Endless Winter

Vineyard surfers pursue the perfect icy wave.

It’s two days after Christmas and the top layer of sand at Squibnocket is hard as cement. The wind whips over the beach from the north, stirring up wisps of white from the snowdrifts along the dunes. A northeaster the night before has whisked eight inches onto the shore, and in places where the drifts blanket the beach, it is hard to tell where the sand ends and the slushy gray ocean begins.

A man in his late twenties stares out at the sea from the parking lot, making final adjustments to his Hotline neoprene wet suit, the armor of rubber that will serve as his only defense against the icy sea he is about to enter. As he pulls a hood over his head and tucks in his ears, he sees the jar of Vaseline on the dash of his car and wonders if he ought to cover his face with it. He thinks for a few seconds, then passes it up.

With his board, he starts down the slippery rocks toward the ocean. It’s a six-foot, six-inch-long foam and fiberglass Hot Stuff surfboard, a 1981 hand-me-down that has treated him well over the years. In larger waves like this, surfers usually prefer long boards – up to ten feet, and wider than this board – and he thought about using one of these for the big waves rolling in. But today it’s his trusty Hot Stuff, an old friend that happens to also be very buoyant in water as cold and dense as this. As he makes his way into the surf, he takes a few quick breaths. This is always the hardest part: getting ready for the shock of the cold.

He may be only in his late twenties, but the surfer can remember when surfing the Vineyard in any season was as solitary and wide open as it is out on the water after the post-Christmas storm. Now, winter is  the only time he can find this sort of solitude out on the water. In one sense, the summer-surfing crowd doesn’t know what it’s missing: winter produces some of the biggest surf of the year along the Island coastline, and he is happy to take advantage of it.

“I think it’s definitely the best time of year to surf,” the surfer says several days later. “Sure it’s cold as hell, but when the conditions are right, it’s hard to complain. There have been times where I’ve been pushing away chunks of ice, and when it’s that cold – man, you’re not in there for more than half an hour. But it’s about less people and bigger waves; those are the biggest factors for me. It’s not a bad trade-off, really. It’s just colder.”

Much colder. Surfing in the winter Atlantic, he says, is mind-numbingly cold, literally. “You go underwater three times and your face freezes,” he says. “I have been so cold my eyes have frozen shut. It’s like getting an ice- cream headache times fifty.”

Entering the rumbling surf at Squibnocket, he feels the shock of the sea rush around his feet, his shins, his knees. The thought of frozen eyes and brain-seizing cold passes through his mind. Wet suits allow in a small amount of water that quickly heats up against the body. Still, as he drops the board into the water, he winces. He guides his board with one hand, walking deeper into the ocean. When the water rises to his waist, he pulls the board to him and lies down on it, feeling the momentary stab of the cold against his chest, which had been dry. He begins to paddle.

The oncoming swells are large. They begin to crest and break into barrels. Barrels – generally described as the perfect surfing waves – curl and roll as they reach the shore, rather than collapsing and crashing under their weight. Most importantly, barrels sweep parallel to the shoreline, the waves breaking at one end as they coil along, creating the tube in which the surfer rides. Barrels are the waves you see guys riding in Hawaii, the high walls of green that seem to roll along for miles.

The waves here at this southwestern turn in the Vineyard shoreline look nothing like the monsters in Hawaii, but on the Island, when the conditions are right and barrels of any size are rolling in, surfers jump at the opportunity to ride them. The question winter surfers ask every day on Martha’s Vineyard is this: Are the waves worth the cold today? This morning, the answer is emphatically yes: you don’t often get eight-foot barrels at Squibby.  

To survive even a few minutes in these waters means wearing thick layers of protection, and that means cold-water wet suits. In summer you can pull on a pair of shorts and a wet-suit top only one or two millimeters thick, and you’re ready to go for the day. In winter the neoprene is five or six millimeters thick. You need neoprene boots too, as well as gloves and a hood. But these are not your father’s wet suits.

“It used to be you had to squeeze into something that made you look like the Michelin Man,” a surfer from Chilmark says. “They were all one thickness. You couldn’t move in those things. Now you have much more flexibility.”

A common winter suit is called the 5-4 or 6-5-4, the numbers corresponding to the suit’s thickness. The 6-5-4 has six millimeters of neoprene covering the chest and other areas on the body that don’t flex. The thinner sections of the suit cover shoulders, knees, and other areas that move or bend. The greater the area of flexibility, the thinner the suit that covers it. (There is a legend that surfers urinate in their suits to add warmth. “No, man,” says the Chilmarker. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”)

As he paddles out through the foam, the surfer strains to keep his head above water. His arms are the only parts of his body that move, faster now as he rushes to get past where the barrels break, about twenty yards offshore. For the moment, he paddles against the tide, the icy water trying to push him back to the beach.

When he reaches the place he wants to be – a spot beyond where the waves begin to break – he sits upright and straddles the board. He is alone on the water, the sea in front of him sharp and white, the noise of the breaking waves like distant thunder on the beach. He looks to his left and sees the white spray lift off a breaking wave a quarter of a mile away. Soon that wave will roll down to where he is. By the looks of it, this could be his first ride of the day.

Surfing in the dead of winter in the Atlantic Ocean may sound crazy . . . well, let’s be frank: it does sound crazy. But on a summer day when the surf is up, the line of surfers dotting the water off Squibnocket or Philbin beaches can reach a quarter-mile long. “It’s funny in a way, because it used to be that in the summer, the guys out there taking your waves, crowding the water, were your group of friends,” one surfer says. “But there are times you don’t want to surf with anyone else, and those times are almost gone.”

“I find I am surfing less and less in the summer because of it,” another young Island surfer says. Ever vigilant and territorial about their secret, holy spots, many Vineyard surfers look forward to the change in seasons – a welcome reprieve from the summer congestion that can make surfing Bell’s Point in Chilmark seem like driving through Five Corners. And when the surfer says that, he doesn’t mean just summer people. More and more year-rounders surf the Vineyard – carpenters, chefs, landscapers, and fishermen.

However remote the possibility that fair-weather surfers will start flocking to the sport in winter, all-year Island surfers are worried that the crowding will continue to grow during the shoulder seasons, and even into the most bitter and challenging months of the year. That’s why winter surfers, almost to a man and woman, refused to be named or photographed for this story, and almost begged a journalist not to write about it.

This refusal to talk about surfing is just a small part of the exclusive and secretive nature of the sport. Good waves are sacred to surfers, just as secret fishing holes are sacred to fishermen. There are so many boards and only so many waves. Congestion has led to confrontation. Turf wars have become, quite literally, surf wars.

Because of this, you don’t get much further with Island surfers about the spiritual side of the sport in winter. They just don’t want to talk publicly – or with a magazine writer, even privately – about what sends them out there when the weather is driving most of the rest of us to our fireplaces. You have to go to the Web to get a substantial part of the why of it all.

“Winter is when I surf,” a young surfer named Ed Hewitt declares in a cyberspace rant. “For the past five years, I’ve surfed more in February than in any other month of the year. And I dread that singular day, usually in May, when like swallows to Capistrano everyone reappears in the lineup. It is by far the most depressing surfing day of the year, with the worst behavioral proclivities of the surf tribe in full display. Guys who have been staring at the ocean all winter from the cabs of their pickups, engines running in beachfront parking lots, come sprinting across the beach, amped up beyond all reason, and start zooming around like it’s a snowmobile course at a ski resort.

“Sharing waves with people isn’t the problem – though the surfing is better without them – it’s sharing waves with months of pent-up desire and aggression that sucks. When you’ve been surfing your favorite breaks in near-silence in soft winter light with two or three people for months, the end of winter surf is like having the Hell’s Angels crash your book club.”

There’s another thing at work in winter, besides having the waves all to yourself. Thanks to winter gales, the swells that roll in from the Atlantic are usually bigger than those pushed ashore by gentle summer breezes. On the Vineyard, the southern shoreline from Chappaquiddick to Aquinnah is where the surf comes in. You’d think that the prevailing northerlies of winter would knock down the incoming seas, but these offshore winds actually improve the waves that roll up over the coastal shelf and rumble onto the beaches. An offshore breeze holds up the approaching wave, creating more of a barrel. An onshore wind from the south flattens a wave moving toward the beach. The seas in a summer southwesterly can be unsettled and choppy.  

A winter northeaster won’t lift up the kind of waves you’ll see at the notorious Pipeline in Oahu, but on any given day, a nice offshore breeze can help the Island surfer decide that the waves will be worth the cold he’ll endure getting out to them – and riding them back in.

From out in the water, the young surfer surveys his surroundings as he waits for the oncoming barrel, his first wave of the day. Ahead, the Chilmark coastline is a blur of white mixed with browns and grays. The beach is empty: no birds, no sunbathers, no signs of life. He can see the red bricks in the chimneys and the gray in the shingles; they stand out sharply against the white landscape. To his left is Squibnocket Point. To his right, the rocks lining Stonewall Beach. The wind whips the snow off the cliffs and the shoreline, which disappears at moments in a gray haze.

As he waits, he readies himself for the moment when he must subject his face – the only part of his body not covered by neoprene – to the water that will soon cut, like thousands of needles stabbing all at once, at his nose, lips, cheekbones, and every other square inch of exposed skin. As the sea swells beneath him, he leans forward on the board again, keeping his legs tight behind him for balance, and he paddles.

As the crest rises he pulls his knees up under him, then his feet. He stands, bends his knees, and crouches. A wall of gray and green propels him forward, and he curls into the wave. He cuts back and forth several times, the fin of the board carving a swath through the sea like the keel of a sailboat.

It’s a good ride, but the wave eventually breaks and collapses around him, and he loses momentum. The board begins to sink into the foam. He hops off and touches bottom. Trying to ignore the way the air gnaws at his cheeks, he feels the lukewarm water sloshing between suit and skin. He lies down on the board and heads back for more.

As he paddles out, a wave crests before him. To protect his face from the lashing cold, he buries his chin in his chest and submerges the tip of the board under the base of the wave. Surfer and board both disappear under the water. This defensive move – a duck dive – keeps the wave from crashing down on top of him. It also prevents the board from being caught by the water and thrown toward shore. But here, inside the wave, the pain shoots through his temples, down his nose, and to his lips, turning them purple. The cold makes him dizzy. But he keeps paddling back to the spot where he found the waves beginning to break. He pushes his mind beyond the cold. He looks for the next wave to carry him back to shore.