New England: Desirable Winter Surf Destination?

Words by James Joiner, photos by Nick LaVecchia and James Joiner

I’d never witnessed agony illustrated the way it tore across Eddie’s face, his mouth silently yowling billowing steam into the frozen air.

On the phone, it had sounded easy. Spend a week riding Specialized fat bikes up and down New England beaches looking for winter surf. Sure, it was January, but how bad could it be? Flights were booked, plans made. Then, a week before everyone arrived, record-breaking Arctic temps plunged the region into a new Ice Age. Nantucket’s slurpee wave returned, sharks froze to death mid-swim, and salty bays froze solid enough to hide their tides.

Amongst our primarily Californian crew, an edginess crept in. Should we postpone? Cancel? Go to Baja instead? Based on the non-refundable nature of plane tickets, we forged ahead.

The morning after Jeff Johnson, Anna Erhgott, and James Nixon arrived in Boston, we woke up in New Hampshire to a sunny 50ºF. Relief was evident. Surf, not so much. After a long ride on the beach, we drove up to Maine to visit Mike and Nick LaVecchia at Grain Surfboards. Nestled in a new workshop just blocks from the ocean, Grain is the stuff of legend. Drawing from skills honed at a prestigious wooden boat school in Port Townsend, Washington, Mike and company craft wooden boards that look as stunning hanging on your wall as they do in the water. The best part is the clinics they run all over the country, where they walk surfers through the process of hand-crafting their own boards.

After watching Grain work its magic, we were hungry for actual surf and so we headed inland to Dover, New Hampshire, where an amusement park promised indoor parachuting, rock climbing, and yes, a stationary wave. After watching an army of groms pop ollies and big spins on wakeboards in waist high surf and humid air, Jeff, James Nixon, and Anna put on their helmets and pads—surf parks are just like skate parks, it seems—and hit the water.

A constant current of water a couple feet deep shot out at one end of the pool, simulating river rapids more than ocean swell, exploding off a plastic sandbar to creating a mini ramp of water that, with practice and some balance, one could ostensibly lock into and ride in perpetuity. Muscle memory honed in the actual ocean didn’t do a whole lot to help in these artificial environs however, and time after time everyone got pitched over the back of the faux bar and into the chlorinated wash behind it. I suspect several of the fruity pre-mix margaritas being sold at the tiki-style food counter would have helped them to acclimate, but boozing and boarding was a big insurance no-no, so we’ll never know.

The next morning we packed up and drove south to Cape Cod, where we caught the tail end of the tide and rode small but consistent waves until the sun set and dragged the last vestiges of warm temps with it into the sand dunes. Things were about to get frigid.

The final member of our posse arrived the next day, fresh off a red-eye flight from SF and barely recovered from a particularly vicious strain of the flu. Eddie Donnellan isn’t the type to stay down, however, and as soon as he could stand he’d dragged himself to a rebooked flight, making it just in time to shiver his way back to full health.

Southern swells drove to Rhode Island, where the smallest state offered a large variety of southern-facing shoreline. We loaded up the bikes and ripped around frozen sandy beaches until we found a break everyone agreed was worth suiting up for, and one by one, people charged into the steaming sea. On days as cold as this one, getting and staying in the water isn’t what test the limits of endurance. Ocean temps were far warmer than the air, especially by the time shadows grew long and what little warmth the sun provided quickly dissipated, shattered into cold air.

No, the hardest part is getting out, racing in rapidly freezing wet wetsuits, ice crusting bare feet to the towels they stood on as shivering muscles strained to peel back six plus millimetres of skin-tight material. This is what had Eddie’s face twisted in agony, sharp daggers of icy cold that drove any heat from pale flesh, squeezing chests with the weight of encroaching hypothermia. It was so cold that when dressed, sitting in a hot car, the warm-up process remained painful, muscles dragged kicking and screaming back to a normal temperature.

Luckily, in New England we have a cure for endless freezing days, as generations of hardy Yankees have perfected the art of utterly unhealthy comfort food sourced from the sea. I don’t want to think about what clam chowder—heavy cream, pork fat, and butter, and bivalves—does to cholesterol levels or arteries, but it sure as hell beats the cold from your bones. Wash it down with a lobster roll, fried clams, and some oysters, and you’ll soon understand how people manage to survive the often oppressively cold grey winter months.

Many of the beach towns we cruised through were shuttered for the offseason, but you can reliably find at least one spot with a requisite nautically themed name, churning out fantastic seafood to dour locals. Seasonal economies are a tough lot to draw, and offseason life can be grim at best, a feedback loop of liver flogging and rich food to pass the months until a life-giving traffic jam of sunburnt Jimmy Buffet wannabes rolls back into town.

After Rhode Island, we headed back up into Maine to pick up Nick LaVecchia and get the local’s tour of epic spots which, naturally, we can’t tell you about. Suffice to say snowstorm waves were had, and more seafood was crushed. You want insider info? Swing by Maine Surfer’s Union in Portland, and maybe you’ll get lucky. Okay, fine. One tip. If you’re ever in Portland, Maine, you can’t go wrong eating at Eventide Oyster Bar. The wait will probably be long and the place crowded, but it’s worth it. Much like the rest of New England, once you settle in and get comfortable, it’ll ruin you for anything else.

That, and no matter what the weather, riding bikes and boards with your friends is the best thing ever.

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