March of the Penguins

BY John Beausang

The road is empty. No cars. No parking meters. Its like a vacant movie set. You check the forecast part of every surfers ritual. Good news. The low-pressure system off the coast continues to push six-to-eight-foot seas our way. Winds are favorable.

You pull into the Oceanic parking lot at the south end of Wrightsville Beach and walk out onto Crystal Pier. The sea oats point to the waves and beckon you forward. You gaze at the frosty peaks lining up like silver corduroy: sets of chest-to-head-high waves with offshore winds. The frothy white spray curls back over the peaks against a stormy charcoal sky. Conditions are perfect except for two factors: The air is 34 degrees; the water temperature hovers in the 50s.

“Only hard core surfing occurs here in the winter ” says University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) professor of psychology Dr. Antonio Puente travel coordinator for the Wrightsville Beach Longboard Association (WBLA). “You have to be into it and of course have decreased cognitive capacity. Who in the heck would leave a warm house to jump into 50-degree water if they werent crazy?”

There arent many surfers; which is a big benefit of winter surfing. The other major perk is that the surf is best when the water is coldest. On the Azalea Coast this means late October/early November through February. If you dont surf when the water gets cold youre missing five months of ideal conditions.

Freezing frigid and fearless

For most people jumping into a frigid ocean ranks up there with dental work or filing taxes. But for others its the most wonderful time of the year. “Only the dedicated are out in the cold ” says management consultant and longtime WBLA member Hank Harris. “When you paddle out in winter you see mostly friends or people you recognize and you know the fair-weather summer crowd is elsewhere.” Its the difficulty and discomfort that keeps people away.

Besides the cold what makes winter surfing so difficult? First theres the gear. When the water temperature drops below 65 degrees most surfers need a full wetsuit. Wetsuits provide warmth by restricting the flow over your skin. Any water that enters is heated by the body and kept warm. Fortunately water temperatures in Wrightsville Beach typically stay in the 50s through the winter with only brief dips into the 40s.

WBLA vice president Mike Abernathy a student loan consultant rubs his arms for warmth. “Ill tell you what; its cold out there. But 15 years ago it was so much worse. The rubber was horrible ” he laughs referring to the old wetsuits that used to crack and break leaking like a sieve under the pressure of the waves.

In the 1950s winter surfers rode wooden boards without leashes. They wore wool sweaters and board shorts. This was before wetsuits became commercially available. “Guys used to wear these wetsuit tops with a beaver tail which would come under the crotch and snap ” says Skipper Funderberg author of Surfing on the Cape Fear Coast pioneer surfer and surfing historian. “It was uncomfortable. Then theyd wear kneepads because the wax they used back then wasnt the high-tech stuff you have today. It would harden with the sand in it creating a 60-grit sandpaper that would take the skin off your knees.”

Most surfers wear a high-tech version of the neoprene wetsuits designed for Navy SEALs back in the 1950s. This year some surfers are donning the H-Bomb a new heated wetsuit by Rip Curl. The H-Bomb uses two batteries that power a heating coil in the back of the suit. According to demonstration videos surfers stay toasty for up to three hours even in the Arctic Circle.

You might think that wetsuits similar to a ladys girdle provide smoothing support and targeted shaping. However any observer in a parking lot where people suit up will tell you that in a wetsuit theres nowhere to hide. Stomach bulge especially after the holidays is clearly visible. “Nothing reminds you that you need to lose weight like a wetsuit ” says Robert Choate co-owner of Kitchen and Lighting Designs in Wilmington and a former WBLA president.

However not everyone thinks thats a bad thing. Abernathy wearing his new wetsuit stands back from his car studies his reflection in the window and says “I look like one of The Incredibles.”

Friday morning December 12 2008

Most surfers dont mind a little cold weather but very few throw themselves into winter waters. When an adrenaline junkie sees waves however thats all he sees. “I love surfing too much ” says Matt Jewell UNCW student and WB Longboarder. “I dont care how cold it gets. If theres surf Im going.”

Jewell Abernathy and I are out on the south end. We meet at 7:00 a.m. in wicked cold. The wind picks up chilling us to the core. We jog to the parking lot for our wetsuits and surfboards. I see a few other wetsuited surfers with their boards. It looks like a penguin convention. Older men in tight rubber suits wobble back and forth between cars talking communing preparing. I wonder: Is there another public venue where its completely appropriate to hang out covered head to toe in black rubber?

We have on our wetsuits and booties and Abernathy wears his hood too. Throwing apprehensions aside we run into the shorebreak paddle hard to get through the impact zone ignoring the ice-cream headaches and stiff joints. How cold is it? Imagine wrapping yourself in rubber downing a frosty milkshake and jumping into a frozen-margarita mixer.

Once safely beyond the breaking waves we sit up rest and wait for the next set. Our lungs are burning from the paddle. Pods of dolphins and flights of pelicans pass us. It looks like its going to snow. I become acutely aware that Im somewhere special someplace unique and truly blessed to experience it.

A set rolls in. Abernathy yells “Are you coming?” Which technically means: You have priority on the wave but Im going anyway. We paddle like crazy splitting the peak one goes left one goes right. Im on an adrenaline-pumping rollercoaster ride until I fall into the icy rinse cycle.

“Theres nothing like getting a cold blast of water down your suit from a dunking ” Abernathy says. “Youre kind of like the crazy Survivorman battling elements and conditions that you really have no business being in.”

We ride waves like were the only kids at Disney World and we have all the rides to ourselves. Jewell is tearing it up on a longboard his dad surfed back in the 1970s. Old school. We surf for three hours. Exhausted wind-burned and frozen we decide to take one more wave. I can barely paddle and hope for a wave to sweep me all the way into the beach.

Getting in is easy. Getting out is the hard part.

Even in the best conditions peeling off a wetsuit isnt pretty. You need to be part contortionist part magician. In Abernathys words “Expelling a 6-foot 2-inch 230-pound man through a small wetsuit neck opening is not an easy task.”

Sometimes you have to ask a buddy for help. And as humbling as that may be its not as embarrassing as having to do the worm in a public parking lot.

Everyone has their tricks and some winter surfers have it down to a science using a jug of warm water from home or a camping shower to rinse off. Some surfers bring changing ponchos. Others bring a changing tub for their wetsuit an 18-gallon Rubbermaid storage bin to keep the rest of the car sand-free and dry.

Heat from the sun creates a steamy strip-down. That makes the undressing process peeling three millimeters to five millimeters of neoprene off with stiff joints and cold fingers all the more challenging an intricate process with no time to spare.

The adrenaline is gone and our body temperatures have dropped significantly. Shivering and fatigued Im back to the cold reality of life on land.

Jewell jumps in his truck and runs home to rinse off in a hot shower. Abernathy changes behind his car while I strip down exactly where I stand; Im too cold to care. I writhe and peel and soon Im dry and warm sitting close to the heater in my car. Its time to go.

For surfers the uncrowded snow-capped peaks of a winter swell feed and warm the soul. Sure it takes effort but thats what makes it great. The solitude the reflection … theres always going to be something appealing about the waves less paddled even in winter.