Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I Used to Surf in the Winter

Delmarva Peninsula, January 2011.  Air and water both 38 degrees.
Photo (all photos except the last three) by Chuck White, Delaware Bodyboarding Pro
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There was a time when I used to look at the Navy ocean swell models in the dead of winter, see a storm swell on the way, maybe chunks of ice floating into the ocean from the nearest rivermouth, reports of seals migrating south from Cape Cod, and I'd say, "Awesome.  Let's paddle out." 

Water: 38 degrees. Air: 42 degrees.

Head to toe 7mm neoprene...

I used to surf on days like this. In college and grad school it was because I could only get to the beach occasionally, and there was no way I was going to sit out a swell. Cold or not. Sharks or not. Once I started working and could afford nice gear and real surf trips, I surfed in the winter because it was bearable, and because I wanted to be in reasonable physical condition for wherever we were headed (usually in March/April) in Central America or the Carribean.
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So why don't I surf in the winter now? Good waves, no crowds, easy parking....all great reasons to surf in the winter. If a wave like this came through Delaware or Maryland between April and October, there would be 15 surfers on it. But not on this January day......
First step's a doozy!
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Tempting....but it's not for me. I stopped surfing in winter for two reasons. Reason #1: soon after my 30th birthday, I changed employers and soon found out that your boss does not have to give you a day off if you request it. Nor does he have to keep his word if he agreed at first, but then changes his mind. Even worse, we had no clients at the beach, so the "slick day" rules didn't apply. By the time I changed jobs again and got adjusted to the newest job in 2006, I'd had ample time to contemplate Reason #2 - my near death in March, 2004 in 39 degree water.


Beautiful. Solitary. Deadly.


Late winter swells are tough in the Mid-Atlantic. Strong winds, tough swell angle, tough currents to battle. Two friends and I paddled out in Ocean City, Maryland. All three of us were competent swimmers and very experienced surfers. Jeff made it out to the outer break, took a 10 foot slab on the head, broke his board over his head, and sputtered back up on the beach like a dying fish. Paul somehow found a rip current amongst all the beach break chaos, which took him all the way out to the outer break. He took the first wave, and rode it all the way in, getting out of the water.
I made out easily past the shorebreak, but the inside break (about 100 yards out, 5-6' waves) crushed me. I duck dove five waves in a row, after which, I couldn't see. Anything. My eyes gradually warmed back up to see that I was now, too, caught in the rip current and being pulled out towards the outer break, which was pounding solid 6-8 -footers with larger set waves. A lull appeared and so I mustered all the strength I had to paddle out past the impact zone. I didn't make it.

Meet Reason #2 - March, 2004 (my actual photo from that day)
Outer sandbar, Midtown Ocean City.  Swell SSE 5-8' w/8-10' sets. 
Photo: 35mm Canon Rebel, 250mm zoom

Four big green walls appeared on the horizon, and with the current now pulling me up the coast instead of out to sea, I had no chance of making it.  I took a 10 foot wave on the head.  Popped up, sputtered, and took an 8 foot wave on the head.  Popped up, sputtered, and gasped at the overhead slab headed right for me.  I bear hugged my surfboard and let the impact hit me.  I thought it would tear me or the board to pieces.  I washed up 100 yards up the beach. Intact but done.  Would have never happened like that in warm water.
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And that was it.  It wasn't the first time I nearly drowned. Won't be the last, either.  But the longer I thought about it, the more it seemed like it was really unnecessary.  And I decided to give it up.  Most years now find me putting on a significantly thinner wetsuit in April, when the water is in the upper 40s, or better yet, surfing the spring months in the Southeastern US, where the water is already in the upper 50s by that time.  I especially remember surfing Isle of Palms, South Carolina in April 2007.  3 foot windless, glassy waves while wearing shorts and a neoprene top.  Air: 72. Water: 62.  My kind of place. And the kind of day that reminds me to not surf in the deep winter any more.  Not in the North Atlantic, anyway.

Post-script (March 2011) - my surfing buddy who was with me that day sent me these pictures of the conditions.  Tell me you'd paddle out in this!


2 comments:

The Downeast Duck Hunter said...

Insane man, has reason #3- the boy changed your perception on pushing the envelope? There things I just won't do anymore simply because I have two children now, my dad calls it common sense syndrome...

Swamp Thing said...

Oh, for sure. If I hadn't changed by the point when Henry was born, I would have changed then.

There aren't too many remaining adventures that warrant me taking a real risk of leaving my little boy without a dad!

I have a post coming up soon about the first hunt I did on my own, about a decade ago. Wait 'til you see how many brushes with death it entailed. If I still hunted that poorly or unsafely, I'd be long dead.