Winter surfing isn't as cold as it looks - mostly.


January 24, 2011 - Watching surfers walk across snow to ride waves in nearly frozen water, in sub freezing air, first time observers typically have two thoughts: 1) "Those guys are nuts" followed by, 2) "Aren't they cold?" On the first point most surfers would agree. There's a level of passion that surfers have for their sport that can border on insanity. Surprisingly, despite ocean water temperatures that commonly reach 38F in early February, winter surfing in New England can be a relatively warm and comfortable experience - with one big exception.

Modern wetsuits use neoprene of varying thicknesses to maximize warmth and provide effort-reducing stretchiness. Chest areas may have 5,6 and even 7mm of neoprene while material in arms and legs may thin out to 2, 3 and 4mm.   An integral hood is preferred but some surfers use a secondary vest with a hood in conjunction with a non-hooded thinner spring wetsuit. In addition to a wetsuit that covers legs, arms, torso and head, winter surfers also wear neoprene booties and gloves (lobster-claw style for extreme cold). The only thing exposed directly to the elements is the central portion of the face, from just above the chin to the forehead.

Now to that exception. Remember, the face is exposed. This is necessary so the surfer can see and breathe. When a surfer ducks under or falls off a wave, the exposed face comes into contact with water that's about to undergo a cold induced phase change from liquid to solid.  The ice water jets past the face and into the wetsuit hood and torso area where it assaults blissfully toasty skin on scalp, neck, chest and back. It feels like a hard smack from an open palm. When ice water meets head a few times in succession - common when surfing in bigger waves - "ice cream headaches" can occur.  In some cases this cold water immersion brings on nausea and even vomiting.

One "secret" surfers use to stay warm in winter water is to drive to and from the beach dressed in the wetsuit - with the heat on full blast and a thermos full of hot coffee. Another technique is to wear additional layers of neoprene inside and outside their wetsuits

Each surfer has his or her own rule on when air and water is too cold or waves too big. Generally speaking you'll rarely see anyone in the water if the wind chill drops below zero.

Winter wetsuits with integral hoods are available from Billabong, Hotline, Hurley, Matuse, O'Neill, Patagonia and Rip Curl for prices ranging between $350 to $600.  Booties cost around $50 and gloves/mittens around $35.

"Semper Tepidus!"

Image above by Tina Spadafora of surfer Chris Kelly - Honorable mention in 2006 MoreBeach Winter Surfing Photo Contest