Last January, while most of the northeast hunkered down during Winter Storm Grayson, a bomb cyclone that brought whiteout conditions to Philly and South Jersey, a couple of die-hard surfers looked to the ocean in Long Beach Island.
“We couldn’t see the waves through the blizzard,” said Rob Kelly, a 29-year-old Bucks County native and professional surfer with the World Surf League. “We sat all day in a van — from sunrise on — hoping that the wind would let up just a little bit or that the snow would calm down. Finally, right before dark, there was a brief window where we could paddle out. The waves were some of the best I’ve seen in Jersey. After waiting for hours in the snow, a miracle happened that last hour.”
Some might say the only miracle is that Kelly, who now lives in Ocean City, hasn’t been committed. Consider some of the physical realities with which a winter surfer must contend: body hair frozen into seawater icicles, lung spasms that cause shortness of breath, and blood vessels so dilated the result is intense brain freeze. Then there’s the unsolicited commentary from befuddled passersby.
“There will be times you’re coming out of the water and someone on the boardwalk will be like: ‘What the hell is wrong with you? You’re a psycho,’ ” said 37-year-old Jimmy Valm, director of brewing operations at Cape May Brewing Co. He frequently tucks his beard into his wet suit to keep it from freezing during bitter, dawn surf sessions. “One late-winter day in North Wildwood, as I was getting out of the water, the police pulled up. A couple had called in a bomb threat because I’d left a bag with my keys and towel on the beach. Maybe it hadn’t occurred to them the owner could be in the ocean.”
Yet, despite the barriers, winter wave riding is increasingly popular in New Jersey, when ocean temperatures hit the mid 30s. Kelly, who showcases the virtues of cold-water surfing at the Jersey Shore and globally in a YouTube series called Numb Skulls, says it was difficult to find anyone to join him for a December or January session as recently as 10 years ago. Now, on a frigid afternoon at a South Jersey break with great waves, “there may be as many as 50 people out, almost as crowded as on a summer’s day.”
The uptick is partly down to the meteoric rise of surfing in the area in general, especially among young people.
“It’s growing exponentially,” said Randy Townsend, a Long Beach Island-based surfer and director of the National Scholastic Surfing Association Northeast Conference, an amateur organization that covers Maine to Virginia Beach but draws more than 50 percent of its participants from the Philly and South Jersey area. In the last four years, the number of competitors participating in the conference’s high school championships, around 250, has more than doubled. “Winter surfing in particular is an invigorating alternative sport for these young men and women.”
For area surfers, forced to suffer through summertime flat spells, winter has always brought ideal swell — northeasterly off-season storms result in large and clean (aka, non-choppy) rides that have captured the attention of the international surf community in recent years. But what’s made this swell accessible is technological improvements to the wet suit — it’s considerably warmer, lighter, and more affordable than decades ago, or even five years ago.
“You used to feel like Randy from A Christmas Story in his winter coat — you couldn’t move,” said Joe Grottola, 60, a winter surfer since 1971 and codirector of the Eastern Surfing Association South Jersey Division, which hosts amateur competitions. “Now, these suits are incredibly flexible, and they allow you to endure harsher conditions for longer periods of time. I’ve paddled into classic, peeling, smooth-faced waves in Cape May this month, made all the more beautiful by a sunset backdrop — something else that, due to the clearer air, is a little better in the off-season.”
But the compulsion to pull on a still slightly claustrophobic neoprene suit and plunge oneself into a bitter Atlantic — no matter how pretty — isn’t merely about logistics. It’s also physiological.
Eric Zillmer, 62, is a psychologist, a professor of neuropsychology, and the director of athletics for Drexel University. He has also traveled the world as a recreational surfer and windsurfer, once navigating through chunks of ice in Newfoundland.
“Surfing is one of the most beautiful activities you can engage in,” he said. “It’s truly an out-of-body experience. With cold-water surfing, the psychology of extreme sports comes into play. The adversity and discomfort you experience result in a feeling of comfort or well-being afterward. It’s an opponent process, the result of the brain trying to maintain homeostasis, or balance and harmony. You do one thing, it compensates by doing another.”
Studies have shown exposure to cold water may boost immunity, circulation, and mood, while invigorating the body’s systems.
“It releases all these endorphins and facilitates creative thinking,” Grottola said. “A lot of surfers are artists, musicians, or filmmakers, and cold-water surfing fuels these pursuits.”
Or, as Northern Liberties resident Jen Nool put it: “There’s something magical about the feeling of flying on the water — you’ll do anything to replicate it. Don’t get me wrong; winter surfing can be a sizable shock. But, even in the cold, there is an unbelievable peace that comes over you. If we were to keep this going only in the summer, it would be a tough go the rest of the year.”
Nool, owner of Picked Vintage, a mid-century modern furniture business, travels regularly for waves. In November, she surfed overhead, 50-degree swells in France and Spain. She’s also a member of the nonprofit Philly Surf Crew, which connects the city’s surfing community while bringing new surfers into the fold and giving back to Jersey’s seaside towns through organized beach cleanups and other volunteer work. Right now, they have about 100 active members.
While beginner lessons offered by the group happen during warmer months, Philly Surf Crew founder Stephen Miller says, “I’ve seen many people progress to cold-water conditions. Once they get hooked, temperature doesn’t matter so much. You’ll park your car on a 30-degree day, and your body is screaming: ‘Why are we taking our shirt off?’ Then you’re walking up the beach, sometimes through snow, and every instinct is saying not to do this. But then, in the water, that big rush of adrenaline hits you. It really is a blast.”
Feeling just a little bit tougher than those summertime-only surfers doesn’t hurt, either, he adds.
For others, the impetus is more spiritual.
“It’s certainly a component of motivation,” said Michael Sachs, a sports psychologist and professor at Temple University. “The idea of spirituality — which is one’s own connection to the cosmos, to God or to nature, however one defines it — can be readily manifested in the ocean, particularly in wintertime, when the experience is more intimate. And it can be an important factor in bringing one back to the sport again and again. The ocean offers a sense of wonder.”
Take Kevin DeWald, a 28-year-old wallpaper hanger based in Goshen, Cape May County, whose bachelor party consisted of surfing with three friends in Stone Harbor last month. For him, winter surfing is a chance to connect with something larger than himself.
“Being alone in the water makes you feel small and humbled,” he said. “To me, it’s almost like praying. When I’m out there, I’m talking to God. I’m thanking him for this moment and for giving me another day. With fewer people and distractions than in the summer months, it’s easier to channel that feeling.”
Of course, a spiritual connection is a lot of pressure to put on a sport that is, for many, just a fun pastime. Perhaps the best explanation for this unlikely hobby comes from Nool.