Ms. Hegeler, the president, says she isn’t entirely sure of the reason for this rule.
“It’s an old club,” says Ms. Hegeler, a former wetsuit-wearer herself. “There are certain traditions that are upheld.”
Write to Robert McMillan at Robert.Mcmillan@wsj.com
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