Winter Surfing

Those tenacious enough to brave the winter waters can be rewarded with some of the best surfing New Hampshire has to offer.
Ralph Fatello’s son Max rides the surf last January at Hampton Beach. Waves courtesy of storm Hercules
Photos courtesy of Ralph Fatello

When you think of ocean surfing, you likely picture shimmering waves, tanned surfers with salt-sprayed hair working across the crests of waves in precise, effortless movements. The sun beats down on the water and sandy shore as bathers frolic near and in the ocean, some watching as the surfers work the waves. Maybe there are cries of gulls, laughter of children or the strains of music coming from a blanket. This iconic summer scene is played out over and over on beaches throughout the coast, but picture a surfing scene in mid-January and you may not get the same warm, fuzzy feeling.

The winter surfers along New Hampshire’s coast are likely the most committed to the sport that you will ever encounter. Enduring the frigid waters (average coastal water temp in NH is about 40°F), no matter how well suited up, requires a certain hardiness that only the most diehard surfing enthusiasts will possess — born of pure passion for the sport and a slight disregard for comfort.

But those tenacious enough to brave the winter waters can be rewarded with some of the best surfing New Hampshire has to offer, especially when storms have brought impressive swells, and they can also enjoy having the beach more or less to themselves — an unlikely scenario during the summer months. Newbies may want to try their hand at surfing first during warmer waters before attempting a winter excursion, but those interested should keep their eyes on the ocean should they find themselves mid-winter at the coast. You may just be surprised to see more than one snowy surfer rising above the waves.

Fact

In 2000, when he was 50 years old, Ralph Fatello began a surfing campaign during which he surfed every single day in New Hampshire in memory of his father. It was called “Catch A Wave For Gus.” Over the course of that year, he raised $33,000 for the American Diabetes Association. He repeated a similar feat in 2011 when he surfed every day in memory of a local girl, Molly Rowlee, who had died from lymphoma, raising $20,000 for a fund in her name.

Gear Box

In a 2013 review of the Patagonia R4 Hooded Wetsuit ($529), the owner of Cleanline Surf hailed it as the warmest wetsuit on planet earth. Designed for the most frigid waters (38-49°F), the R4 pairs Patagonia’s Limestone Neoprene outer with a merino wool liner. Designed to be virtually leak-proof, the R4 is made to last twice as long as most wetsuits and is fully warrantied against defects.

Another critical component to any winter surfing attire is footwear. As our expert points out, you cannot surf if you can’t feel your feet. The 7mm Hyperflex AMP Cold Water Wetsuit Boots ($68.99) feature super-stretch neoprene and a poly fleece lining.

Board style will vary greatly depending on the rider, but for beginners, Ralph recommends a softboard and they are more affordable as well. The 9’0” Blacktip Soft Board ($380) is a great option for first time or younger surfers between 120 and 180 lbs.

Expert Advice from Ralph Fatello

He is a bit of a local legend on the NH seacoast. In addition to surfing, he is a guitarist, filmmaker and an avid blogger. He’s served in Vietnam, has traveled the world in search of waves, surfing both coasts, Hawaii, the Caribbean, South America and was one of the first people to surf in Nova Scotia. Ralph is a husband and father to three grown children and lives in Hampton.

How and when did you first fall in love with surfing? I saw surfing on a black and white TV in the summer of 1963. I was instantly mesmerized by what I saw. I begged my parents to move to Hawaii; they laughed at me. One day late in the summer of 1963 my dad pointed out some waves breaking on the beach and said, “If you had a surfboard you could surf those waves.” The next summer I got my first board. This past summer marked my 50th year surfing.

Tell me about the first time you tried winter surfing. Was it better or worse than you imagined? My friends and I started winter surfing in 1966. We were pioneers as far as winter surfing in New England. It was exciting. Especially when our parents freaked out that we were doing it. The wetsuits we had back then were “divers” suits, and it was very stiff to move around in them. Plus the water got in very easily. So it was cold, and we couldn’t last very long in those old suits. But looking back at it today it will always be a special time in my life to know that we pioneered a lot of the breaks that the kids surf today.

What are some of the challenges/benefits of surfing on our little coastline? I think the fact that you are surfing in the winter is already a challenge. Mostly a mental challenge. But today’s wetsuits make it far easier. The benefits are obvious. There are fewer surfers in the water. The winter surf is typically bigger than the summer waves. So that always makes it far more motivating. And anytime you surf over rocks is always a challenge. If you are a beginner, you should stay away from the rocky points and reef breaks and just surf the sand bottom beach breaks.

How do you protect yourself in frigid waters? You simply need to have a decent wetsuit with winter boots and gloves. Most surfers wear 5/4/3 mm with an attached hood. The extremities are important to keep warm. Lose feeling in your feet and it’s like surfing on stumps. So I recommend 7mil boots. The rest of the seasons you wear the appropriate suits. Usually 4/3 with 5mil boots and gloves in the fall and spring. And 3/2 in the summer. No boots or gloves needed in the summer. As far as actual boards? That all depends on your skill level. Winter surf for those who know what they are doing have longer and thicker boards than what they would ride in the summer months, unless you are surfing hurricane surf. But most shortboarders ride anything from 5'5" to upwards of 7'. Beginners and intermediate surfers ride longboards year-round. Unless you are a true longboarder, you might want to try the soft top boards. Those things are great for beginners.

Any sage words of advice? Respect those who have been doing this longer than you. Learn the code of surfing. Know your limitations. There’s no shame in not paddling out if the surf is 10' and grinding, and it’s snowing. Surfing is supposed to be fun. If you are not having fun, you should try something else.  NH

Categories: Outsider, Winter Sports

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