surfing in winter
If you have faith in what your wave-watching apps are reporting and don't mind the rubbernecking looks from passerby, you put the wetsuit and two-toed Pteorodactl-style booties on and get in the car, saving the gloves for when you’re ready to get wet. It’s a giddy, fish-out-of-water feeling, sitting in a millimeters-thick neoprene suit – the closest thing we’ve come to simulating life inside a human-sized prophylactic. A name brand across your chest, you’re a reluctant superhero in a Subaru, driving at daybreak in December to Rockaway, Queens: the only legal place to surf in all the five boroughs.
I’m making this pilgrimage with a couple of experienced New England transplants, our boards occupying most of the space in the car that that the three of us don’t. Outside, it’s a wintry mix of snow and freezing drizzle, a combination that means a lot of sloshing through a not-quite-there hail type precipitation. As the worst surfer in the car, I’m internally doubting whether I’ll even get in the water.
Surfing, by its nature, is already a spastic, egotistical pursuit. Maybe we should just pick another hobby. And yet, no amount of patronizing Saturdays or Pilgrim Surf + Supply or reading “Barbarian Days” could prepare me for this, but of course they couldn’t have. Chasing waves in the winter means exposure to whipping breezes as you dip with the churn of the Atlantic, judging the worth of the incoming set, the pallid stillness of the condos and homes opposite you. The golden opportunity between swell intervals: to piss yourself. It’s a vital benchmark , letting you know that you’re alive and that at least parts of you are working.
The sport in winter does not map easily onto the lifestyle-branding images of Australian coasts, bronzed bodies on a gilded Hawaiian coast and the shimmering, crystal chandelier crashing above a long-haired wave-rider gliding and getting barreled. Waves and swells may be larger on the coast during nor’easters and other tempests, but they are also more frigid and brutal. Staying comfortable enough to tolerate the water means covering your body in as much gear as possible and, as a cosmetic touch, rubbing petroleum jelly on your face, typically the only skin exposed to the icy breezes and corrosive seasalt.
Any bodies on the austere, windswept beach are identifiable by their black wetsuits and the oblong boards they carry as they skitter awkwardly and Kafkaesque to the shore. But their mission is obvious: to make something of the day. The wan sun somewhere in the sky, its light is crisp and white, blanching the faces, the shore, muting even the usually vibrant fire-and-skulls design on my friend’s board.
The more the temperature drops, the more damning the journey to and from Rockaway. The persistent numb-toe cold of deep winter in New York is when the die-hard flourish, supposedly. The days following a blizzard or hurricane, when the east coast really gets those atypical, domineering waves, are what keep the blood flowing, reddened eyes on wave-tracking apps and direct video feeds, waiting to brave the city’s most temporary form of public transportation.
We were fortunate to grab a parking spot close to the beach. Warm bottles of water and insulating layers of winter wear await us back in the car. Winter is still there in our clothes, the latent cold a conduit back to reality. But still, leaving Rockaway for somewhere warm – a car, an apartment, a bowl of soup, maybe – is a gift of feeling present in the city, apart from the anonymity of subway cars, supermarket lines, a desk by a window, a notification in an app. It’s going out to sea until we’re numb, human flotsam ready to return home.