- Jan 5, 2007
It's been a while since I posted a new thread in our new Snorkelling Forum. This morning I chanced upon a promising-looking Google Book while I was using the search engine to locate something completely different. Published in 2020, the front page of this book can be seen above.
When I come across any new title relating to underwater swimming, I generally turn out of habit to the equipment pages and I did so in this case too:
Gear can be as simple or as complex as you like. At a minimum, you need a mask. Just about any mask will do, so if you are just starting out and aren’t sure if you are really going to take to river snorkeling, go on the cheaper side. Once you are sure this is your thing, you can upgrade to a more expensive model. At a minimum, the mask should have a soft skirt of pliable silicone, and it should fit well. To test the fit, hold the mask to your face without putting the strap behind your head. Inhale through your nose. Does the mask suck to your face? Does it feel comfortable? If not, find another model. Masks really come down to personal preference and comfortable fit. Hopefully, you will be wearing this for hours, so make sure it feels good.
The snorkel is the tube that connects you to the surface so that you can breathe while watching incredible underwater life unfold before you. The basic snorkel tube works well. It doesn’t need a purge valve that helps water drain out after submerging. It doesn’t need a float to plug the end of the tube when you submerge to keep water from getting in. However, those things make clearing water from a flooded snorkel easier. Things to consider are a flexible tube attached to the mouthpiece versus a rigid one. The flexible tubes are often more comfortable since they conform to the angle between where the snorkel tube connects to the mask strap and your mouth. On the downside, they can trap water so that your tube always gurgles, and they can crack over time. While purge valves are great for making clearing water from a flooded snorkel easy, they also leak. My personal preference 1s a flexible tube snorkel with a purge valve, and yes, mine leaks, so I almost always have a gurgle on inhalation and exhalation, which makes sneaking up on skittish fish difficult. I should upgrade.
Fins are entirely optional. It depends on the kind of river snorkeling you plan on doing. If you intend to get in at one spot and stay more or less in that same area of river, fins are not recommended as they tend to get in the way and kick up bottom. If, on the other hand, you plan on doing a downstream run or snorkeling some kind of distance, then fins come in handy to speed you through the slower parts. If you decide to go with them, get something that you can get on and off easily, as you will be doing that often.
The hike in was tough but worth it. This stream was about as pristine as they come, and the clear water had just a hint of aquamarine in its deepest parts. I pulled my mask out of my pack, pressed it to my face, slid the strap around the back of my head, and snap. . . . It broke. Now what? I was two hours in with no mask. Lesson learned. Always pack a spare: spare mask strap, spare snorkel keeper, the little plastic or rubber doohickey that attaches the snorkel to the mask, and a spare fin strap. When I travel long distances or fly to a destination, I pack a whole extra mask, just in case.
Wetsuits offer protection from cold water and abrasion. They trap a thin layer of water between your body and the neoprene, and your body warms it up. They also provide buoyancy, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on your reasons for snorkeling. I always like to be positively buoyant (1.e., float) when I river snorkel. I can usually see everything I want from the surface, so there is no need to submerge. Wetsuits provide the thermal and abrasion protection I need, plus they make me float like a cork. Wetsuit thickness depends on water temperatures: 3/2 mm provides comfort in water 60 degrees and up, 4/3 mm for 52 degrees and up, and 5 mm for 45 degrees and up.
There are times when I want to be on the bottom, and the buoyancy of a wetsuit is counter to getting there, so the addition of a weight belt is necessary to become neutrally buoyant. The amount of weight needed is based on individual body composition, so the only way to arrive at the right added weight is through experimentation in a pool.
When the water is just too cold for a wetsuit, the next level of protection is a drysuit. Where a wetsuit allows a thin layer of water between you and the suit, a drysuit, theoretically, doesn’t allow any water to touch your skin. Drysuits by themselves offer no thermal protection, so an insulating underlayer is needed. I snorkel year-round. Polypropylene thermal underwear under a fleece jumpsuit, all protected by the drysuit, 1s usually sufficient to keep my core warm. Neoprene gloves and hood keep my hands and head warm for a while, though my hands are usually the limiting factor. In the mid-Atlantic, I switch from wet- to drysuit right around Halloween and back again right around Memorial Day. If I’m snorkeling Cascade Mountain rivers in the Pacific Northwest, I wear a drysuit year-round, and I wear my drysuit when I plan on being in the river all day regardless of geography. Drysuits can be expensive. A heavy-duty drysuit can run upward of one to two thousand dollars. I have been using a lightweight, low-end drysuit for four years without any problems. The lightweight suit before that lasted 4 years before the neck seal blew, a common problem regardless of price and thickness. However, lightweight suits don’t have the same abrasion resistance that heavier suits do.
I was immediately hooked. Here was an author prepared to let his readers make up their own minds and heed their own needs when it came to selecting and purchasing underwater swimming gear.
Many years ago, I subscribed to an online swimming group with an outdoor aquatics section. I was hoping to find some likeminded people who wanted to enioy open-water swimming for the sheer pleasure of it , but instead I found a set of alpha males priding themselves on swimming in rivers and lakes kitted out with nothing more than a swimming costume. When people like me suggested wearing some kind of aquatic exposure suit to beat the cold, we would be ridiculed as "softies" reluctant to undergo the necessary coldwater training. Ridicule rarely works as a means of getting me to follow another person's example and I soon left the entire forum, still respecting the "polar-bear" cold-water swimming community for its spartan exploits but deploring the mockery used by certain members to recruit new blood.
But back to Keith Williams' book. His view of snorkelling is very much the same as mine. For both of us, snorkelling in rivers and lakes is a complementary activity to trail walking, all part and parcel of the wonderful world of hiking. It's about enjoying the diversity of terrestrial and aquatic animal and plant life, feeling at one with nature and definitely nothing to do with inuring my septuagenarian body to freezing temperatures or indeed seeing how far I can descend in the water on a single breath. It's not about proving anything, breaking records or meeting impossible challenges as I engage in my favourite water pastime. The working life from which I have retired has tested me to the limits and I have no wish or need to replace such stresses to satisfy some fatuous "bucket list". Like French philosopher Voltaire, I respect those whose exploits require them to undergo regular arduous training, but like him, I have no intention of following their lead.
And what Williams says about snorkelling equipment resonates with me too. A snorkeller in a drysuit with warm underclothing may well weather the winter cold much more easily than one wearing just a thin wetsuit, however close-fitting it might be. And snorkelling fins don't necessarily mean mono or long-bladed fins if the snorkeller is just interested in fish-watching; no fins at all may indeed represent a valid choice. So, for me, snorkelling equipment is about what makes me feel comfortable and permits me to paddle around at my own pace in the water. And Keith Williams' book reinforces my belief that there can be a simple joy in snorkelling outside our otherwise far too competitive world.