The Swell Season
Winter surfing is a one-of-a-kind experience — but it takes a pretty thick skin.
“There is nothing that compares to being out on the water in the dark days of winter.”
For Erin Canniff, 51, a physical education teacher at Rockport Elementary School, winter surfing is a special kind of joy. “This place blows me away — and the fact that I can drive ten minutes and get in the water to surf in such a beautiful place — that just never gets old. Even when it’s 20 degrees outside.”
The more rational among us might, with very good reason, ask ‘WHY?’ Why shimmy and slide into that thick wetsuit? Why freeze your butt off when you don’t have to? Why get into the frickin’ icy Atlantic Ocean? In New England? In February?
As the mantra of extreme athletes goes: because it’s there.
. . . . .
“It’s called the ‘home break,’” says Lanesville resident and surfer Courtney Hayes, 51, founder of CetoSurf and a video producer. “The home surf spot. People generally have an affinity for their home break.”
Cape Ann’s home break is roughly 30 miles of irregularly-shaped coves, with a few interruptions of wide-open sandy beach, like Rockport’s Long Beach and Gloucester’s Good Harbor beach.
Hayes says that it is exactly those nooks and crannies, the unique contours of this island, that make winter surfing here so extraordinary. “There is absolutely nothing in this world like surfing in a blizzard,” she says.
“There are a lot of places to explore. If it’s a heavy nor’easter, you might be able to find a spot that works — if it’s not in the direct path of the storm,” she says. “That kind of gaming the weather isn’t possible on an even coastline. But on an island like this, you get to play with the wind.”
Sometimes the surfing isn’t even onshore. Canniff said one of the best moments she’s ever had was at the mouth of the Annisquam River, near Wingaersheek Beach in West Gloucester, being towed out to the breaking waves by boat.
. . . . .
The weather is the boss of this show.
“Weather becomes a part of the excitement, the adrenaline rush,” Hayes says. “There’s a lot less consistency here, which is a big part of it. Here, we wait, and wait, and wait, for the really great days; winter is when you anticipate the power and energy of the ocean.”
And don’t ever question that power and energy.
Jay Gustaferro, 63, a Gloucester fisherman and activist, has surfed Cape Ann long enough to be considered a legend. “I’ve surfed more at Good Harbor beach in the last fifty years than any other human,” Gustaferro says. “The Northwest Atlantic generates some great waves.
“We don’t get the consistency of the Pacific, because storms move from west to east across the planet. The west coast gets more consistent waves than we do, but we get world-class storms.”
The Perfect Storm of October, 1991, generated 35- to 40-foot swells, to name drop just one legendary world-class Cape Ann meteorologic event.
. . . . .
The history of Cape Ann winter surfing has had its own share of swells and breaks. The most recent wave — yes, we just said ‘wave’ — of enthusiasm has been buoyed (yep, ‘buoyed’) by two factors that make it just not that damn cold anymore: the wetsuit and the weather.
Back in the 1960s, when Gustaferro was a teenager, he remembers Cliffy Amero returning from a roadtrip to California with a van full of surfboards.
Amero set up the first-ever Gloucester Surf Shack, right across Thacher Road from the Good Harbor beach gates. Gloucester’s original hippies, according to Gustaferro, made that scene. Those were the days of Frankie Avalon and Gidget. And the Beach Boys. And Wipe Out. Then, in the ’70s, the boards got shorter and harder to handle. And by the ’80s there were only five or six guys surfing Gloucester, including Gustaferro.
And those guys were winter surfing.
“You have to realize winter wetsuits were bad back then. They were basically diving suits; they were very restrictive. We would freeze.”
Gustaferro says their hands would be so hypothermic they weren’t able to turn the keys to start their cars, so they could finally get warm. “We started keeping a pair of pliers in our cars, using them to turn the keys with frozen, clumsy hands.”
Courtney Hayes says if you want to be serious about surfing in New England, you have to surf in winter, when the swells roll in, and the swell periods — the surfer term for the intervals between waves — are right.
She admits that the recent upgrade of wetsuit technology has really changed the game, inviting a whole new generation of winter surfers into the water.
“I was out recently,” Gustaferro said, “it was 20 degrees, maybe a little less. I was cold in the face, but not that deep, hypothermic cold like before.”
Gustaferro shrugs off temperature, not only because wetsuits are so much more efficient today, but also because the warming of the ocean is a reality.
“NASA reports that the Gulf of Maine has seen more warming in the last five years than any body of water on planet Earth. Typically in February we’re seeing slush and ice cubes in the creek at Good Harbor Beach.” Not these days.
A water temperature of 38 degrees “is when it really starts to hurt under a wave. This year, it’s been in the mid-40s most of the time. So far, we haven’t seen those really low temperatures.”
Gustaferro has justifiable environmental fears, but even after 50 years, the waves’ siren song is no less potent.
. . . . .
“The last day I surfed is always the best day — and the worst. And that day would be yesterday. I paddled out alone. After two hours, some guys came out and we had some great rides.”
Beyond just being damn cold, winter surfing on Cape Ann has its own special set of challenges.
Jonathan Kozowyk, 36, a photographer based in Watertown, Mass., who has lived on, and surfed, Cape Ann at different points in his life, says being obsessed really helps.
“It’s a lot of work,” he says. “It’s hard to get that stupid thick wetsuit on. With gloves. With boots. All of which are heavy and make paddling that much harder. You drive around a lot. You’re chasing tides, wind, wave size, swell directions. But, if you put the work in, you can get some really, really fun, memorable days. You have to really love surfing in the winter on Cape Ann to continue to do it.”
And they do. They love it.
“In winter you have the place to yourself,” Canniff says. “You’re in the ocean, in the water, it’s a moment in time that never repeats itself. The days are short and the window and opportunity to surf is small, but when things line up — no work, good tide, the right swell, enough daylight, and decent wind — my winter happiness factor increases enormously!”
Jonathan Kozowyk is a Boston-based photographer and an avid surfer.
► For more information on surfing Cape Ann, contact Surfari, with shops in Gloucester (210 Main St., 978-283-7873) and Manchester (26 Central St., 978-704-9051).