I’ve been called crazy on a number of occasions. “Bad-Ass”, “Crazy”, “Impressive”… But winter surf is just a part of the game when you live in the northeast. Most would call winter surf a necessary evil to catching waves year-round.
The highly varied weather-driven conditions make good sessions fleeting enough as it is, especially if you aren’t taking advantage of 6 months of colder conditions the rest of the year. Very few people in the lineup will say they actually love the cold. And for those who hate it, their love of waves will still win out.
The winter surf scene is (paradoxically) a growing niche, but you know anyone putting on 6mm of neoprene in freezing temperatures is truly dedicated to wave chasing. I touched based with 3 surfers from across the Atlantic coast of North America to see what exactly it is that makes these seals tick — Lara Marcantonio of southern New England, Ashley Cunningham of northern New England, and Caralee Murphy of the Canadian Atlantic.
To start, all of these surfers forged a bond with the sea in childhood, creating a lifelong yearning to simply be by the water. Ashley was comfortable in the ocean at a young age. “I can distinctly remember the feeling of sunburnt eyes as a child, and that numbing body shiver from spending too long in the ocean,” she reminisced. Lara similarly found herself on the shore in her earliest days, “All I wanted to do was play in the ocean. I was definitely one of those un-phased kids shivering with blue lips whose parents were pleading with them to return to shore.” For Caralee, her childhood also revolved around being with family at the beach, where her time spent on vacation in Cape Breton conjures memories of dunes and wild horses.
But going from ocean-loving to surfing isn’t always straight line. Getting involved in such a technical sport requires not just knowledge of the ocean, but also where to go, what equipment to use, what gear to wear, and how to stay safe. As all three of these surfers began to graduate from beach days to surf days, it wouldn’t have been without the help of those around them. Caralee started surfing in high school “because of peer pressure… I was reluctant and finally gave in. Only a couple people had longboards back then. We had shortboards with rubber nose guards.” With friends who had already been surfing year-round for some time, it wasn’t long until Caralee also found herself with “memories of cold limbs and cars getting stuck in the snow.”
Ashley and Lara also both latched on to the surfers in their orbit, eager to learn more about a sport that would provide another reason to just be in the water. Ashley began on a boogie board, then surfing was introduced thanks to her older cousin. “I distinctly remember one of my cousin’s friends giving me my first good wave on my 16th birthday… but 3 months was not enough time to learn how to surf.” It wasn’t long until Ashley was also diving into cold sessions in an effort to progress. Lara’s surf story took a bit of an alternate route, as she jumped straight into cold water conditions in order to learn. Thanks to a winter wetsuit gifted by her boyfriend at the time, she got in the ocean just in time for… February. “We paddled out together in late February, maybe my 5th or 6th time on a surfboard ever.”
When it comes to winter sessions, no one is ever over the moon about them. It’s about opportunity, and pushing through discomfort all in the name of waves. As Ashley thinks back to her first winter, “I remember thinking ‘is this worth it?’… You have to choose your battles so you stay on the plus side of fun.” Everyone maximizes their time in the warmth by suiting up in the comfort of a heated home. But all three of these surfers are also glad to get whatever time in the water they can. “I’m happy to surf when I can and just be in the water whether it’s winter, fall, spring, or summer,” Lara explains. Ashley’s thoughts reaffirm this sentiment, as she describes “it’s a race to see how long you can last before loosing the feeling in your feet… but if the waves are good enough you don’t notice how cold it is. Eventually you have that session where everything lines up and the ‘why’ makes sense.” Caralee also echoes these thoughts of gratitude that makes even the coldest harshest days worth it. “Catching waves is incredible. I am so grateful. We’re so lucky. I cannot believe we get to do this!! Only a surfer knows the feeling.”
And what exactly does it take to make it through a winter session? Tastes in gear and equipment vary, although one truth remains: good rubber goes a long way. While Caralee can recall starting her winter adventures in men’s wetsuits since women’s cold water styles didn’t exist in the late 90s, Lara continues to struggle to find proper fitting gear given her petite size (despite it being 2024). Ashley credits her recently acquired Crooked wetsuit with helping keep her lanky frame in the water, complete with ninja mask to protect her face. Whatever fits the best, everyone agrees the warmer the better, and the optimal setup includes extra wetsuits so you can always keep a dry one in rotation.
The fickle regional conditions also call for a variety of boards to get surfers through all seasons, and everyone can claim a favorite setup. Lara’s current favorite is a single fin 9’2” Lunch Box by shaper Jacques Beriau, a piggy shape with a pointed nose and pinched rails she’s really clicked with on a number of different days. Caralee opts for a bit more length with her 9’8” Bing Continental or 9’4” Davenport 4065 noseriders, which come in handy for her local peeling point breaks. Ashley rocks the shortest boards of the bunch, regularly charging winter beaches on her 5’10” McDermott fish, or 7.0 DeMarco single fin that can handle bigger days and the weight of a winter wetsuit.
Even when it’s windy and the waves are crummy, there is a certain comfort in knowing someone else is also going through that inner battle where the ocean is calling, but your fingers and toes are much toastier tucked inside a warm bed. For the most dedicated, the waves win out. The winter sky is crisper, the lineup is a bit emptier, the faces in the water are usually all familiar, everyone is there just to be in the sea and you find yourself suiting up to join them, whether by pure ambition or simple necessity. Perhaps that’s the raw beauty of cold conditions; they force us to come away from the ocean with a renewed appreciation for the people we chase waves with, the places we call home, and the conditions that continue to change. And we are all the more present for it. Whether a session lasts for 10 minutes or over an hour, the experience is felt more profoundly. Gratitude tends to be a bit higher somehow. Lara perhaps sums it up the best: “Even the cold can’t inhibit my desire to do something I love.”
And yet, everyone’s next adventures include far flung destinations to warmer climates. Italy for Lara. Costa Rica for Caralee. North Shore for Ashley. So, take from that what you will.