At some point, when you’re a half mile out to sea and at least forty-five minutes from a hot shower, your body will tell you that it’s time to go in. Not like summer or fall, when you quit if the wind changes or the tide gets too high. In February, I turn back only when my hands and feet stop working. My fingers curl up into a claw so I can’t grip the board, or I lose feeling in my feet and can’t stand up.
That makes me sound tougher than I am. Modern wetsuits are very good at keeping you warm, even comfortable. You can spend hours getting tossed around in the 45-degree Atlantic Ocean. Besides, the fun of riding waves is usually enough to make you not notice that your extremities aren’t working correctly. Every winter surfer’s threshold is different, but the time will come when you get cold. To answer the question I get from every down-jacketed pedestrian I encounter walking their dog on the boardwalk, from people in their driveway scraping ice off a windshield: It’s worth it because winter waves are reliably better than summer waves, and you don’t have to suffer crowds or beach badges.
And, yes, it makes you feel tough. Walking through an inch of snow toward big, loud waves just after dawn, no other human in sight, you grasp that you’re a long way from help. The same water would look green and warm in the context of sunshine, lifeguards, and moms on blankets handing out popsicles. But when it’s just you, the same water is gray and uninviting. If you’re like me and spend most waking hours in a cubicle, I encourage you to find your own version of this, some frightening environment that you enter by choice.
Riding cold waves starts in that cubicle. Every day, I check the buoys and tides. If the surf looks promising, I leave work on Friday, take the three-hour train down to Asbury Park, New Jersey, and walk to the gray, cold, no-carpet, late-’80s house near the water that’s been in my family for decades. If I remember, I turn on the ahead of time to burn off the chill before I get there. Because in February, I’m the only one who goes to the beach.
I tell Siri to wake me up at dawn. She does, and with one eye open, I tap the Surfline app. Part of me always hopes the wind will be off or it’ll be too small, something to justify staying under warm covers. But I eventually get up, drink coffee, contort myself into a thick rubber unitard, and drive around with the heat blasting, looking for waves.
The actual surfing is pretty similar to any other season. You get the serenity of floating in a big ocean with no noise except the water. When the waves are overhead, you can get long, fast rides that you’ll remember for weeks or years. When it’s small, you ride a longboard and practice cross-stepping and graceful turns.
The difference, though, is that first duck dive. When you paddle out from shore, trying to get past the breakers to the spot in the water where you catch waves right as they break, you have to go through whitewater. To avoid being pushed back to shore, you stroke straight at this wall of ocean, then, at the last moment, shove your board and your body underwater. If you do it right, the turbulence passes just overhead, and you emerge out the other side.
Your wetsuit will, as it should, let some water in through the hood. But when that water sloshes around and finally trickles down your back, you’ll remember it’s winter. It took practice, but I’ve learned to resist gasping. You need to keep breathing deeply in case the next wave is big and you have to fill your lungs before getting held under.
This experience sounds worse than it is, especially if you have the right equipment. A good wetsuit, like a , stretches, so every stroke doesn’t feel like you’re fighting a dozen TheraBands. The polyester lining and seam tape hold the water you’ve already warmed up in while keeping new, cold Atlantic Ocean water out. Even if, back at the parking lot, you have to hold your hands under your armpits until your fingers warm up enough to operate the unlock button, you won’t go hypothermic, not this close to a 7-Eleven.
But wetsuit designers have yet to solve the only part of winter surfing I don’t like. I get back to the house, stomp the sand off my feet, and can barely turn on the shower my arms are so exhausted. It’ll take a few tries to yank off the gloves, then the booties. Then begins the wetsuit extrication. Ever put on a duvet cover alone? It’s like that, plus weightlifting. Wetsuits only work if they’re very tight, so stretching the rubber open enough to free your arms, torso, and legs means lots of grunting and flailing. I have punched myself in the face more than once. But if you’re still cold enough, you don’t really feel it.
I free both feet from the suit, hold it up to the showerhead to rinse—look, everyone pees in their suit, especially in winter. I drop it in the tub, then clean myself. Here, you would think you want the water steaming hot and to stand under it for an hour. But I never do. As soon as I can feel blood in all fingers and toes, I turn off the water, towel off, and put the wetsuit on the drying rack. I get into a hoodie and sweatpants, pour some lukewarm coffee, then find a couch and a bad TV show. Because now, you get this special feeling of your body getting back to 98.6 degrees. If you didn’t feel it in the ocean, now is the time to appreciate how much voluntary abuse your body can handle, and how good it can make you feel after it’s over.
What You Need to Surf in Cold Water
Ziploc: Bag For car-key fobs and such. Roll it up in a Ziploc, and stuff it down the back of your suit.
Surfline App: to predict the surf. Plus: live surf cams! ($70 a year)
Xcel Drylock TDC Split Toe Boot 5mm: You can go up to 7mm thickness, but unless you’re in Scandinavia, 5mm is plenty. ($85)
Vaseline: A layer on your face minimizes windburn. Works on land, too.
Xcel Drylock Texture Skin 5 Finger Glove 5mm: Some like a mitten. I use a glove, which gives you more grip when duck diving and popping up. ($70)
Patagonia R4 Yulex Front-Zip Hooded Full Suit: No heated vests. This is all you need, a 5-mil or 5/4/3 wetsuit. Fit is vital, so visit a surf shop to try it on. ($509)
This story appears in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue.