It’s one of the coldest days of the winter on this Rhode Island resort’s Town Beach. Snow blankets the sand in a swath of white, the wind chill makes the air temperature feel like a frosty minus 12 degrees Fahrenheit, and a big nor’easter is forecast to hit the next day, bringing three more feet of snow.
Peter Panagiotis, a New England surfing stalwart known in the surfing world as Peter Pan, is surveying a small set of waves rolling lazily onto the shore. He turns and grins. “It’s not that bad, right?”
Standing on the snowy beach, squeezed into a head-to-toe wet suit, clutching a nine-foot surfboard and struggling to balance it in the wind, it’s a hard question to answer. The sun may be bright, but the beach is deserted, and for good reason. It’s freezing outside.
To mainstream surfers, the logic of New England winter surfing is akin to that of opening a lemonade stand in Siberia in the middle of January. There are none of the usual pleasing accouterments of the surfing life: palm trees, hot sun, tanned surfers in bikinis and Hawaiian-print board shorts. But to New England surfers like Mr. Panagiotis, 54, who has lived and surfed on the East Coast for more than 25 years and has won many surfing titles in his career as a professional surfer, the idea of catching a wave in frigid weather is far more attractive than that of summertime surf.
“For me, it’s real simple,” he said. “Nobody’s in the water. Surfing is a greedy, selfish sport, and anyone who tells you different is lying.” Mr. Panagiotis was a founding member of the University of Rhode Island’s surf club in 1968 and has been district director for the Eastern Surfing Association since 1972. “The best thing about New England is that you can go out on a perfect break in the winter, and you can have it all to yourself. It’s cold and nasty, but I love it.”
That possibility of being alone on an empty shore with an excellent wave is what drives winter surf enthusiasts to the secluded points and reefs along the jagged New England coastline. Most cold-wave surfers are solitary creatures, heading out to find the perfect breaks alone, or taking just one or two trusted (and similarly obsessed) buddies along for the ride.
All agree, however, that in the Northeast, November through May is the ideal time to surf. In the summer, the beaches are clogged with people, and the piddling surf pales next to the 12-foot waves that can come along with a nor’easter tearing through the region in winter. While the rest of the Northeast battens down its hatches and forgets about the ocean for six months, diehard winter surfers look to the storms to create ideal conditions for big waves.
Ryan Richer, 21, works at Gansett Juice Surf & Skate, a surf shop a few blocks up from Narragansett Town Beach, within view of the restless blue Atlantic and its churning whitecaps. To him, there is no better beach to surf in the Northeast than the one he can see from the shop.
“Our waves are the best in New England,” said Mr. Richer, a surfer from Woonsocket, R.I., who has won regional contests, including titles at the Eastern Surfing Association’s annual Mid-Winter Surfing Championships, held every year since 1967 on Town Beach. Because of its deep horseshoe shape and a changeable sandbar, which catch swells from many directions, the beach often has waves that can be surfed when surrounding spots are flat. Mr. Richer recently returned from a surfing trip to Costa Rica, but jumping right back into subzero temperatures didn’t faze him at all.
“When there are waves, I’m out there, and I’m a lot warmer surfing than I am when I’m snowboarding,” he said. “But you have to try not to get your face wet, otherwise it’s like an ice cream headache.”
To get into this water, which hovers just around 32 degrees for much of the winter, surfers need more than a board and a tan. Radical improvements in wet suit technology have made it easier in the last decade. Today’s winter surfers wear a thick, 5-4-3-millimeter neoprene wet suit—meaning that it’s 5 millimeters thick in the core, 4 on the extremities and 3 in the gussets, with taped seams—and a neoprene hood, gloves and booties. A swimsuit and a polypropylene rash guard beneath the suit add a little extra comfort. The finishing touch is Vaseline on the face to protect against saltwater and windburn.
Thus outfitted, I followed Mr. Pangiotis into the surf on a recent afternoon, watching icicles forming on the cap of my neoprene hood within minutes. But I didn’t actually feel cold. I was too busy checking behind me for the right swell, trying to time my paddle to catch the wave, leaning back and popping up on my feet, hoping to ride the whitewash all the way into shore. I tried furiously to follow Mr. Panagiotis’s instructions: “Keep moving! Paddle straight into the wave! Paddle harder!” but I was distracted by the seal I saw peering at us from 100 yards away, bobbing in the waves.
And then the ocean reminded me that it was there, swamping me in a wipeout so that my face hit the ice-cold chop at full force. I had to keep wiggling my cheeks to make sure they still had feeling, but—surprise—it was no worse than an ice cream headache. I felt I could be among the hardest of the hardcore.
For the best surfers, competitions like the Mid-Winter lend the cold season some heat. With 7,000 members stretching from Maine to the Gulf Coast of Florida, the Eastern Surfing Association is the largest amateur surfing organization in the world. It holds qualifying amateur events on the East Coast for the American Surfing Championships, the USA Surfing Championships and the USA National Surf Team. This year, the Mid-Winter will be held on Feb. 19, and the conditions are predicted to be unpredictable; last year’s event took place over six hours in 34-degree water amid sun, rain and snow.
Increased interest in winter surfing has led Red Bull, the energy-drink company, to generate more buzz with a new competition of its own. Its first contest was held at Point Judith Lighthouse in Narragansett in 2002, in 10-foot swells and bitterly cold conditions. The contest, the Red Bull Ice Break, now carries a cash purse of $10,000. Twenty-five contestants, who move on to the final by taking top spots in East Coast qualifying events earlier in the season, are put on call from March 1 to May 31. They have between 48 and 96 hours to prepare for the main event; prime surf conditions, organizers say, are epic storm waves and deep-freeze temperatures.
“The Red Bull Ice Break was conceived to give notice to the hardcore surfers of the Northeast,” said Jack Fleming, the event’s organizer and a longtime East Coast surfer. “They brave the harshest elements, since most of the good surf arrives during the coldest months of the year.” Red Bull also reserves four wild-card spots in the contest for big-name pro surfers.
“The public is definitely becoming more aware that these crazy fools go out in the winter to surf,” said Kathy Phillips, director of the Eastern Surfing Association, which is based in somewhat warmer Ocean City, Md. But even though old and new competitions create attention for surfing’s cold-weather contingent, they aren’t what drive most surfers to brave the harsh conditions. What drives them is the appeal of a solo day out with the elements. Warm-weather aficionados will tell you that surfing is about the beauty of the location, say, Hawaii, as much as the sport itself, but one could argue that these cold-weather surfers have a similar affection for the New England environment and for the time of year.
“I’ve surfed in the snow,” said Janice Causey, 59, a retired teacher from Providence, R.I. “My cheeks get all rosy. There are no crowds, and I have to keep flickering my eyelashes because I can’t see.” She started surfing in her 40′s and has written a book called “Riding the Waves with Mama C,” which was printed privately in 2002.
“I’ve surfed Cape Cod in the winter,” Ms. Causey said. “I love it there. Going up and down the dunes afterward is tough, but I love the freedom of riding the wave and the absence of crowds.”
The key, she said, is a warm place to go after you get out of the water, be it your car (preferably already warmed up) or a bathhouse on the beach. “My son always changes in his truck,” Ms. Causey said. “But he’s 29 years old and doesn’t care.”
For Mr. Panagiotis, there’s no such thing as a day that’s too cold, or too snowy, or too windy. When I asked him whether a recent bout with the flu should prevent my joining him for a surf session, he quickly tossed the thought aside. “The best thing to kill the flu,” he said, “is icy cold water.”
The Cold Waves of the Northeast
Surfing does not require white sand, a hot sun or a summer breeze. It requires only waves, and sometimes the good waves are very, very cold. The best source for minute-to-minute surf conditions, including surf cams, weather reports and forecasts, is Surfline, www.surfline.com .
Here are places to find winter waves:
NARRAGANSETT TOWN BEACH Rhode Island.
A deep horseshoe-shaped bay often catches swells from every direction—a big plus when looking for surf in the notoriously fickle Northeast. Gansett Juice Surf & Skate (74 Narragansett Avenue, Narragansett; 401-789-7890; www.gansettjuice.com ) offers rentals and lessons on how to conquer the cold surf. The Eastern Surfing Association’s 37th Annual New England Mid-Winter Surfing Championships will be held on Feb. 19 on Narragansett Town Beach, conditions permitting. Details can be found at the group’s regional Web site, www.sne.surfesa.org . Surf conditions will be available to callers at (401) 727-2605 after 6 p.m. the night before the event. It will be postponed if conditions are poor.
RYE BEACH New Hampshire.
Even if you’re not surfing, this is a great place to watch the action. You’ll find a pebbly beach, rocky points and a moderate shorebreak. Surfboards and gear can be purchased at Pioneers Board Shop, 62 Lafayette Road, North Hampton; (603) 964-7714; www.surfnh.com .
CAPE COD Massachusetts.
Not just for the summering crowd, but not for the faint of heart, either. Most surfers head to the 20-mile sandbar from near Truro to Nauset, where there is a constantly changing break; conditions vary minute to minute. Check out Jasper’s Surf Shop, Route 6, North Eastham; (508) 255-2662.
SURFING CONTEST Location to be announced.
The fourth Red Bull Ice Break will be held in eastern Canada on one day between March 1 and May 31. For more information and, eventually, the specific date and location, visit www.redbullicebreak.com or call (603) 778-1212.