Drysuits extend the sailing season so that as well as skimming the ripples in the glorious Greek warmth as the sun dips below the headland, you can also sail in a blizzard on the outskirts of Wakefield in February.
I've only ever sailed in the golden months, and I really miss it, so a drysuit has become an imperative. I decided to bite the bullet and go down to Brookbank at Waltham Abbey, which is a little like shopping in an industrial estate in the Ruhr, but they have a good choice of everything. Last time I was there, it was sub-zero and you could see your breath in the air after you'd gone in.
Drysuits, for the uninitiated, are one piece suits that keep the water out. Wetsuits, on the other hand, keep a micro-thin layer of water in, so have to fit like a glove. Drysuits have a neoprene neck seal and arm seals; most have rubber booties at the end of the legs as well, to reduce the number of holes. All of them have a massive zip diagonally across the chest, which is where you get in. But not quickly and not easily.
First, I had to confront an irrational fear.
"What happens if water does get in? Won't water rush in and fill the suit and sink you...and stuff?" I ask breathlessly and somewhat anxiously.
The shop assistant, a young man in his twenties, looks at me as if I am totally insane: "You're in water, so you can't sink. Anyway, you should be wearing a lifejacket"
He remembers to smile at the crazy person and shows me to the drysuits for the paddlers. These are the expensive ones as they like to attach themselves to their boats, but then escorts me upstairs to an impressive wall of drysuits.
Drysuits are not a fashion statement. You look like an anaemic Michelin man with a massive scar across your chest. Stella McCartney and Hugo Boss have never shown drysuits on the catwalk, and Gok Wan wouldn't be seen dead in one. So all drysuits are black or red or grey, or combinations of any two of those colours.
I grab a handful of suits and go downstairs to the changing rooms. I realise I have no idea what to take off or keep on. There's no way I'm asking the shop assistant for help. He's probably already on the phone to summon assistance.
I take off my jeans and shirt and look down at my socks. I'm standing in boxers and a T-shirt wondering whether to strip naked in a semi-public place in an industrial park in Waltham Abbey. (This should bring up some good Google hits)
I peer out of the side of the ill-fitting curtains. I have never seen more than about five people in the shop. As I prepare to strip off, the room is suddenly full of women shopping for shoes, canoeing gloves, helmets and whatever else. Two children are watching a kayak video on a TV less than three feet away. Curses.
I decide that I will never sail naked under a drysuit anyway, just in case I have to be rescued by a Coastguard helicopter (admittedly a little unlikely on small lakes in the Lea Valley). I clutch a black Gill suit and pull it on. I pull it up and wriggle my right arm. This is the tricky bit and I have to twist my head severely to get it in. I lose the head hole and try to share the arm hole with my arm. More curses.
I try to extricate my head with my left hand. It's all a little weird, having to use my hands to hold and steer my head around like some kind of disembodied ghost. My head is bent sideways and I can't get it out. I'm already having visions of firemen having to cut through an expensive drysuit with the Jaws of Life.
"You OK?" a voice calls cheerfully.
"Yes, fine" I respond, sounding as if I am skipping around a wooded glade with nymphs. I have my head stuck at 90 degrees in a neoprene suit and I can't find my ears.
My right hand decides to plunge through the head hole and acts like the runway lights for my head to squeeze through. I'm using the word "squeeze" in its tightest possible meaning here, as I was convinced this would appear like that scene in Alien. With a lot of silent squealing and grunting, my head was born again. With a big heave, I emerged triumphant, sweating and aching.
I pulled the big zip closed and walked through the curtain. It all felt good, but I definitely need a bigger size. As a word of friendly advice, it is critically important that you discover you have the wrong size drysuit before you get it fully on. After admiring myself for several minutes in a show of narcissistic self-preening that would have made Mr Bean proud, I returned to the cubicle to remove it.
I undid the zip then paused for thought. Now what? I couldn't remove my left arm. Damn! Getting the right arm out first was clearly going to be impossible unless the top half of my torso was removed. No, it would to be my head first. Given that my head had been almost spring-loaded into the suit in the first place, this would also seem to be impossible. The suit wouldn't lift enough off the shoulders. Check. Shoulder height critical!
I could have called the shop assistant but this would have been too awful.
"Help me, I'm totally useless and can't get in or out of sailing gear properly!"
I sit down for a rest, then get a bit angry and try to somehow jump my arm out of the suit. I bounce around the cubicle. On one bounce, I notice a woman on the other side looking my way. She can clearly see a bloke jumping up and down in a changing cubicle. It's like a private version of Riverdance in here. I catch her eye on my next bounce. I think she is already gathering her kids and heading for the exit.
Suddenly and with no explanation, other than that there is indeed a God, and my left arm twists back and my elbow pops out. Suddenly my shoulder can clear the top and I am free.
"Yes!!!" I shout silently. "I can take the Nationals now I can get the drysuit off!"
Having worked my way out of the drysuit, I now know what to assess in each suit. I return the collection of medium drysuits and return laden with Medium Large and Large drysuits. None are easy, mainly because these huge zips are painfully slow to work, but over a two hour period I try on every drysuit in the store. There's always something not quite right and when you are spending more then £300 on a single piece of clothing, you want perfection.
The closest I come to perfection is, totally unsurprisingly, the very first, black Gill I tried - well a Large version of it. Typical.
I may look like one of the dispensable bad guys in a Bond movie, but at least I'm warm and dry.
Faber Navalis: a film about a substantial restoration project in Norway by Maurizio Borriello - This is a lovely, rather romantic piece of work! My thanks to reader Don Gray!
1 week ago