My fingers turned to clumsy frozen sausages in the icy morning air as I fumbled with the straps tying my surfboard down to the roof of my car. Ochre yellow and pale gold clouds built up on the horizon, backlit by the sunrise. It made for dramatic scenery as I wrestled on a wetsuit, gloves, boots and a hoodie. Soon I was standing by the water, board in hand, covered in 7mm of rubber from head to toe, watching the backspray of waves turn into blazing showers of spark as they caught the sunlight. The waves were good, my board was waxed, and my suit was zipped. Now I just had to hop in the water and start paddling. Only one problem.
It was February and the ocean was cold enough to paralyze a grown man in less time than it takes to cook a Poptart. Despite this, on a Monday morning heads bobbed between the troughs. Occasionally someone would hop up on one of the icy mammoths rolling in and hold on for dear life as they rode, kicking out before they crashed against the half-submerged rocks that Bass Beach is known for.
Who are these people playing out in the freezing water, when snow lines the boardwalk and beachfront shops are boarded up tight? That’s what I set out to discover, starting at one of the most iconic breaks in the Northeast: Rye on the Rocks, also known as Bass Beach.
New England waves are frigid gray, foam flecked beasts that hit like a brick wall and have the unfortunate tendency to pick surfers up and bodyslam them onto the ocean, MMA style. Rye on the Rocks delivers on these classic rollers, offering New England's most iconic left-hander curling off a rocky point break just north of the Hampton sea wall. Even on a warm summer day these waves can be intimidating, especially when you’re in constant threat of being caught inside and thrown up onto the very rocks that make this point so enticing. Asides from the year round consistency Bass Beach has to offer, what could possibly drive people to this special kind of madness? One surfer seemed to have an answer.
“I like the fact that no one else is doing it.”
Meet Carter. He works in the back of Cinnamon Rainbows, a popular Hampton surf shop, and frequents Rye on the Rocks.
“I like it because it’s a pain in the ass. It kinda just makes it more fun.” As strange as this sentiment may sound, people seem to agree with him. The handful of individuals who visit these surf spots in the winter are close knit, and have known each other for a while. “My buddies and I would all get together and go surf and then go back to my [..] one buddy’s house who had a hot tub” Carter explained.
“It’s just what we did in the winter if we weren’t skiing. You have that sense of camaraderie.”
Carter and his friends are not the only group having some winter fun in the sun. According to him, there are plenty of grizzled surfers from older generations who have been hitting the beach snow or shine for upwards of thirty years. Together, along with a number of lone wolves who make it out whenever the surf is good, they constitute a rare and committed demographic of surfer.
“Everyone’s on that same page of [being] dedicated to it,” Carter said, alluding to the way winter surfing culture has taken on a life of its own in the Northeast. It’s not just about the better waves and fewer crowds, what really ties these surfers together is raw love and dedication for the sport. When you’re bobbing out in the ocean, waiting for the next set to come in, and you look across to see people shivering alongside you, you know you’re out there for the same reason. That’s what brings this crazy group of New Englanders together and makes winter surfing something more than just an ill-advised pastime.