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number 2

Winter Surfing

By Ed Hewitt

The northeaster of December 5 brought in what I’m calling the first “winter surf” of the 2002-03 season. Given that it technically occurred in late autumn, this set me to wondering exactly what makes surf “winter surf”.

The transition into and out of the winter surfing season is like flipping a switch; it seems to take place on a single swell every year. At some confluence of conditions the lineup empties out, and winter surfing begins.

It’s not just the weather. Trudging through eight inches of fresh snow with 30-degree air temps, as lots of guys did last week, would seem to be an easy call, but that doesn't always clear out the lineup, or dissuade that one damn guy from surfing without a hood. You know the kid: the “it’s not cold, I’m not even wearing a jacket” playground shite transferred to Mudder Ocean. I did it myself in earlier days, hitchhiking to school every morning, fresh out of the shower with my hair frozen into icicles….

Crowding at the interface between land and sea has long been an important factor in the politics of surf culture, fishing rights, beach access, and beyond. In the surf ranks alone, crowds have given us the ugly phenomenon of localism, and even “surf rage”; full-on turf wars in parking lots, on the beach, and in the water. Former world champ Nat Young got his face ploughed into the sand by a dad who was pissed at a few choice words Nat had shot at the man’s son out in the water. (Right in character, within months Young had parlayed his beating into a book and a speaking tour. Atta boy, turn an ass-whooping into a surf trip boondoggle. Might explain why he was world champ.)

Winter is when I surf – 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. Unfortunately, most of these guys can surf just fine—it’s not only kooks who bail for the winter—so they’re grabbing waves left and right, more than their share because they’re so fired up, waves that just a week ago you had entirely to yourself.

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.

What confluence of factors makes all these guys disappear for months, and what brings them back? Weather is part of it, as is available light, but water temps trump them both. The precision with which a committed winter surfer can call the water temp might surprise non-surfers; in response to an accurate assessment of water temps a friend recently asked, “What the fuck are you, a thermometer?!?” If surfers are wired to sense temperature, it seems our limits are almost hardwired as well.

A couple years back I was surfing San Onofre in Orange County on New Year’s Day with Jim Kempton, former editor of one or the other of the -er or -ing magazines, and he asked how cold it was back home. At the time it wasn’t too bad, with water temps in the low-mid 40s, but when I told him he blanched completely, shook his head, and said “No way. My limit is 48 degrees. Anything under that and I’m going to work.”

Surfing at Bondi Beach during the volleyball bronze medal rounds at the Sydney Olympics, the volleyball stadium was right on the beach, and you could sit in the lineup listening to the game—all of it as much TRL-style rock show as it was tournament. A guy asked where I was from, and mentioned he was going to New York in February, wondered if he might catch a surf. I shared some information about spots, availability of equipment, and so on, and then said “better bring your full suit, though.”

“How cold is the water?”

I did the conversion into Celsius: “About 2 degrees.”

A comic beat, then “You’re fucking nuts, mate. I’ll visit during your summer.”

For someone in SoCal, sub-50 degree water temps signifies the depths of winter. For some hardcore folks around these parts, surfing in 48-degree water and above translates more like “late summer” or “early summer.” For me, “about 2 degrees” is getting cold. I’ve seen pics of guys in New England surfing in slush – that’s fucking nuts, mate. The coldest I’ve surfed: 27 degree air temps, 36 degree water temps.

On December 5, 2002, water temps were down around 48 or so, air temps hovered near freezing, and there were still crowds. I’m predicting one or two more swells and a cold snap and they’re gone; we’re getting close. On the same weekend in York, Maine, a bud reported overhead waves with only three guys out; their season has already arrived.

So when does surf become winter surf? When does the dude without the hood put up his hood and disappear? For East Coasters, I propose this definition: where x= air temperature, y=water temperature, “winter surfing” is when x + y < 95 when y < 45.

Or maybe it’s like porn—you know it when you see it.

Ed Hewitt writes a weekly travel column and surfs mostly weekdays; visit his surf conditions page at

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