The sky is a slate gray on the cruise up I-95 to Hampton Beach, NH. I left Boston to catch a glimpse of a handful of New England’s athlete-contrarians, people who spend the summer dreaming of frigid waters, storms and angry seas. They’re winter surfers — and this is their season.
It’s not snowing yet, but the next few hours should bring more than six inches. Yesterday’s storm left over a foot on the ground, the top layer an icy crust from the wet ocean air. At 29 degrees it’s by no means a warm day, though not bad for this Polar Vortex winter. Dressed in a down jacket, a few base layers and trusty Bean boots, I’m optimistic I’ll be comfortable outside all day, but then, I’m not diving into hypothermia-inducing water.
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New Hampshire is known for a few things: its “Live Free or Die” motto, no income or sales taxes, no seatbelt laws, no motorcycle helmet laws, and a first-in-the-nation presidential primary. A lesser-known fact is that tucked in the state’s short 13 miles of coastline — smallest of all coastal states — are some of the best surf breaks in the Northeast. The best time to surf them, or any break in this part of the country, is a winter storm surge. But catching the best waves here is not for the thin blooded: today’s water temperature is 38 degrees, cold enough kill you without the proper gear. Instead of boardshorts and rashguards, surfers wear 6mm hooded wetsuits with booties and mittens to match.
I pull into one of the two local surf shops to get some directions, and I’m struck by the brightly colored store with racks of surfboards next to shoulder-high snowbanks. I tell the manager I’m looking to meet some winter surfers. “Picked a great day for it,” he says. “Waves won’t be as big as yesterday, but still good. High tide’ll be the best surf of the day.” He tears out a sheet of notebook paper and draws a map of recommended breaks, then imparts some final wisdom about the tide schedule and forecast. I crunch back out to the car, map in hand, wishing I’d brought a warmer jacket.
Winding along the coast, the ocean and the sky blend together in a silvery mix with no horizon. Fox Hill is the first destination, a rocky outcropping that breaks towards a point and can only be surfed close to high tide. The waves are eight to 10 feet tall, big for New England, even this time of year. The ocean air is cold and still as death. A few guys are bobbing in the water. From afar they look like seals. As the tide rises the sets keep getting better and better — and so does the surfing.
“The duck diving will get you, though. An instant brain freeze every time.”
Longboarding in white wash this is not. These guys can shred, launching aerials and hunching into barrels when the opportunity arises. A neoprene-clad ninja crunches by me in the snow. With a brief stop to attach his board leash and a take deep breath, he proceeds into the frigid waters. As he goes in, another surfer climbs up the rocks.
“Freezing out there?” I ask. “Nah, it’s nice today, great surfing,” he says. “You should have seen it yesterday: 25-knot winds and way bigger sets. The duck diving will get you, though — an instant brain freeze every time.”
Ready for a change of scenery and a chance to warm up, I head off to the next break on the map, Sawyer Beach. The storm swell has turned what’s normally a longboard break into some serious surf with sets breaking well overhead. Sitting in the car to get some finger dexterity back, I watch as surfers pull up in cars, trucks, vans and a Miata. They hop out, already dressed in their wetsuits, mittens and booties, grab theirs board and walk into the ocean as if it were any day of the year. Snow begins to fly as I walk onto Sawyer Beach, flurries giving way to a full storm.
Surfers rotate in and out of the water during the lull between each set. Those exhausted after a few hours of floating in ice water emerge red-faced and smiling to swap stories and tips with those who are headed in. But conversations on the beach are brief; it’s too cold to stand around idly. With the elements stacked against them, it’s clear that these guys love what they’re doing and wouldn’t trade it for any fireside, not when the surf’s this good. Hour upon hour there’s a constant stream of people more than willing to surf in weather that would deter most people from taking a walk. There’s no crowd, no one to impress or meet at the beachside bar later on. It’s just like-minded individuals chasing great waves for the sport of it. Live free or die, indeed.