For years in San Francisco, members of the South End Rowing Club are divided into two camps: People who wear wetsuits in the area’s frigid waters – and people who don’t. Those who do wear them face ridicule by some of the non-wetsuit crowd. Their suits have mysteriously vanished from changing rooms. The term “wuss suit” gets bandied about, while the other side insists, “We’re here, we’re geared, get used to it!”
Bob McMillan, a member of this swim club and a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, says the South End Rowing Club has a minimalist, purist tradition. But it’s ultimately about spreading the joy of overcoming the cold water.
“What we're addicted to is the endorphin rush that you get after you warm up. I think it's your body's way of just thanking you for not dying during the swim. … You feel so good for the rest of the day.”
However, it’s possible to get hypothermia by not wearing a wetsuit in 49-degree water, he acknowledges. “There are stages of hypothermia. … After you've been swimming for a while, you start to recognize the signs of when you need to get out. … One of the things that happens is you get the claw. … Your hands stop working because they're so cold. They turn into claws, basically.”
He adds, “People get evangelical about it, and sometimes they just forget the fact that it's very sane to be wearing a wetsuit in cold water, and to be avoiding hyperthermia with the modern technology that is so wonderfully available to us.”