Winter Sublime

The dangerous magic of sub-zero surfing

Winter Sublime

The dangerous magic of sub-zero surfing.

Issue: November 2019

By: Katy Kelleher
Photography by: Nicole Wolf

“Surfing’s a more profound kind of sport than it looks. When you surf, you learn not to fight the power of nature, even if it gets violent.”
–Haruki Murakami

I had hypothermia once.

It was a sunny day in early December, and I had capsized my canoe in the saltwater marshes of Scarborough. My husband and I didn’t have a dry bag with us, and we were over an hour from our car. As we paddled our way back, my body began to shiver violently. I felt cold, then I felt warm. I began to feel confused, as though I was losing my grip on reality, and I did lose my grip on the paddle. With slurred speech I told my husband that I wanted, more than anything, to go to sleep.

Human bodies aren’t meant to be in the ocean in the dead of winter. We’re not built to withstand that kind of cold. In Portland,the average ocean temperature in January is 34 degrees—a mere two steps above freezing. For almost half the year, the water in Maine is below 40 degrees, and even at the height of summer, it averages around 60 degrees. At that temperature, it’s possible to lose consciousness from hypothermia after just an hour or two in the water. And in 32-degree water? A mere 15 minutes will have your pulse falling, your lungs weakening, and your brain slowly shutting down.

And yet, if you visit Higgins Beach in the mean months of winter, on a day when the wind is whipping the waves into white peaks and the water beyond is gleaming like mercury, you may see small black figures rising from the Atlantic. They’re slick like seals, heads covered with hoods made from neoprene. They stand crooked, knees bent, as they grow larger on the horizon, riding the waves into shore. Even if there are four or five surfers (and you don’t often see many more than that on Maine’s winter beaches), they’re alone out there, each person an island of determination, exhilaration, solitude.

“In the winter, you’re shut off,” explains surfer Crystal Phoenix. “You’re in your head. Your peripheral vision is gone when you wear the hood, and your depth perception changes.” She says winter on the water is isolating, but in a way that appeals to her. Unlike summertime, when surfers will paddle over to talk about the conditions, or yell comments from board to board, no one really talks out there. They’re too focused on conserving heat and catching waves to socialize. And anyway, you “might not even recognize the person sitting 100 yards away,” Phoenix says. “You’re in your own little world.”

“There are a few days in the year when it’s snowing, and you’re on a wave, and you look around and there’s just one other person.”

Even when surfers congregate in the water, riding a wave is a solo act.

Without wetsuits, surfing in Maine would be limited to a few short months when the weather allows us to submerge our 98-degree bodies into the ocean and come up alive. Without a wetsuit, the ocean will kill you. Hell, it might do that even if you have a wetsuit. “If something goes wrong in the winter and you’re not in a thick-enough wetsuit,” cautions surfer and surfboard-shaper Ryan McDermott, “things can get real pretty quick.” (Ryan and his brother Andy make surfboards under the company McDermott Shapes.) Once, he was trying out a new suit when he got sucked into the barrel of a wave. Suddenly, he felt water pouring over his body, ballooning into the area between his skin and his wetsuit. “It was below 40 degrees, and it immediately took my breath away,” he remembers. “I couldn’t do anything. I had to just chill, while getting rattled by a wave.” Then he was alone on a secluded beach, over a mile away from his car, away from warmth. He jogged back, shaking. When he got there, he could hardly open the door.

Maine’s formidable cold is the primary reason our state has never been a hotspot for surfers. While we do get some big waves, and we famously have more miles of coastline than California, few people want to risk death by hypothermia. “Winter surfing is uncomfortable, which is a huge deterrent for most people,” says Ryan. “For someone who has learned to surf in board shorts, surfing in the winter is a different thing. You can’t feel the water, which means you have less information.” For people who love to be one with the water, winter surfing can seem too removed. For people who love feeling loose-limbed and free in nature, it can feel too restrictive. And, unlike surfing off the shores of Hawaii, where all you need is a board, surfing in Maine isn’t something you can pick up easily. You need the right gear, you need to have a guide, and if you’re going to stick with it for any length of time, you need to have the right traits. You have to be patient, flexible, and dedicated. The ocean won’t toss you a volley of six-foot waves just because you have the day off work, and even if there are great swells in one area, that doesn’t mean you’ll find them.

“We probably spend more time in the car driving around looking for waves than we do actually surfing,” says Phoenix, who co-owns the Black Point Surf Shop in Scarborough with Ryan McDermott and Andy McDermott, who is her husband. Black Point happens to be one of the only surf shops in Maine that offers lessons year-round. Unlike the surf in other New England states, Maine’s isn’t easily predictable, thanks to its ragged coastline and the storm-blocking properties of Cape Cod, and it gets particularly hard to forecast in the winter. True die-hards like Andy, who has organized his entire life around the sport, have to enjoy the chase. “You’ll look at the wind direction, and you’ll think, ‘Oh, it will be just right on the northern corner of Fortune’s Rocks,’ and you’ll picture the waves, and you can really see how good they’ll be,” he says. “So you go there, and they suck. But you’ll think, ‘Oh, I know they’ll be good in Ogunquit,’ so you’ll book it over there. And nothing. So you’re like, ‘OK, what about Short Sands?’ And you get there, and they’re finally really, really good.” That, Crystal interrupts, is when you call your buddies to share the good news and the good times. “Everyone ends up in the same place,” she says. “When we finally score, it’s totally worth it.”

What makes it worth it? That’s hard to explain. Simply put, it’s fun. But what makes it fun? Well, the risk heightens the sense of reward, so in that way, winter surfing can be more fun than summer surfing. “It’s the best time of year to surf because conditions get the best,” says Joe Radano, who spent last winter living on Higgins Beach and surfing whenever he could. In winter, nor’easters can produce truly impressive swells. “In the summer, you’ll get waves that are smaller—typically waist-high and below,” Radano explains. “In the winter, they’re double the size.” He’s seen waves that loom overhead. Radano estimates that the largest waves he’s seen in Maine have risen “eight to ten feet on the biggest day.”

Winter surfing would be impossible without a wetsuit. Without a wetsuit, your body would be thrown into hypothermia. Your heart rate would slow, your mind would get foggy, your organs would begin, slowly, to shut down.

Winter surfing is also fun because it’s exclusive—few people do it, so those who do make the effort tend to band together, forming an in-group. “It’s easier to build a sense of community in the winter than it is in the summer,” says Andy. While some people surf alone, others like to share the experience with those closest to them. “There are a few days in the year when it’s snowing, and you’re on a wave, and you look around and there’s just one other person,” says Radano. “Your best friend is right there. You can’t beat that. It’s a really unique, relaxed experience.”

Another part of the draw is aesthetic. Winter surfing is sublime, in the philosophical sense of the word. It inspires moments of awe, spine-tingling sparks of frisson. “It’s always beautiful,” says Molly Holmberg Brown, who has been surfing in southern Maine for years. “But in the winter, you catch this really interesting light. When it’s cloudy, it’s silvery and steely gray, these subtle hues.” For her, one of the “most magical things” about surfing is observing the water from her place on the board. “Sometimes, when the light is right, you can see the gradient between emerald colors and dark turquoise. You look down under your feet, and it’s right there—you’re living in it, you’re living with it.” She loves to watch the birds soar and dive around her, and more than one surfer has mentioned the playful joy of watching seals bob alongside. Holmberg Brown even surfed when she was pregnant—she had Ryan and Andy make a special board to accommodate her growing stomach. “I surfed right up until the end of my pregnancy,” she says. Then, she became aware of a relationship even more primal, a sense of connection that goes beyond marvel. “I could feel this connection between my inner ocean and the outer ocean,” she says. “It was amazing.”

Waves can be hard to find in Maine, and many surfers keep quiet about their favorite beaches. But you can almost always find a rider or two at Higgins Beach in Scarborough.

When you’re on a board (or on skis or a sled) you can vacillate quickly between states. One minute, your body is humming from excitement, and the next you’ve entered an almost preternatural state of calm. “Surfing is difficult enough that you need to be hyper-aware of everything around you,” says Ryan. “At the same time, I don’t have a single thought going through my head.” While this might not sound relaxing, for seasoned surfers, it can tip them into what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes as a “flow state.” In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial, 2008), he writes that the “best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times” but rather times when “a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” For Ryan, surfing feels “totally meditative,” especially if he’s out on the water with few other riders. He compares it to yoga, another of his favorite pastimes. “There’s no wrong way to do yoga, and no wrong way to surf,” he says. “If it feels good, you’re doing it. It doesn’t matter what you’re shaped like or how good you are. You’re a surfer. You’re a yogi.”

I assumed, for some time, that because surfers guard their beaches (they’re loathe to tell reporters where they like to catch waves) they aren’t friendly. As soon as I started taking surf lessons, I learned that this is untrue. Surfers crave a quiet beach—they don’t want to worry too much about dropping in on someone’s wave (and it’s safer to surf when there are few people on boards). They’re not unwilling to share, but they are protective of the relationship that forms between human and ocean, a relationship that is facilitated by a board, a relationship that feels even more real and raw when the winter storms come roaring in.

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