Let's see, here it is mid-January; a nice, brisk day, air temperature in the thirties, water temperature about the same, wind from the northwest at 15 knots, no ice to speak of on the river. Anyone for a dip?

No, we're not soliciting for the Polar Bear Club, those brave souls who plunge into the freezing drink in skimpy swimsuits, give a shriek and soon after leap back out. We're thinking of a more leisurely outing, with few of the attendant discomforts.

Some years ago I attended the Canoe Cruisers Association's annual New Year's gathering at Great Falls, in which stouthearted kayakers paddled around the frigid rapids in wet suits while their pals sat on the shore, sipping hot cider and shaking their heads.

It took me about a week to stop shivering, and all I'd done was watch. I swore then that midwinter water sports were for someone else.

How, then, to explain my happy participation a decade later in the Severn Sailing Association's annual Ice Bowl, when a dozen and a half little sailboats schussed five miles up the Severn River to Round Bay and back to Annapolis this New Year's, finishing in the dead of darkness on one of the shorter and generally one of the colder days of the year?

The answer, friends, lies in two words: Dry suit.

If you don't have one and you like to kayak, canoe, sea-kayak, boardsail, surf, sail or just mess around in small boats in the winter, get one. It'll change your life.

Mine came in a box from L.L. Bean waiting under the tree Christmas morning. I had halfheartedly put it on the wish list, but never expected to see it there, since all the dry suits I'd seen were in the $300 to $500 range, beyond our budget.

But when my wife called Bean's, she was delighted to learn that the base-line model there was on sale, hacked in price to under $200.

I was excited enough that I wanted to try it on right away, but succeeded only in fouling the sacred morning with fiery fulminations when I couldn't jam my foot through the waterproof, latex ankle gasket.

"Dad," said my daughter after a respectful delay, "I think that's the wrist hole, not the ankle hole."

Hmmmmm . . . .

So, you're asking, what is a dry suit anyway, and what's so all-fired good about it?

Dry suits are modern adaptations of the old, hard-hat suits deep-sea divers used to wear, but without the hat. Instead of rubber, these jumpsuit-style contraptions are made of light, durable, waterproof, urethane-coated nylon that's sealed at the neck, ankles and wrists with thin, latex gaskets that grip the skin tightly and allow no water to slip by.

So, you ask, how do you get in -- through the neck hole?

Of course not, silly. They come with a big, waterproof zipper -- either front-entry or rear-entry. You climb in, jam feet and hands through the snug arm and leg gaskets, squeeze your head through the neck gasket and either zip yourself shut on the front-entry model or have your partner zip you in on the rear-entry job. Presto: Waterproof person!

Two zipper types are generally available -- big, tough, metal-toothed ones considered waterproof down to 80 feet, and light, coil-type zippers that are "water resistant," meaning they'll keep you bone dry in the worst spray but may let a few droplets in when submerged.

The beauty of dry suits is that unlike wet suits, you can wear regular clothes underneath in as many layers as you want, which means you can wear stuff that's comfortable and tailor your attire to the weather.

The other day, for a biting cold outing, I put on polypropylene long johns, wool trousers, a wool shirt, flannel shirt and sweater, the dry suit, a suit of foul weather gear over top and waddled out to sea warbling, "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow." On warmer days, you might wear only a layer or two.

In either event, you enjoy the security of knowing that, unlike with wet suits, if you do fall into cold water you won't have to spend the rest of the day dripping wet. Just climb back aboard, wring out your gloves and hat, pour the water out of your boots and get back to work.

The first time I saw dry suits used for sailing was in Fremantle, Australia, during the 1986-'87 America's Cup. The air temperature there was often up in the eighties, but the Indian Ocean was down in the sixties and the Cup sailors, particularly the ones stuck on the low side of the boats trimming the sails in howling gales, were often completely submerged.

They'd come back to the docks looking like haggard refugees from a triathlon, strip out of their dry suits and march into the news conference in the same rugby shirts they'd worn all day, still dry as toast.

Whitewater kayakers and canoeists, who pretty much expect to fall in and often are a long way from civilization when they do, were the first to start using dry suits for winter outings around here. Sailors and other big-water boaters are following now.

Certainly the shift from wet to dry suits should be bolstered by lower prices. Steve Guyer, who works for Kokatat, an outfit in northern California that made my suit, said my wife got "an outrageous deal" at the price she paid, and cautioned that the nylon base material is a petrochemical product and thus vulnerable to oil price increases.

But L.L. Bean reports the suits remain on sale, available in all sizes. "We even have an 800 number to place your order," gushed the saleswoman.

Which leaves no excuse for you slugabeds to be sitting in front of the tube chomping Cheetos on Super Bowl Sunday.

Get a dry suit! Get a life!