2 surfers in wetsuits sliding like seals in the snow

A Weird Fetish: Cold Water Surfing

bare feet in the snow
Photo by Dean Petty

Have you ever seen what a surfer is willing to do to make sure they don’t miss a good day of waves?

Anyone who makes surfing a priority in their life knows what I’m talking about. If I were religious I would have to go to confession for some of the things I’ve done to make sure I’m in the right place when it counts. Could even be why this magazine might have been late to the printer, but don’t mind me. 

Believe it or not—and many don’t—some of the best waves in the world actually do happen on the East Coast. Maybe even less believable, but no less true, a majority of these days happen during the winter, when most people have flown south or packed up their surfboards in the garage with their summer clothes. Naturally, this means that on any given winter day you may find some of the best of the best in their field—surfers, photographers, videographers, and beyond—converging on these areas throughout the Northeast to get a much-needed dose of surf. 

We asked some of our favorite people in the surf world why they brave the cold—and when I say cold, I mean really fucking cold— and to share with us a memory they hold dear. Some say it’s a passion born from necessity, others actually prefer it. What they all have in common, though, is a memory that keeps them on the chase.

On the right blustery winter day, there’s no better place on Earth than in the ocean. 

Balaram Stack on surfboard in the air at sunset
Photo by Mike Nelson | Balaram Stack
Will Skudin in a sea green barrel
Photo by Mike Nelson | Will Skudin

Mike “Nellie” Nelson:

Photographer/surf shop owner/video guy/Long Beach, New York 

My little claim to fame is Unsound Surf Shop, but I’ve also spent the last three decades chasing around hurricane swells and snowy tubes, doing a little filming here and there for videos like North of Nowhere and Couch Tour—stuff like that. I’m mostly really hung up on shooting water photography in the mix with everyone, and doing it in thicker wetsuits when the waves are firing. I love it.

Swimming with all that gear, in those conditions and trying to take photos with lobster claw wetsuit gloves on—it’s like playing the guitar with oven mitts.

Your most memorable cold water surf moment. One that keeps you going for more?

There are those memorable swells and those days it felt close to perfect, but it’s hard because that feeling of wanting one better never goes away. But if I had to really think back on one, it would be Winter Storm Mars. And we had a crew—Bal, Sam— those guys. It was probably close to two feet of snow, mid-blizzard and I swam that day. It was definitely uncomfortable, but I got a very good photo of Sam and I’m super proud of that shot. Not many even saw that one, but I’m proud of it because of the gnarly conditions. When you get a shot like that in those conditions, it’s not just pulling up to the beach and swimming out. You’re digging yourself out, and it’s just an adventure getting to the water’s edge. Then swimming in it and getting the shot feels good! Those days zap so much energy out of you. It feels like you conquered something.

Why do you continue to shoot and chase waves in the winter?

At first, it was out of necessity. Being young, surfing, having no money—just doing what I needed to get by. But then it kind of almost turned into this weird fetish. I honestly would rather be in a 5-mil (5-millimeter winter wetsuit) floating around than in trunks. I don’t why, but I feel safer, and the other part of it is that I really do love the challenge. Swimming with all that gear, in those conditions and trying to take photos with lobster claw wetsuit gloves on—it’s like playing the guitar with oven mitts. I enjoy the challenge. When you get the shot, it’s a whole lot sweeter.

photo of wave and grass
Photo by Justin Burkle | Zach Dayton
Nor'easter over New England satellite photo
Nor’easter over New England | January 2018

Zack Dayton

Surfer/real estate agent/New York

Your most memorable cold water surf moment. One that keeps you going for more?

Coming home on college break to a solid nor’easter. Charlie Weimar and Nick Boy picked me up and we headed up to Long Beach through a blizzard. We got there and it was absolutely pumping. We surfed for several hours trading off with only a few other guys out. On the drive back, warm and content, I knew I did not want to miss out on another experience like that.

What motivated you to build a life around cold water surfing and why do you continue to do it?

After a cold surf with your good mates, the beers in the parking lot taste a whole lot better. And the combination of scoring empty waves and the positive effects of cold water on the mind and body can be addicting. It’s a feeling many of us chase all winter. Then as surfing gets more popular and crowded, cold-water spots start to become the last frontier. The excitement of exploring new areas, finding uncrowded waves, and scoring keeps it fresh for me. Also, the motivation of getting a better wave at the spots we’ve been, trying to push ourselves every winter, keeps it fun.

Nickboy digging out a truck stuck in snow on the beach in Montauk
Photo by Grant Monahan | Nickboy (Nick Joeckel) digging out in Montauk

Kurt Korte

Director of Forecasting for Surfline/Outer Banks, NC

Your most memorable cold water surf moment. One that keeps you going for more?

There have been so many over the years – countless nor’easters, including the run back in March 2018, all the big days at Nazare the past several years, and the storms I forecasted when I was spending my winters in Puerto Rico. I’ve professionally forecasted the surf in the Northeast for more than 17 years, including pretty much every significant winter event since 2005 – but the one that probably stands out is from March 2008. At Surfline we dubbed it, “The Swell That Ate the Atlantic.” We did a big, three-part swell recap for the East Coast and the Caribbean. I forecasted the event along the East Coast and also helped coordinate with a number of surfers to score some of the biggest and best surf in the Caribbean, from massive Tres Palmas to secret, finicky nooks and crannies in the central and eastern part of the region. I also teamed up with Mark Willis, who would later become the Director of Forecasting at Surfline and is now the Meteorologist in Charge for the NWS WFO (National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office) in Wrightsville, NC, to write a paper on the storm that was presented at an American Meteorological Society conference the next year. We’ve had a bunch of storms in all the years since that one, but it sticks out to me, probably because it was relatively early in my forecasting career at Surfline.

Matt Pruett

Writer and editor/formerly editor of ESM/currently Surfline/Outer Banks, NC

Mike Nelson and I just published a book on the subject at hand—North of Nowhere: The Surf Photography of Mike Nelson. Y’all should buy, like, a thousand copies so I can get a new deck. As far as street cred, I’ve been surfing in hoods, boots and gloves for 35 years now and got my first 5-mil in 1988—a frankenstiff, janky-stitched Aleeda that was just a big ol’ bag of suck—so I’ve certainly paid my ice-cream-headache dues.

It’s the moment you choose zen over glory. All it takes is one deep, breathing barrel at home to find the former.

Your most memorable cold water surf moment. One that keeps you going for more?

Once we got off of those god-awful, anorexic Thrusters that we were riding in the 1990s and started putting more foam under our bloated carcasses, wintertime surfing got a whole lot easier. You’re twenty pounds heavier with all that neoprene, and there’s no worse feeling in surfing than sinking on your surfboard when it’s firing. I’d rather get skunked. But I think it’s the moment you choose zen over glory. All it takes is one deep, breathing barrel at home to find the former. The latter is more addictive than anything, and seeking it ultimately leads to loneliness. Untethered and marooned on your own little island of self-satisfaction. Sure, you’ll be ripping, but no one will give a shit because your life is governed by greed and maybe Instagram likes.

Sam Hammer in the barrel of a wave
Photo by Mike Nelson | Sam Hammer

Sam Hammer

Surfer/New Jersey

I’ve traveled all over the globe and have realized over time that we have some of the best waves in the world right herein our backyard. But it usually happens during the winter. When it’s cold. So I thought, might as well embrace it. Been chasing winter storms around the Northeast ever since.

Your most memorable cold water surf moment. One that keeps you going for more?

I never remember the best. I’m someone who remembers where I could have improved on certain things. There is footage from Under an Arctic Sky (Netflix documentary you should watch), when we were surfing this right-hand wave in Iceland—we came around the bend on this one road and stumbled upon this wave no one had ever seen or heard of before. No one had surfed it. There was no blueprint, no “paddle here” or “don’t paddle there,” there’s absolutely nothing going on around us and all we’re seeing is these perfect waves coming through

And then you get out in the ocean and you’re seeing something completely different than what you’re seeing from the beach. It was almost like every wave was closing out, but it was really just the way this wave broke. Every wave felt like it was shutting down on you. It was making you think you needed to pull through the back, but it would actually stay open almost every time. And no one really realized that until after the session when we watched the footage. We were all like holy shit…we just blew that session so hard, and it was legitimately the best cold-water reef break waves I had ever seen—to this day. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that, I certainly haven’t, but there was like this bubble or ripple in the wave that made it look like it was shutting down when you’re in the barrel, but in reality, you just had to hold on. I’ll never forget that vision in my head because it still haunts me. It’s one of the best, but one of the most regrettable sessions of my life. We still got great waves, but just not the ones we wanted or the best that were coming through. And listen, there are so many great days and memories I have with Mike “Nellie”Nelson, and (Mike) Gleason, but the one time that sticks out in my head—it has to be that one. I’ve told that story to a lot of people. And it’s always like, fuck. I can’t help but think about what waves we would have gotten if I had known a little bit more about the wave or had another stab at it like that.

What keeps you motivated and why do you continue to do it?

In reality that last story isn’t about getting skunked because we really didn’t, but the urge to get that one wave never goes away. Even if I had gotten the one that day, I’d want a better one soon after. There’s no winning! But that chase—it’s getting harder. Wetsuits and equipment are better so it’s easier in that sense, but as time goes on it’s getting harder. And that’s partially life too. At one point, I used to surf everyday in the winter, now I mostly save it for the good days. And I’m cool with that because when you start to look at it and know it’s going to get good, that’s when it counts and you can’t help but get super excited. When it’s on! That feeling, you never want to miss it.

Dean Petty balancing on tip of surfboard on green wave
Photo by Sam Sedgwick | Dean Petty

Dean Petty

Surfer/craftsman/purveyor of fun times and fun things/Nova Scotia

I grew up never knowing anything but cold water. That northeast grit is what I love about being here, and it has helped push me forward in my life and my career. The change of seasons—the spring, summer, and the sun (when you see it)—is the thing that all NE surf nerds have this camaraderie around. There’s a grouchy, cold, curmudgeonly happiness to it. Something that has always been on my radar. I like this gritty yet mellow, low-grit sandpaper life. It’s not super gnarly, but a little tougher. Like when you’re sitting out there looking at your friend with icicles hanging off his hood, like, “Yeah, man, this is sick.” That’s me. It is sick, but there’s also a little sarcastic happiness. If you’re going to be dumb, you gotta be tough, which are definitely words I live by. That’s the price you pay when you grow up in it. It’s all you know, it becomes a preference. And now it’s consumed my life and become who I am.

If you’re going to be dumb, you gotta be tough, which are definitely words I live by.

Your most memorable cold water surf moment. One that keeps you going for more?

Honestly, it happens like twice a year for me—every year. Usually, the unexpected days of perfection give you this wave of shock and euphoria. It’s never really like the forecasted swell or those big days where all this crazy hard work or dedication goes into a big swell event. Those are cool, too, but for me, the best ones have been on the day before or after the big weather day—or a blown forecast, and you get that empty, pristine session.The one with no one around, possibly even sunny, with like two of your best friends and it’s just PUMPING. The weather Surfer / craftsman / purveyor of fun times and fun things / Nova Scotia has blown by, the hype and attention has already come and gone, and the usual disappointment that follows has left, and then the next thing you know, it’s just your core crew scoring unexpectedly and you’re thinking, “I can’t believe it—we live here.” Those are the days you pinch yourself and have to remind yourself that this is actually happening in real life and you didn’t have to travel halfway around the world for it.

What motivated you to build a life around cold water surfing and why do you continue to do it?

My whole thing is balance. I am a surfer and I love surfing. I also love all the work and all the other things I do in my life. If all I had was surfing, I don’t think I’d love surfing the way I do. I grew up surfing in Maine and moved to Nova Scotia for university, where I bought this piece of land I now live on. This property (a compound I built nestled on one of the best point breaks in Canada, Camp Bueno) defines me. I’ve never felt something so clearly. And this is exactly where I’m supposed to be. Whether that’s for surfing or for work, or just where I like to live, I’m really just a dude who likes surfing and has built a life around the things I like to do. Surfing wouldn’t be cool without those long cold days, my property wouldn’t be as cool without surfing, and my life wouldn’t be cool without my job or my home or any of it. It’s all about balance. I don’t take it for granted for a fucking second. I am the most grateful human in the world, and all of this extra work to make it what it is and what it could be, and to have this forever project—I’m just a lucky dude.

Wave and snow on rocks
Photo by Ryan Mack
Surfer holding surfboard in snow
Photo by Ryan Mack

Ryan Mack

Surf photographer/New Jersey

For seven months out of the year when I’m swimming and shooting surf, I’m wearing a full 5 mm wetsuit. Some might define that as cold water.

Your most memorable cold water surf moment. One that keeps you going for more?

Everyone has got to have that one swell that made everything click for them. Mine isn’t that recent—2017, Winter Storm Stella. We were working on a video for Red Bull Surfing with Sam Hammer, Mike Gleason, Pat Schmidt, and Balaram Stack. We chased the storm from Jersey to Cape Cod and scored some of the best waves I have ever seen in my life—along with about a foot of snow. I swam that night in Jersey before we drove north. Then just got into the car and we started to drive up—no looking back.

Why do you continue to shoot and chase waves in the winter?

I honestly love winter surfing. It’s the reason I’m still based in New Jersey. I’ve traveled to a bunch of different places in the world, and I swear we have some of the best waves in the world. I’ve built a career around it and I actually feel more comfortable in the cold water. I enjoy the wetsuit and the experience of seeing how many ice-cream-headaches or sets on the head the body can handle in a day. And let’s be real, the same thought behind everyone’s motivation to surf in these conditions—the fact that there always could be a better and bigger wave somewhere out there. You have to go find it.

black and white underwater shot of surfer
Photo by Matt Paul

Pat Schmidt:

Surfer/artist/Manasquan, NJ/ Montauk, NY. 

Your most memorable cold water surf moment. One that keeps you going for more?

It was my first or second winter surfing on my own. I was with one of my best friends, Terence. We had just gotten a crazy snowstorm the day before and the waves were cranking (whatever that means when you’re 12). We got to the beach already suited up to see perfect waves with nobody around. There was so much snow on the beach we had to use our boards as sort of stepping stones to get down to the water because our little grom legs weren’t long enough to get through the snow. From then on I sort of just always felt that a few feet of snow on the beach means nothing when it’s firing in the water and it’s just you and your friends out.

What motivated you to build a life around cold water surfing and why do you continue to do it?

The excitement of winter conditions coming together. It’s next to nothing. That ever dangling carrot of the next winter storm and knowing it can always be better. Building a life around surfing in the cold is more about these East Coast surfing communities than anything for me. Most people leave all these seasonal beach towns for the winter. I can relate—I grew up in one of those towns and it’s cool to see these other communities and connect with the folks that stick around. The ones who brave the cold to get good waves in their neck of the woods. It’s pretty rare to find surfers that are willing to share their waves, but it’s still a possibility during wintertime on the East Coast if you know where to look. 

Balaram Stack trudging in the snow toward the ocean
Photo by Mike Nelson | Balaram Stack

Balaram Stack

Surfer/Long Beach, NY

I grew up surfing in New York. The cold in winter was never really a subject of importance to me. It’s either there are waves or there aren’t. And since the waves were so few and far between where we’re from—if it’s on, you know we are surfing regardless of temperatures and conditions. The cold was never the focus; if you made it about the cold you were missing the point. We’re always there to get waves, and as time went on, particularly to get barreled.

Your most memorable cold water surf moment. One that keeps you going for more?

Not until I started traveling did I realize surfing in winter could be so foreign to people. I just did whatever it took to be on it when there was a swell. Whether it meant wearing two wetsuits due to the lack of grom sizes or trudging through two feet of snow an hour before school started so we could take advantage of waves when we had them. Kind of an East Coast mentality with these cold-ass winters. Eventually I guess I realized we actually had something special and something to make the adventure more of a journey. Like I just remember many times when Nellie would pick me up from my house at sunrise on a snow day when I was in high school, before I had a driver’s license or car, and we’d go down to Lido to score with (Ryan) Carlson and the boys. At the time it was the best waves I had surfed, and it even felt like a surf trip. It gave me a desire to never miss a swell out there. The whole snow factor just made it more of an adventure. Although it was only five minutes down the road, we were scoring super hard.

What keeps you motivated and why do you continue to do it?

Being on it with any storm—that will get you the mental winter day you’re looking for. The feeling of those last-minute decisions paying off. Dropping everything and making it your first priority. Fully knowing the conditions, what you’re getting into, and thinking how the hell you’re going to get there.

It pays off to have a 4×4 sometimes. But those days are the ones that keep me motivated. And when it comes to flying home from Hawaii, there’s just something about scoring at home that is embedded in me. Flying home from warm waves in Hawaii is easy when you know there’s plenty more to be had out there vs. maybe not another pumping day at home for months or potentially even years. I love getting barreled at home regardless of what the rest of the world’s waves are doing. I also have two nephews and a niece under the age of ten that are just getting into surfing. I’m just as excited to share the passion of getting barreled when it’s good with them. Showing them to not let the cold be a factor, but more so a fun time to be had in the middle of winter. A time when you’re itching to surf and there isn’t much else going on.

Cold water surfing—it’s a sick obsession and yes, there’s this sort of inglorious side of it. When it comes down to it, though, to the cold water surfer, it isn’t dramatic or complex. It’s just surfing. The urge to be in the water when it’s firing will never stop. That urge is the same in cold or warm weather, sunny or stormy. It’s the same even after you’ve gotten “the wave” or “the session;” as soon as you get it, you’ll want one that’s better, and you’ll put on a thick wetsuit and push through two feet of snow to get to it. That’s when the simple and sort of ironic beauty of surfing comes to the surface. Beyond all the wetsuits, hours in the car, frozen body parts, mild hypothermia and all the bullshit it takes, you’ll always be on the journey for the next best wave or session. That’s what surfing is all about, no matter the environment it happens in. Winter surfing may just take a little more preparation, or the journey might be a little longer or a little colder, but in the end, it’s still all about the wave itself. The story behind it is just the reality of what it takes, and for those of us who surf in the winter, the cold is a small price to pay for that moment of glory.

On the right blustery winter day, there’s no better place on Earth than in the ocean. 

Wave in the snow
Photo by James Katsipis | New York waterman Captain Charlie Weimar enjoying a cold one at home