Shoveling out the truck. Suiting up. Grabbing your boots and gloves off the heater. Checking — and re-checking — that the car heater still works. Driving on barely-plowed, icy roads covered with a fresh, white dusting of powdery snow over countless layers of thick, grey sludge. The going is slow, but the reward is well worth it. After smothering your face in Vaseline to ward off the brutal wind and cold and a quick jaunt through knee-deep snow, you’re just moments away from your first ride of the day. This isn’t the routine of a backcountry skier, or even a skier at all. This is the routine of a winter surfer in Maine.
Forget about relaxing warm-up stretches or changing leisurely on the beach. While most people keep their boards out of the sun to preserve a wax job, surfers in Maine have the opposite problem: it gets so cold that the only way to have a waxed board is to pre-wax in the garage or a heated environment – once the winter air hits you and your bar of wax, good luck getting any sort of grip. Surfers are often spotted walking gingerly over frozen parking lots or placing boards in snow piles to avoid scratches.
Average winter air temperatures range from 15 degrees in the northern regions with water temps around 36 at the coldest in March. March also introduces the one time offshore winds may actually detract from the surfing experience – they make the water even colder. Any hope of surfing in still seas, warmed by clear, sunny, skies is but a fall dream.
Of course, those who choose to surf in Maine aren’t concerned about cold water. In fact, when I talked toAndy McDermott the other day, one of the owners of Black Point Surf Shop, just down the road from Higgins Beach, and a founder of McDermott Shapes, he laughed when I called cold water surfing hardcore: “I feel like I’m in the camp that it’s not hardcore,” he chuckled in his usual laid-back manner. But he also admitted he’d “been in situations where I’ve had to have strangers open my car door because I couldn’t use my hands.” Dangerous encounters with the cold are part of it here. “I know the feeling of being hypothermic,” he said flatly.
Jordan Dean, local surfer and employee at Maine Surfers Union, agreed. He’s had times when, getting out of the water, he found himself so cold, “you’re talking really slow, like you were just at the dentist.”
Snowstorms are as exciting as clear days, sometimes more. Storms mean swell, and in Maine, storms also mean snow and ice. Jordan told me he’s “been surfing when it’s 20 degrees and slushy on the inside.”
Surfing river mouths in Maine in the winter is otherworldly. “Freshwater mixes with saltwater and the water is literally freezing around you, and huge chunks of ice float by,” Andy says.
I asked him if he brings a foamie for those occasions? “No, you just don’t hit the ice. You surf around it.”
So, if not the water temps, what are Maine surfers concerned about? Probably the breathtaking views, the (relatively) uncrowded lineups, and the added adventure that comes with the extra neoprene. After all, Maine has been called the “last frontier of surfing in the United States.” There are great (and sometimes bigger than normal) waves to be had if you’re up for tackling a few obstacles.
But Jordon summed up many local surfers’ true reason for braving the chilly temperatures: “Parking isn’t abundant here in the summer, so going to the beaches in the winter when it’s empty and cold is so much more peaceful to me. Winter really is the better season.”
Despite “not” being a typical surf-trip desto, Maine has a strong surf culture. It isn’t just a cold place with a few nutcases who surf. It’s a place people surf, and it’s cold. With flocks of tourists headed to Portland in the summer, there are enough surf shops to cover board rentals and ding repairs, but in the winter, when Maine clears out, the views from the water still feel remote. Little houses line rocky coastlines, and far enough north there aren’t houses at all. Sometimes, the biting air actually smells of pine and sea salt.
Often, people picture thriving surf communities as boasting palm trees, taco stands, and a Rip Curl store. Maine may not have the classic beachfront vibe. What it does have is arguably better.
The people you find in the lineup are mostly friendly (yes, I wrote the word “friendly”) – even to less experienced surfers. If you break surf etiquette, I’ve found you’ll most often get well-intended advice instead of an angry yell. I’m a native so I’m biased, but Mainers have more heart, spirit and grit than you’ll find anywhere else. They all do insanely cool stuff beyond surfing (think ice climbing or glass blowing) and they’re humble about it. Oh, and there’s a few solid taco places, too.
The best part is that, especially during winter, the people who surf are doing it because they love it. I’ve seen full-time van-lifers pull up to the beach, chug an energy drink, throw on their suit with their van door open, and hop out, excited as ever for a jog through the snow to get waves. And, biking to the beach is still very much a thing. Just switch over to fat tires in the winter and you’re golden.
Surfing in Maine isn’t for everyone. It’s cold and unforgiving and you have to work a little harder. But it’s certainly for me.
Ella Boyd is a writer and photographer hailing from the coast of Maine, where she grew up surfing and skiing, despite the conditions.