Delmarva Peninsula, January 2011. Air and water both 38 degrees.
Photo (all photos except the last three) by Chuck White, Delaware Bodyboarding Pro
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.
First step's a doozy!
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.
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.