Get the Gear!
My favorite adult floaty is the Wild Paces buoy (a UK-based company). It's durable, doubles as a dry sack and keeps me afloat if I want a rest. I always mentally feel safer with it. I put my keys and phone in a small dry sack and put that inside the bag to be extra safe.
I love my Blue Seventy suits. I bought my first one lightly used for half the price at the BlueSeventy warehouse in Shoreline, WA. I also recently bought the BlueSeventy Thermal suit which goes down to 47 degrees comfortably. I like to wear this one in the winter. I also use surf booties (5 mm) and gloves (1.5 - 3 mm) for cold water. I also have a sleeveless Xterra suit (on sale at the time for $90!).
When the water is warmer (mid 50s), I'll skip the suit. For long distance swims in colder water, I'll still use the suit.
Use code "wetsuitweekender" at checkout for a 20% off discount!
These Italian AquaSphere goggles saved me from the chop of the SF bay during my 10K swim (so choppy I got rid of the swim buoy which kept hitting me in the face in the waves). I have tried multiple pairs and these are my favorite.
More Gear! All the Gear!
A big cheap 5 gallon bucket from the hardware store - Helps to keep all of your wet stuff in one place post-swimming. After swimming, I throw everything in the bucket along with wetsuit soap and then wash/dry everything on a dry rack at home. Join the bucket club!
Two swim caps - For cold water, it helps to wear two. I love silicone caps, they're easier to put on. Some people like to wear a thermal cap (like this one from Blue Seventy) under a regular swim cap, too. I personally dislike them - they feel super constricting for me around my neck as I'm swimming.
Silicone Ear Plugs - You'll be more comfortable with something like these. I reuse the same pair a few times and they seem to work fine. It's not only for comfort - I've heard cold water swimming without earplugs can potentially damage your hearing over time.
Anti-Chafe - Slather some classic bag balm behind your neck and around your underarm area to help prevent chafing. Salt water increases chafing. I also love TriGlide - recently my Bag Balm exploded everywhere in the car on a long, hot swim vacation and ruined my swim parka. You will chafe more in a wetsuit and more in salt water, but the longer you swim the greater chance of chafing in general.
Booties and Gloves - DryLock is a great brand, but really any flexible surf booties and gloves will work. I use 3 mm DryLock gloves and 5 mm Rip Curl surf booties in the Puget Sound. If you're swimming without a wetsuit, I recommend getting booties that have an ankle strap on the top so water doesn't get in them as you swim.
Swim Parka - Always helpful for the ever-awkward deck change. A butt may be viewed publicly with OWS, it's a bit hard to avoid when you're hands are frozen and you're trying to get your suit off ASAP. Swim parkas are great for getting warm quickly after swimming in cold water. I recommend www.swimoutlet.com for finding one of these, for a swimsuit, or anything else you may need. The mecca of swim parkas is the Dry Robe! I LOVE mine!
Google Defogger Spray, Silicone Lubricant Spray and Wetsuit Shampoo from GearAid (a local company out of Bellingham, WA!) or Slosh. These items will make your expensive gear last. Spray the silicone lubricant spray on your wetsuit, booties and gloves and wash everything in your bucket with the shampoo after fun in the water!
Vinegar - If you get stung by a jellyfish (like the Lions Mane!), splash vinegar on the sting and then scrape the cells off with a credit card. I carry a bottle of vinegar in my buoy in case I get stung, especially on long swims.
Anti-Jellyfish Sting Sunscreen (Safe Seas) - This sunscreen doubles as a slippery protector against jellyfish and also a sunscreen. I spray this on when I'm swimming skins or on my arms when I'm wearing my sleeveless wetsuit.