Winter does different things to different places. In Hawaii and Florida, it doesn’t change the water temperatures too dramatically. On the west coast and in the northeast, though, water temps plummet, swells take on a slate grey harshness, and the surfing experience becomes the yang to summer’s yin.
At 90th Street in Rockaway Beach, bootied, gloved, and hooded surfers trot across snow to ride sub-40° A-frames. Those short interval southeast swells can really kick your ass. At Sea Girt in New Jersey one icy December I remember getting caught inside so relentlessly, so whack! whack! whack! I thought I was going to go into a grand-mal seizure. Never have head-high waves hurt so bad. Never has the cranial freeze felt so personal.
At Rincon, surfers don 4-3 full suits and booties and lay into about 27 bottom turns across infinite bottle-green walls. In the evening, the light takes on a bluish crispness, the pelicans swoop, the sunsets vibrate in brilliant color. It’s as if the chill in the air washes away some miasma we don’t so much see as feel. The barnacle-encrusted rocks emit a more pungent smell. The seals seem to bark louder. The surf life appears more visceral.
I think of Maverick’s as the quintessence of winter’s cruelty. Mountainous widow’s peak of a wave, water like icy cement, thick wetsuits to semi-straitjacket you, a stand of rocks on the inside hungrily awaiting your fleshy corpus. There’s nothing kind or welcoming about it. And to make matters worse, it breaks way the hell out there. And gets real crowded, ensuring that you’ll go on waves you’d likely pass on if not for the fifty other 9’6”-wielding hell men and -women.
And I think of New Year’s morning as the best time to score uncrowded surf. A six-foot northwest swell at an undisclosed North County reef break some five years ago. Bluebird skies, sapphire seas, a pod of kelp just outside the takeoff zone. Look left—no one. Look right—one other guy, though he’s a couple hundred yards away. A set looms. A double-overhead peak stands up right before you like some long lost lover. Your insides dance. You wheel around, stroke.