Surfers Brave Winter in Search of Waves

Neither ice nor snow nor work nor his daughters’ dance lessons will keep Paul Vitale from the waves at New York City’s Rockaway Beach, where he emerged  the other day from the Atlantic Ocean to face a 39-degree morning, carrying a surfboard and breathing audibly while water dripped from his neoprene-clad frame.

“I never felt weather was much of a barrier to what I do,” said Vitale, 50, a construction manager and single parent who gets up early to surf at 7 a.m., even when the water temperature falls to a headache-inducing 44 degrees.

Vitale, who started surfing only two years ago after living within a dozen miles of the water all his life, is one of a growing number of enthusiasts around the country who are suiting up to paddle into icy waters off northern beaches, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, as cold-weather surfing goes mainstream.

In Minnesota, surfers routinely brave Lake Superior’s floating chunks of ice. Winter surfers in northern Michigan emerge from the waves sporting ice beards. In Indiana, it’s considered normal to trudge nearly a mile across snow-covered sand dunes, carrying a surfboard, to reach the frigid shores of Lake Michigan.

Stathis and other surfers credit advances in wetsuit design for the sport’s growing year-round popularity.  When Stathis started surfing a half century ago, surfers wore wetsuits designed for scuba diving.Steve Stathis, who owns Boarders Surf Shop, a Rockaway mecca, says he sees more people showing up at the beach with surfboards in tow year-round.  Stathis remembers a surfer who brought his girlfriend surfing for the first time in March.  “I said ‘you must not like this girl,’” recalled Stathis.  “She went out and came back and said, ‘Oh my god, the water is so clear and so clean,’ and I said, ‘It’s so freakin’ cold,’ but she had a lot of fun.”

“Once you got into the suit, the stress on your body felt like you had somebody grabbing you by the shoulders, pulling you down,” recalled Stathis. Stathis says today’s suits let surfers move.

For surfers around the Great Lakes, winter means waves.  Bob Tema, 47, a graphic designer from Minneapolis, surfs Lake Superior near Duluth in February, when winds from Canada roil the 32-degree water.

Tema, who learned to surf as a boy growing up on Oahu, says the lake in winter churns with chunks of ice and frozen slush. “It adds to the thrill of it for me,” Tema says.

It can be painful.  Frank Cullen, who owns the New York Surf School, says cold water “hits you harder, because there’s more mass,” which results from water molecules bunching up as the temperature drops.

Between three and seven people book lessons with Cullen on a Saturday in February, compared with the 50 to 80 people who show up on Saturdays in July.  Still, he estimates nearly a third of people who surf in New York surf in winter.

Some surfers take a pragmatic view. “If you don’t surf in winter, you’re not going to be surfing for three, four or five months,” says Ryan Gerard, who owns Third Coast Surf Shop in St. Joseph, Mich. “It’s not like a hobby, it’s who I am.”

Gerard, 33, grew up in Michigan but later decamped to Santa Cruz, Calif., where he learned to make surfboards.  He moved back to the Great Lakes State about a decade ago and has surfed Lake Michigan between New Buffalo and Chicago year-round ever since.  “I paddle out, dive under the first wave, and it’s a rush of ‘wow,’” says Gerard, who has photos of fellow surfers sporting ice beards.

On a Saturday in early February, Stoehr, 34, gave a lesson to Joan O’Brien, a Rockaway native who took up the sport in July.  “My brother lives in Los Angeles, and I surf more than he does,” O’Brien, 42, said as she and Stoehr stretched on the empty beach.Joel Stoehr, an artist and surfing instructor, moved to Rockaway Beach from the city three years ago.  With its surf shop, boardwalk and a taco shack where lines form in summer, the seaside neighborhood could be Maui or Malibu, if those places had desolate lots and sat in the shadow of John F. Kennedy International Airport.

“Surfing has this funny counterintuitive thing,” said Thad Ziolkowski, a Brooklyn writer whose memoir, “On a Wave,” recounts his boyhood surfing in Florida and how he reconnected with the sport as an adult. “There’s a purely genuine feeling of renewal and endorphins and spirituality and athleticism, and the additional layer of enjoyment that comes from overcoming a natural aversion to extreme cold.”

When a surfer plunges beneath a wave or wipes out, even the latest-generation wetsuits take in water, which Ziolkowski says can be “highly unpleasant” on winter days.

Mike Killion, 25, recalled a 15-degree day this winter when he a fellow surfer trekked nearly a mile through snow-covered dunes to reach a spot along Lake Michigan near Chicago.

“It’s negative wind chill, we’re carrying 25 to 30 pounds of equipment, and you’re thinking ‘this sucks,’” said Killion, a photographer who publishes Great Lakes Surfer magazine. “But once we got down there, I thought, ‘we get to experience these waves for ourselves.’”

Getting out of the water presents challenges, too.  A frozen wetsuit can entomb a surfer for 10 minutes before the ice melts sufficiently to unzip it. “Some guys will bring a jug of water so they can thaw the ice off faster,” said Gerard, who prefers to thaw out in his car.

“You’ve just surfed for a couple of hours, you got a good workout in, you’ve got your warm clothes on, you’re sitting in your car blasting the heater,” Gerard said.  “It’s a nice escape.”