Step Into Frigid Liquid

Like so many outdoor recreations pursued in the northeast, if you wait for perfect surfing conditions, you’ll never get out there. Winter is cold. Summer is crowded. The water is never that warm. And the waves, regardless of the season, are rarely worthy of the glossy photo shoots found on magazine stands. In New England, you do your best with what you’ve got. Which is why riding the waves in the northeast attracts some of the most devoted surfers on the planet, as I realized a few winters ago when visiting a friend of mine up in Portland, Maine.

February can be cold. February in Maine, even colder. And February in Maine when it is raining, yet still just above freezing, can be downright hypothermic. But this did not stop my friend from heading out into the frigid surf as the rest of us huddled around cups of hot chocolate, listening to the freezing rain pound off the roof.

Surfing? In Maine? In February!?

This reality just did not compute.

Why did he decide to surf that morning? Simple. The surf was breaking.

Wetsuit on, sliding around the icy parking lot, tying his board to the top of the station wagon, he was not only certain of his intentions that morning, he was crazed with anticipation.

“Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion,” James Joyce noted, “than fade and wither dismally with age.” Which seems appropriate motivation for all New England surfers.

Exhibit A: the annual New England Mid-Winter Surfing Championship, which is held in Rhode Island. For over four decades, in conditions ranging from January-thaw-like spring warmth to blizzards where the barely-freezing ocean was warmer than frigid winter air, New England’s best riders have come to the shores of Rhode Island for the world’s oldest continuous winter surfing competition.

And amazingly, while the competition has been postponed for lack of surf, or because the wintry roads getting to the beach where impassably covered with snow and ice, the NE Mid-Winter Surfing Championship has never been cancelled.

That is dedication. Crazy dedication.

The contest this past February was held at Narragansett Beach. But Newport’s First Beach and Second Beach, just down the road from the town’s famously gilded mansions, see the most surfing in the “Ocean State.” Summer traffic brings more than music-festival crowds to Newport’s shores. First Beach gets smaller waves than Second Beach, and so usually has smaller crowds. Second Beach has larger crowds, often resulting in conditions where it can be difficult to learn the sport. But while Second has bigger waves, they often have a large amount of red algae already riding their breaks.

Moving north up the coast, the numerous beaches of the Outer Cape (Cod) can get bigger waves than most spots in New England. But like many weather-dependent outdoor recreational pursuits in the northeast, conditions can be fickle. Storms bringing big waves can also move sandbars, making surf breaks good one day and bad the next. Surfing in New England is less about where you surf than the timing of when you surf.

Maine has several surf spots that see traffic not only in the winter, but in the summer as well. Most of the good waves are found at the well-known beaches just north of New Hampshire: Old Orchard, Kennebunk and Ogunquit Beaches. All of which are popular with summertime swimmers and vacationers as well, which can make parking as difficult, and negotiating the beach crowd as challenging, as actually riding the waves.

Because crowds (of surfers, beach-goers and vacationers) are a common reality at most New England surf spots, etiquette is essential. New England’s Surf website has a detailed page on “Surf Etiquette” that is a must-read for anyone serious about trying out, or taking up, the sport. “The last few years have seen a large influx in the surfing scene all over New England,” they note. “If we all can follow a few simple rules it will make for a surfing experience filled with good memories and tales of surf for years to come.”

Basic guidelines involve showing consideration for the communities, towns and beaches where many of the best breaks occur, as well as the intricate but oh-so-important Surfer’s Code of Ethics (“give respect to gain respect”) which provides, in detail, the rules of right-of-way regarding who gets to ride which wave under what conditions.

Surfing in New England has a long, proud, passionate history, and that must be preserved by anyone looking to become a part of this extraordinarily unique community. After all, it takes a special group of folks, with an acute sense of appreciation for the perfectly imperfect local surfing conditions found year-round, to ride the waves of New England.

(Originally appeared in Preview Massachusetts, then at Free Sport.)

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