Armor for Extreme Sea Kayakers

by Eric Soares on November 28, 2011

What should a wave warrior wear when in wind and waves—and rocks?  Armor, of course.  But if you look through the websites of kayaking gear manufacturers such as Kokatat, NRS, Astral, Stohlquist, and the like, you won’t find any.  That’s because the kayaking industry is way behind the folks who make motocross gear.

Note the paddlers wearing motocross armor in whitewater and rocks in this book published in 1999.

There is a reason for that.  Sea kayakers have only recently been ratcheting up the risk factor by maneuvering through whitewater and rock gardens.  River kayakers and canoeists have stretched the envelope a little farther every year since the film Deliverance came out.  They are a naturally adventurous lot who have progressively taken more and more chances.  Gone are the days of enjoying Class II and III fun; now it’s Class IV or more or forget it.  If you say you’ve run a waterfall, the first question you get is “How big was it?”  The point is, for river runners, running over falls and shooting by hard rocks are now the norm.  With all this impact danger, there is still no body protection for river boaters except for the foam in a PFD (personal flotation device).  I wish PFD stood for personal flak diverter.

Sea kayakers are only now playing in rocks (except for the Tsunami Rangers, who have been doing this since our inception in 1985). And since manufacturers are in business to make money, why should they create products for a small customer base?  But if you combine the market segments of sea kayakers and wave skiers, river kayakers and rafters, surfers and boogie boarders, wake boarders and military swimmers with other water sports enthusiasts, you see there are a lot of potential customers out there who might want to wear armor in the water.

Armor Phase One—Wetsuits

To avoid getting scraped up while kayak surfing, in 1983 I started wearing a full surfer wetsuit as a second skin.  It worked fine, and over the years I’ve experimented by designing custom wetsuits with extra padding placed on the knees (1/4 inch neoprene pleats) and up the spine and kidneys (3/4 inch neoprene).  I had these made by Monterey Wetsuits and Heatwave in Santa Cruz, California.  I was and am very satisfied with the abrasion and contusion protection I get from neoprene wetsuits.  But I wanted impenetrable pads for my shins, shoulders, back, and chest to protect me from impact. In my years of extreme sea kayaking, I have witnessed many spearings in surf and experienced a lot of contact with rocks.  I wanted to address the impact issue, rather than shy away from the adventurous side of ocean kayaking.

Here I am in 1985 wearing a full surfer's wetsuit for scrape protection. Notice also that I'm wearing a buoyancy compensator (BC) for flotation. Nowadays paddlers can wear Coast Guard approved inflatable vests. The CO2 cartridge attached to the BC makes it convenient to inflate the BC to over 20 pounds of buoyancy in a hurry, but it doesn't protect the wearer from rocks.

Armor Phase Two—Motocross Armor

Jim Kakuk and I tried everything under the sun—football shoulder pads, soccer shin guards, and knee and elbow pads.  All these worked up to a point, but would either corrode in salt water, or the straps wouldn’t hold, or the pad would move out of position in swirling surf.

A rock garden at Point Lobos in 1987. Does it look like I need the armor I'm wearing? Ten seconds before Jim Kakuk took this photo, I was hit by a ten-foot breaker and hurled into rocks behind us. I bailed out of my boat as I was being bounced onto rocky incisors in the aftermath of the wave. Then I hopped back on my boat (as seen in the photo) and paddled on. Without my helmet and armor, I could have been injured. As it was, I felt fine, like a running back feels after running up the middle, ramming the linebacker, and then getting tackled by four guys.

Then we discovered motocross armor, and tried several models of plasticized foam shoulder pads which also covered the sternum and upper back.  We wore the motocross armor in lieu of a PFD.  It worked well, but hard shell shoulder pads would whack me in the face, and the Velcro was far from adequate in holding the thorax protector in place.  We resorted to duct taping ourselves up before each kayak outing.

In 1998 Michael Powers shot this photo of Eric Soares, Misha Dynnikov, and Jim Kakuk in three brands of motocross armor. Note the duct tape holding my armor together.

Finally, we had had enough of expensive motocross solutions to our armor problem. Jim Kakuk tried to make our own armor out of Kevlar and Ensolite, but it pinched at the shoulders and a year’s worth of research went down the tubes. We were perplexed. Then the miracle occurred.

Armor Phase Three—Armored PFD

In 2001, Jim Stohlquist gave us a deal on a prototype PFD he was working on for creek boaters. This PFD featured thin Kevlar plates over the upper back and sides, which protected one’s ribs and upper spine from impact.  I fell in love with this PFD and wear it to this day. It’s the best PFD I’ve ever worn. Regrettably, the prototype never made it to market, and to my knowledge you can’t buy one today.  Drat.

I'm wearing my trusty Kevlar-armored Stohlquist experimental PFD at the 2010 Reef Madness Sea Kayak Race. My thorax feels well-protected from errant projecticles such as surf skis flying through breaking waves.

I’ve been wearing my trusty Stohlquist for a decade, yet I know that someday it will wear out.  Plus, the PFD is bulky in front and does not protect my shoulders. So what will I do?  As a guy with an artificial aortic valve and a damaged aorta, it’s essential I not get smacked by a rock, log, or bow of someone’s boat.   Ponder, ponder.

Armor Phase Four—Motocross Redux

This year my friend Will Nordby gifted me with brand new motocross armor, the best I’ve ever seen.  Made by Sixsixone, this armor is lightweight with an articulated spine made of plastic inserts which allows your back to move naturally and protects you like an armadillo’s armor protects the fragile mammal inside.   It also covers your chest, shoulders, and arms in featherweight plastic armor with foam underneath.

I'm modeling my new Sixsixone motocross armor last August. Notice the shoulder and arm protection. It was easy to move my arms in all directions with no impediment.

I tested the Sixsixone a few weeks ago and found I had full range of movement, could get on and off my boat easily, roll no problemo, and swim in aerated surf just fine.  The only thing I didn’t do was have someone hit me with a baseball bat to see if it held up.

I really liked the plastic vertebral plates protecting my spine. The armor was very flexible and lightweight, but the mesh on the inside of the arms had me worried about snagging, even though all went well on my test outing

I would have been completely sold on the Sixsixone armor, but it uses a nylon mesh on the insides of your arms to hold the armor in place and allow full range of motion.  That would be perfect on a dirt bike but the wide mesh webbing snagged a bit, and that presents a hazard in surf.

Wave Warrior Armor Challenge

I paddled in rock gardens with the armor. I also surfed with it, and swam in surf. It worked well but I wish it had more flotation (foam padding) throughout. Perhaps someday a super-PFD with armor will get Coast Guard approval.

So I’m still looking for that perfect armor which protects my upper body from impacts and simultaneously adds positive flotation so you don’t sink while swimming.  I hereby openly challenge Stohlquist, Kokatat, NRS, Lotus Designs, Astral, Extrasport, Stearns, Mystic, and all other PFD manufacturers to design, develop, produce, and market watersports armor for kayakers.  I’ll be glad to help in the design and testing aspects—and I’ll do it for free.  There are a lot of new materials out there, and if you are looking for the future of basic padding protection, connect to Mystic already uses d3o in its impact vests for wake boarders.  Just think, if d3o foam was combined with lightweight plastic and ceramic composites, Cordura, Rubatex, and Hydroskin, who knows what kind of overall body armor might be developed for water sports?

Feel free to add your thoughts below.  What’s your take on kayaking armor?  Is it needed, or is it a pipe dream? Please ask questions and share your armor experience, knowledge, and dreams.  Oh, be sure to share your or someone’s stories where you wish you would have been wearing armor.

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill C. November 28, 2011 at 11:06 am

I agree with Eric’s evaluation/review of the current protection gear available at present. Most of these products are designed specifically for off-road, race track and street sport bike riding. I wear the Alpinestars version of Eric’s 661 gear when I ride my motorcycles. I think interested kayakers should send input to the Mystic company (d3O protective material) and see if they would be interested in designing for creek boating/river/ocean applications. A new prototype for Eric, et al to test? Eric, thanks for the informative article on armor. Cheers!


Eric Soares November 28, 2011 at 11:55 am

That’s a great idea, Bill. Thanks. Readers, if interested, please write to Mystic and the other PFD manufacturers and refer them to this essay. Let’s get the ball rolling.


John Lull November 28, 2011 at 4:08 pm

I really like the idea of the armored pfd, providing it’s lightweight. Otherwise, I’m happy with the padding on my present pfd. Regarding further armor, before I’d even consider it, it would have to be really well-designed for paddling, lightweight, and very comfortable. Maybe something built into a wetsuit, like the one you have Eric.

But really the bottom line for me is not to end up getting my body slammed into rocks or grated across them in the first place. I’ve noticed that in a lot of situations, the water provides a kind of cushioning effect. Also seaweed can soften the blow. We don’t have coral reefs here in northern Calif so getting sliced and diced on coral isn’t an issue. I think that’s a major issue in Hawaii, though.

Anyway, until someone designs the perfect body armor for a kayaker (I’m not holding my breath), I’ll stick with my comfortable custom wetsuit, pfd, gloves, & helmet. So far that’s been all the protection I’ve needed. Maybe I’m just lucky. 🙂


JohnA November 28, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Hi Eric,

A fascinating insight into the Tsunami Rangers world. I really take my hat off to you guys for the carefully considered approach you take to risk management in what you do. Especially that you don’t let it get in the way of the fun !

In winter something like wet suit and armour could be viable here, but in Summer, we would simply cook. For your conditions, and with the market being comparatively small, I wonder whether a good compromise would be to buy a set of motocross armor, cut it off that potentially hazardous mesh and webbing and permanently stitch/glue it to a suitable wet suit. Best of both worlds ? Or would it ruin a good set of armour and a good wet suit ?


John Lull November 28, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Eric can respond to your question, John. My answer would be to agree with your last sentence. It would ruin a good wetsuit for sure.

I think this is a great topic to discuss. But for those who don’t know the Tsunami Rangers well, let me say in the numerous times I’ve been paddling with Eric and the other TR, over many many years I’ve not once seen any of us wearing motocross armor or any other type of armor, aside from the pfd Eric mentioned. It’s true that Jim and Eric tested something out, but they never actually commited to using it. Who wants to paddle or swim with all that extra stuff on you? It’s bad enough we have to wear cold-water protection, pfds, helmets, etc.


Eric Soares November 28, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Okay, John Lull is correct in saying that we don’t wear armor that often. Except for the Sixsixone armor I tested this summer, I haven’t worn armor in ten years, just my Kevlar-armored PFD on every outing. The main reason is I can’t find any well-fitting armor that will double as a PFD. There’s no reason it can’t do both, though. And that’s the purpose of this essay.

To answer John A., above. Yes, I could reconfigure the Sixsixone motocross armor to eliminate the mesh without wrecking a wetsuit. I’m just lazy and want armor that is also a PFD. It’s important that armor be separate from the wetsuit, in case you want to wear a really warm wetsuit when the water is cold, a light wetsuit for cool water, or Lycra or Hydroskin for warm water.

BTW, Mr. Lull, did you not get speared in the back by the bow of a boat and get badly hurt? And, weren’t you lucky that the bow didn’t hit your spine, spleen, liver, or kidney? Or lung…. Would armor, or at least extra back padding, have helped you on that day? And if you could buy it at a retail store like Cal. Canoe & Kayak or REI or order it from NRS or someone at a reasonable cost (say $50 more than a regular PFD), would you not get it and wear it? I bet you would:)


John Lull November 28, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Yes indeed, I did get speared. Probably the amount of armor that would be enough to have kept me from getting injured would weigh as much as my kayak. A thin layer might have splintered and caused even greater injury.

Of course a much better way to deal with spearing incidents is to avoid them at all costs and that is actually easy to do. Ever since that incident, I won’t kayak surf in a crowd and I’ll for sure never let anyone follow me out into the surf, directly behind me with their bow pointed at my back! So that was at least partly my fault for not noticing Bonnie right on my tail.

Yeah, I’d probably buy a pfd with armor (I think it’s a good idea as I said above), if it were available and if it was light enough. I think the one you have is pretty good, if I recall. And a double-purpose item, pfd + armor, makes sense.

My point in my last post is to make sure the general public who might read this doesn’t get the idea that the Tsunami Rangers are out there on the water wearing big bulky uncomfortable and largely ineffective motocross armor. Ultimately, just like with the paddle leashes, we have to decide where to draw the line on safety equipment vs risk. I’d err on the side of being less encumbered and able to paddle and swim efficiently over heavy armor. But that’s just me. I think it’s a great idea to look for some solution to the armorall issue, especially with more newcomers to paddling rock gardens.


Doug Lloyd November 29, 2011 at 12:45 am

Thought provoking article Eric, though I suppose you knew there would be some personal flack deflection required! Like John implied, unencumbered is probably a notion to take seriously in a sport where one ostensibly is trying to embrace the environment being experienced without unnecessary distraction or restricting movement through it efficiently – but obviously everyone’s idea of minimum gear is going to be different as is what gear and equipment or mods are in order for protection from objective dangers to personal safety. I for one could care less what other paddlers might think about my selections and instances of use but at some point one should be able to answer questions from the paddling community, being both respectful of best practices/regional ethos and be willing to give a balance perspective.

I prefer a strong hull (my boat had an expedition hull layup with three extra layers of 6 ounce epoxy cloth and a full length custom plastic keel stiffener). Pre…sent HULL!!! A wetsuit with extra padding (means a custom wetsuit and extra expense, yes). A good helmet (I have two, one fitted bigger for a thick, double-layered 3mm titanium-flecked neoprene hood for winter night paddling).
If I bail solo in a rock garden and can’t re-enter and roll immediately, I fast deploy my painter line or tether and swim out, boat in tow. I have to admit that no PFD on the market allows for good swim mobility or streamlining through the water or under it. Only my Mustang inflation vest works well (uninflated, which also allows wave-diving) but then lacks torso protective function. I have heel-less, slip-on swim fins avaliable as well. Other than that, elbow pads are a great addition though I have never felt the need for shoulder pads (but then I played rugby in school and save for an athletic cup, anything else to me was too encumbering (er, other than cleats, shorts and jersey).

Given the current Class V sluiceways and waterfall drops that Creek Boaters run, I really thought there would have been more personal body protective equipment on the market by now for kayakers. At this point, the area I am most concerned about is cervical injury, having had a few close calls. My protective mechanism works well in extremis, helping prevent cervical fracture, but the tuck and duck position leaves undue exposure to puncture and impact. I don’t want to look like an Armadillo when I go paddling: I also don’t want to need to be tag-teamed by an orthopod/neurosurgeon team and a 10 hour surgery post-incident. If the seas are that big, I’ll stay out in deeper water – water is still softer than rocks…


Eric Soares November 29, 2011 at 8:34 am

Thanks, John, for pointing out that we do not (typically) look like a bunch of Transformer freaks when out paddling. For our readers: John and I spar like this all the time, although in general we agree with each other on most things. I’m going to spend a couple of days at his house later this week and we can argue some more about it over a good martini or two. Right, John?

Doug–excellent justification on your particular protection system. For extreme sea kayaking a reinforced hull is a must, yes. I like your padded wetsuit and head protection, and do something similar. I may post an essay on head gear in the future, as the head is the most important part of the body (get knocked out while on the water–it’s ovah!).

When you mention cervical injury, you are referring to the cervical vertebrae (C1 to C7 in the neck), correct, and not a woman’s cervix? Assuming you are talking about breaking one’s neck, yes, that is a serious issue that cannot be fully addressed by neck armor or a helmet. In fact, a helmet somewhat exacerbates the likelihood of hurting the neck because the helmet could get snagged or moved violently about in churning water which could in turn over-rotate the head on the axis vertebra, which is bad. Still, wear a helmet, but one that fits close to the head!

Or if you or I were to bash the top of our head on the sand after getting pitchpoled in shallow watter while surfing (which could happen, and is a serious concern), the sudden pressure on the atlas and other cervical vertebrae could cause fracture, which could injure the spine, which could cause paralysis or death. Not a pretty picture. This gets back to what you and John were saying, which is Be Careful! And you’re right, deep water is safer–and softer than rocks.


Doug Lloyd November 29, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Eric, yes cervical as in vertebrae, though I’ve heard the parties at Mirimar Beach get pretty wild so I don’t know if there are cervical injuries and subsequent pelvic pain problems. My concern indeed is with Axal and Axis injuries. As a medical claim adjudicator I certainly get numerous claims for upper cervical fractures and almost all involve Canadian (BC) tourists and surf injuries with some kind of mechanism of injury where the head has been pummled or forced off axis too much. Injury prevention sites always admonish participants in risk sports to wear the proper protective gear and take appropriate training, which covers off both your comments and Johns. As far as the two of you jousting, do you use paddles or boats to maim each other as are you not at an advantage wearing armour, though words will never sink me?


Eric Soares November 29, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Doug, all I can say about Miramar Beach parties is that they are great! You are invited to participate in the Reef Madness race on the first Sunday of May 2012, at 1 Mirada Road, Half Moon Bay, at Miramar Beach.

When John and I joust, we use those little plastic swords in tropical drink glasses. 😉 When it comes to sword fighting, I would win cuz I’m a sword fighter! But then John would blast me in the ear with his saxophone, and I’d be history.


Doug Lloyd November 30, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Wuz over on mailand today escorting my spouse to a cancer clinic visit and while waiting hit up all the boarder shops (snowboards) for examples of armour wear. There were some good, light vests with well-engineered, articulating spinal protection. Seems this particular sport values mobility compared to the motorcross armour accessories that bikers use for the trails and racing. Looked at some new sea kayaks in the playboat range but nothing offered was built to any kind of standard for rough rock garden play. I think the TR’s really nailed down those specs decades ago with respect to construction ruggedness, though Mariner Kayaks offered a bomber layup for the Coaster if you wanted it.


Tony November 29, 2011 at 9:13 am

My boat is my body armor. It stays between me and any hard/sharp surface.
This has served me well over the last eight years, not one scratch. Well I
did get a small scratch a couple weeks ago.

So far my boat in combination with my PFD, helmet, and gloves are doing the
job. However, if there was a light weight, comfortable body armor, I would
be interested.

Eric, what we really need is armored boats!

Damaged armored boats

New boat armored with Tarp


Eric Soares November 29, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Nice pics of damaged and fixed boats, Tony. You are so right in that the boat is your primary armor. I believe I have sacrificed more boats to protect my ass than just about anyone in the world.


John Lull November 29, 2011 at 10:12 am

Hey, no flak from me on this particular subject, just some comments and ideas. Yeah Eric & I sometimes spar, mostly because neither one of us is afraid to speak his mind, and I think we both like a good argument (especially over martini’s!). But we do tend to agree on almost everything.

Regarding armor, I totally agree with Eric that there is nothing adequate to the task out there (for ocean rock garden kayaking). I also agree that building some kevlar into a pfd is a practical way to go. Maybe where I disagree is I’m not really sure if there is a way to develop what we’d like to have and at the same time leave us relatively unemcumbered. Also, I’m not sure that the ‘corporate interests’ who are only motivated by the bottom line will see enough profit in it. Call me cynical. But extra padding in a custom wetsuit is doable and a good compromise. Just an aside, but a CUSTOM made wetsuit is the only way to go! IMHO.

Speaking of helmets, I just recently went back to my super-sturdy whitewater helmet with ear guards. For a long time I used the cut down, more modern whitewater helmet, thinking it was lighter and more comfortable. It is lighter but not more comfortable and it provides little or no ear protection. A helmet is by far the most important piece of armor for paddling in rocks or surfing.


John Lull November 29, 2011 at 10:23 am

One more comment, since I just noticed the remarks about bashing your head in the sand after pitchpoling in the surf. Here’s a little tip. A very important tip. Actually a very BIG important tip: Work up the habit of immediately tucking forward (hug your deck) into roll setup position, even if you can’t roll, whenever you capsize. This is the best way to protect your neck from injury when capsizing in shallow water. The good news is most really large waves, that might prevent you from immediately tucking forward, break in deeper water. But even then, be sure to tuck forward as soon as you can. Then either roll or bail.


Eric Soares November 29, 2011 at 5:01 pm

On the subject of pitchpoling: John and Doug are right in that deeper water means you are unlikely to smack your head on the sand. What happens is that people kayak surf or boogie board or body surf in small dumping surf next to shore. They think they are safe cuz they are in the small breakers but get tossed head first to the exposed beach and either break their necks (I have two friends that this has happened to) or smash their heads and get knocked out or worse. This pitchpoling-in-shallow-water scenario is to be avoided at all costs!

What to do? Tucking is important. As soon as you know you’ve blown it, you will have 1/10th of a second to tuck. Not much time. What you do is tuck forward as John suggests above, and try to put your chin on your chest, and then flip your body toward (not away, like you want to do) the shore so your boat flips over and your hull hits the ground first. I have done this on numerous occasions, and it is the best way to save your head from impact. It helps if you know how to sutemi (flip over) as taught in jujitsu. If I am around any time you (readers) are there, ask me to demonstrate, and I’ll teach this to you. This could save your life–especially all you folks who are learning how to kayak surf.


John Lull November 29, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Well said Eric! This is a really important concept. I call it “tuck & roll,” but it’s equally important whether you roll or not. And it applies in the river as well.

Speaking of martini jousting, an olive or lemon twist in the eye usually puts an end to the contest!


Eric Soares November 30, 2011 at 9:54 am

Don’t be uncivilized, John. The olive or lemon twist is to be savored as you finish the martini.

As for the “tuck and roll” concept, it’s so important that I see a future essay will have to be devoted to it. Maybe we could write it together. We’ll talk about it over that martini you promised me.


John Lull November 30, 2011 at 11:10 am

What’s ‘civilized’ got to do with it? LOL. No, I’d never waste a good olive!

Yeah an article on tuck & roll is a good idea. Also one on boat collisions. Once you start thinking about armor, all sorts of other topics spring up!


Bill Vonnegut November 29, 2011 at 10:46 am

One of the things I have been thinking about allot while paddling is that my dry suit or dry top gives me no protection against banging around in rocks. Since most of the kayaking I do is in coastal rock gardens. I have come closer to getting even just a full wet suit for some extra padding ( also I remember reading something by Eric a few years ago about the swimming advantage). But have not wanted the restriction of long sleeves.

This discussion has me gotten me to go on line and looking around for even a lightly padded wet suit. Only to find there is none to be found with padding in the places where I would want it. I hope to never get myself into the hydraulics that I am sure Eric has experienced where extreme body armor would be required, but I have been in areas where it potentially could happen. Though I have been banged around in the rocks and ended up with a sore shoulder or arm here and there. And would love to just find a wetsuit with some sort of padding that also allows a low restrictive paddling movement.

Eric I would like to know if you feel your padded wet suit causes any problems over a full day of paddling?

Also I saw you had yours custom made, I guess that’s the only option?


John Lull November 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Bill, Eric can answer and tell you where he got his custom wetsuit. But I should explain my comment that a custom wetsuit is the only way to go. The main reason for a custom wetsuit, padded or not, is to get one that fits YOU perfectly. Both from a comfort standpoint (there is no comparison in comfort between a good custom suit and an off-the-rack one), and in terms of keeping you warm in the water. A good fit is important for warmth. I like a farmer john wetsuit, with paddling jacket; it’s plenty warm and leaves my arms unrestricted. I do have a long-sleeve wetsuit top also, but don’t use it much.

Heat Wave in Santa Cruz makes great custom wetsuits.


Bill Vonnegut November 29, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Thanks for the info John. I had never thought of doing a custom suit. I wonder if they can make one with zip off padded shoulders and sleeves.


Fat Paddler November 29, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Thanks for the great thread! Paddling in the very warm waters of Sydney (23C/74F at the moment) adds a new dimension – trying not to overheat and dehydrate (quite serious issues here). In rocks I wear a full length 3-4mm steamer wetsuit with gloves, booties, helmet and PFD and then only go into areas where I know I have a good chance of not being smashed against rocks. Our rocks tend to be covered in either barnacles or oysters, a surface covering much like razor blades (I found that out the hard way), so the gloves/booties are a necessity. But with all this gear, I need to immerse myself regularly to keep cool and keep lots of water onboard. I can’t imagine I could bear anymore armour just from a heat perspective.

Btw despite trying to be careful I still get regularly smashed against cliffs here and I’ve found wetty/PFD/helmet combo to be quite sufficient. Plus, the compression of the neoprene helps stifle the blood flow. 😉


Eric Soares November 29, 2011 at 5:22 pm

WETSUIT–your first line of protection. For Fat Paddler, he is lucky to live in warm water. Ooh I envy you. I wish I could just get wet to cool off.

For Bill Vonnegut above, for a custom wetsuit that fits YOU, go to Heatwave in Santa Cruz and tell Dana you want the “Tsunami Ranger” style wetsuit & mention my name. He’ll fit you, ask you a bunch of questions, and then in a few weeks, you’ll have your new custom wetsuit. Be sure to emphasize that you want gussets in the armpits and thin (3 mm max) in the shoulders and arms. And remind him you need to be able to move your shoulders–so “loose” in the shoulders, and extra tight in the gutt. I put 5 mm in my butt and back, to keep extra warm and padded. Be sure to also get the custom hooded neoprene vest so you can stay extra toasty in the winter. It sucks being cold.

As an alternative to the custom wetsuit, check out full wetsuits in surf shops. Since you have a standard athletic body, you may be able to get a suit right off the rack that will work for you and not bungee cord your arms and shoulders too much so you’re all tired at the end of the day.

However, you may not win our race if you wear this suit! But you will be warm and protected and can save your precious drysuit from getting shredded, which will eventually happen, mark my words! If your drysuit tears and you have to swim, it will instantly fill up with cold water and you will be in a world of hurt.

If you have more questions, Bill, just ask. Good luck. I look forward to seeing you in your spiffy new suit at the race in 2012. Maybe all of Neptune’s Rangers will follow your example–which they’d better if they keep doing the daring deeds I see in your videos!


Moulton Avery November 30, 2011 at 9:49 am

Barvo on a great cutting-edge post, Eric. That’s some pretty spiffy armor you’re sporting in those pix, and I think it’s a perfect illustration of the first rule of outdoor sports: Use gear that makes you look cool rather than dorky. Regardless of how well or poorly you actually do out on the water, it’s how you look in the pix that determines whether you get on the cover of SK magazine.

While getting speared would be no joke, getting whack-a-moled on the rocks appears to be a far more common hazard for you mates. Not being skilled in bum-to-the-rocks boat safety skills, I would welcome extra padding. Custom wetsuits are cheap insurance, and as you note, getting your drysuit holed on the rocks can be quite dangerous. Ad jingle: Cold water in suit? Give it the boot! Go Neo!


Eric Soares November 30, 2011 at 10:20 am

Ha ha! You are so funny, Moulton. Well, it is true that armor makes you look cool, or at least tough. Just remember that you are still just a puny little armadillo varmint inside that armored exterior.

The point is armor is good, but skills and judgment are more important in surf, rocks, creeks, and the like. All the armor in the world won’t protect a guy much who plunges onto his head or gets his neck wrenched. There is a fine balance between knowingly going for it in surf and rocks (and then getting bashed up a bit as you improve), and just blundering in blind to danger. I can see a future post called “How much rock bashing should you do.”

An aside for martial arts buffs: Jujitsu is designed to combat armored samurai. Using joint manipulations (e.g., neck cranks and arm bars) and throwing people on their heads is how it works. Karate (striking techniques) doesn’t work that well against a heavily armored opponent (you will break your hand or foot hitting them). So in kayaking, armor protects against karate moves such as spearing and rock tearing, but not jujitsu moves such as augering into the sand head first. That’s why, just as in jujitsu, the escape from augering in is to sutemi (spin in the air) and land in a more advantageous way, say on the bottom of your hull. Savvy?


John Lull November 30, 2011 at 11:04 am

Well-said Eric. I’m into the idea of escaping augering in the sand by spinning and landing hull-first! Good moves/techniques are the real key to safety.

Moulton wrote: “While getting speared would be no joke, getting whack-a-moled on the rocks appears to be a far more common hazard for you mates.”

Moulton, while intinctively this might seem to be true, I don’t think it is. I’ve been speared a couple of times and have experienced several boat collisions, but have very rarely hit my body on a rock with any force. I’ve scraped the hull of the boat over rocks a fair number of times, but not my body. Which is not to say it couldn’t happen of course! But when I’m kayaking in the surge among rocks or in the surf zone with other kayakers, I consider those other boats to be the biggest threat to my safety.

Most of us in the Tsunami Rangers have given a lot of thought to avoiding collisions, especially between boats and bodies. For example, in surf or surging waves, you never want to be in the ‘T-configuration’: That is being broadside to the bow or stern of another kayaker. Nothing is more terrifying to me, especially when the other kayaker is a relative novice in such conditions. But novice or not, once that wave washes through, you only have so much control over where you are pushed. If you are close to another kayaker, it is best to stay parallel, bow into the wave, in such situations. Likewise, never follow directly behind another kayaker out through surf or breaking waves. That is a sure way to set someone up for a spearing incident.


Moulton Avery November 30, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Great points, John, thanks for elaborating on that. Never having actually paddled with you fine TR mates, I allowed myself to be unduly influenced by videos that feature many close encounters with large, fixed, wave-washed objects, but little in the way of spearing action. Haven’t been skewered meself, but a couple close brushes with kayak snouts made me a believer in keeping my distance.


Eric Soares November 30, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Yeah, I agree with John that spearing occurs more often (maybe because more people crowd up in surf). My worst spearing incident occurred on the Oregon coast. We had a camera gal in the front of an X-2 double with Dave Whalen at the helm. He tried to keep his distance but I made him get close to me in the T-formation with me being the upper bar of the T—all to get good video footage of me getting hit broadside by a wave. Well, the wave hit me and sent me airborne right toward them a mere ten feet away. I aimed my hull at them to protect myself from getting speared by their bow. I was worried that I would plunge right down their deck and wipe out the cinematographer, but instead the middle of my hull smacked perfectly on the X-2 bow. Whew! I didn’t kill anyone. But, their bow penetrated right through my Kevlar hull, my deck, the hand railing and plowed right into my upper right hamstrings. Thank God I had my 5-mm wetsuit on, or I would have been even more injured.

Gordon Brown towed me in 500 yards to shore and someone else towed in my broken boat. When I reached shore, I took off my wetsuit and assessed the damage to my thigh. To my relief all I had was a basketball-sized contusion. That night, I paddled my duct-taped X-15 into a sea cave and surfed through it no problem. Armor is good.


John Lull November 30, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Yeah Moulton, a lot of those close encounters with large, fixed, wave-washed objects you see on the video are glancing blows at most. Some are full-on crashes of course, but I’ve found in many cases there is a water cushioning effect and by keeping the hull to the rock, nothing much happens but it looks stunning on video!

And the fact that those large rocky objects are ‘fixed’ makes them a bit easier to deal with than an unpredictable kayak missile being tossed around in the waves like a loose cannon.


Bill C. December 14, 2011 at 5:02 pm

I found another source for body armor that be relevant to extreme contact water sports. Forcefield. It looks like it would work well with a wetsuit.


Eric Soares December 14, 2011 at 6:48 pm

I checked it out Bill, and it looks cool. I may have to look into this a little more.
Thanks, Eric


Ken February 8, 2012 at 11:57 am

You guys might want to look into G-Form products or get in touch with them. They have pliable shock absorbent armor for various things. Seems like it would work well in surf situations for you. They already have elbow and knee guards for mtn bikers.



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