Surfing raw winter waves

Island surfers defy snow and frigid temperatures to enjoy a winter swell.

From left, Elie Jordi, Eli Hanschka, and Whit Hanschka walk along a snow-covered path to Stonewall beach and the waiting waves. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The wave rose out of the slate-gray ocean, and continued to build in height. I turned and paddled. The energy of the wave pushed my surfboard forward. Jumping to my feet, I whistled down the face of the wave, and set in my bottom turn. Carving up and down the face of the wave filled me with a sense of enthusiasm that cut through the freezing temperature — 22° just after sunrise.

I was part of a small group of dedicated surfers who braved the elements to surf off Stonewall in Chilmark last Thursday morning. It may surprise some, but Martha’s Vineyard is home to a small but vibrant surfing community.

The changing sandbars and reefs provide surfers with a variety of surf spots, depending on the direction of the swell. Beginning in late June, with the arrival of tourists, a diverse crowd of locals and vacationers takes to the water. To escape the crowds, I and some other Islanders surf in the winter, and take advantage of the season to visit deserted beaches normally off-limits.

It was 5 am when I slipped out the front door of my house, covered head to toe in six millimeters of neoprene wetsuit. The moon and stars were bright overhead. I passed by the Allen Farm; the snow-covered pastures glistened as dawn broke. My anticipation built as I wondered whether the morning conditions would reward my early start.

I arrived to a satisfying sight: waves. In the parking lot I was greeted by fellow surfer and friend Eli Hanschka, a regional high school senior, and his dad, Whit, a blacksmith, who taught me to surf when I was just 10. We have all been surfing together ever since.

Surfing during the winter requires a different attitude. Thick wetsuits, gloves, and booties offer protection against frigid ocean — 31° when I last checked. A surfer’s face is exposed to the full force of the elements, the Achilles’ heel of the seal-like suit.

“The special part about winter surfing, for me, is the isolation,” Eli Hanschka said when asked to describe the attraction. “There are a lot fewer surfers who are willing to endure the chilling waters and cold temperatures for good waves, so it is rare to see more than 10 people out.”

We walked up to the bluff and assessed the condition of swell. Thoroughly satisfied by the clean six-foot swells rolling in, we waxed the surface of our surfboards to provide better traction, and trekked through the snow and down to the water. Any hesitation I might have had disappeared at the sight of the waves. I ran down the beach just as sun began to rise above the dark horizon.

The water was frigid. Wading chest-deep, I stood patiently and waited for a lull. When the opportunity arrived, I jumped on my board, cupped my mittens, and paddled. The approach of a wave, and the prospect of a frigid swim, inspired me to quicken my pace. I made it, joining Eli and Whit beyond the breaking zone, unscathed and warm.

We sat bobbing, waiting patiently for the right wave. Ninety-five percent of a surf session is spent waiting for a good wave. It’s time I take to think and appreciate my natural surroundings. In my busy schedule, it is a rare opportunity. Whether I catch a wave or not, the moments are not wasted.

Whit described the feeling of riding a wave: “Surfing has an incredible combination of natural beauty, physical challenge, and graceful exhilaration. Riding a wave is elegance on the edge of chaos.”

The downside of riding a wave in the winter comes at the watery conclusion. As the wave began to close in around me, I jumped off my board. The temperature shock stunned me. The power of the wave and underwater turbulence twisted and contorted my body as I rose to the surface. I grabbed for my board and attempted to control my frenzied breathing. Nauseated and cold, I paddled back out. The thrill eliminated any thought of heading for shore. I went back out to the lineup and caught three more rides. Numb extremities and the approaching start of school at 7:40 am put an end to the magical surf session.

Out of the water and on the rocky beach, time was of the essence. I threw my surfboard in the back of my car and dressed for school, rejuvenated and satisfied by my morning adventure.

I pulled into the high school parking lot late for school. A teacher might have concluded I was an irresponsible teen who had overslept. If only she could share the beauty of my morning meditation.