Ask the Expert: Surf in Snowy Winter

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Alek Parker

Ask the Expert: Surf in Snowy WinterQ: “I just moved to New Jersey from San Diego. I want to surf in the winter but it seems really intense. What gear do I need to get and what do I need to know about it before taking the icy plunge?”
Jack, Atlantic City, New Jersey

Shredding in the Northeast during the winter is no joke, Jack. Frozen beaches, impending hypothermia, and severe shrinkage make it home to only the hardest of hardcore. But for those who brave blizzards and frostbite, there are definite rewards to be found in the season’s ample swell and non-existent crowds. Just take it from Garden State godfather and longtime Jersey pro Sam Hammer, who’ll give you the low down on winter waveriding.

A:

First thing: get at least a five mm wetsuit. And if you really want to be set up, get two suits (if you can afford it). That way, you always have one that’s dry and ready to go. On those days when it’s going off and you surf more than once, you don’t want to put on a freezing cold suit when the air is fifteen degrees-that’s not fun.

Another key is to have good booties and gloves. Find out which companies make the best ones geared toward the winter surfer. I’d recommend either a five or seven mm round toe bootie. Split toes are good, but not in these extreme conditions-your big toe will freeze off when it’s this cold. Some guys put Vaseline on their face to prevent windburn; others keep jugs of hot water in their car to dump down their suit or into their booties. Another good idea is to get a portable solar shower (you can get them at camping stores). There’s one guy around here that wears a neoprene ski mask under his hood, so the only thing that’s directly exposed to the elements for him are his eyes, and the guy surfs more than anyone I know. I’ve never been a firm believer in any of that hooplah. It’ll be cold no matter what, so you’re just gonna have to deal with it.

As far as what to expect surf-wise, it’s colder and darker than you can imagine. For some reason, the water feels so much harder and heavier than usual. You don’t penetrate it as easily when duckdiving with all that extra rubber. So plan on taking a little longer than usual to get out.

How long you stay out for any given session depends on 1) how good the waves are, and 2) how windy it is. It could be twenty degrees outside and no wind and you might stay out for hours. But if it’s 35 degrees and there’s twenty mph offshore wind, you’ll be done much quicker because the wind just cuts right through your wetsuit. So figure on anywhere between 40 minutes to three hours.

Most importantly, know what you can handle and what you can’t. It’s just different in that cold of water, when it’s in the 30s, and you don’t really realize it until you get out there. It’s definitely more intimidating and dangerous. Know your limits and always surf with a buddy.

Bio:

While he regularly travels the world in search of exotic surf, there’s nowhere Sam Hammer would rather be than getting pitted stupid during a snowstorm at this home break in New Jersey. Either that, or enjoying a first-class meal at his family restaurant in ??, The Crab Claw.