Wednesday, February 4

I knew I was in trouble a couple of weeks ago when the marine forecast gave the swell size but added a caveat: “smaller in areas of sea ice”. Sea ice? In Block Island Sound? Are you fucking kidding? Sure the temperature had been well below freezing for a couple of weeks, but the ocean doesn’t freeze until the water gets down to about -5C and the surf forecast said the sea temperature was still at positive 3C. Maybe there was ice in the bays near big rivers where the water is less salty. Anyway, it certainly suggested that my next surf was going to be on the cool side. My surf buddy Oscar and I also wondered if loose chunks of ice might be a hazard.

So, you can imagine that I went to Rhode Island today with some trepidation. Not only was the water very cold, but I hadn’t surfed for over a month thanks to the longest winter flat spell I can remember. And the last time I did surf was in Australia, in the southern summer. That should make for a nice contrast with a New England winter.

At first things went ok. I judged the wind correctly and drove straight to a spot that was breaking well (the break is a few hundred meters south of Point Judith near Narragansett). The wind was directly offshore and about 6 guys were out enjoying shoulder high waves with the occasional head-high set. I gently placed my board on a snow drift (no danger of dings) then engaged my 6mm wetsuit in the usual battle to see if I could squeeze into the damn thing. To help keep my feet warm I changed in the middle of the road where there was no ice or snow melt (hopping to the side as the occasional car came past). Finally, I win the battle and I’m in my suit (picture me as a cross between a seal and the Michelin man) and ready to scramble down the rocks to the water. I paddled out and, much to my surprise, I caught an excellent wave to start out. Because it was a point break I was able to paddle out around the waves and I barely even had to get wet.

Then things started to go pear shaped. For some reason I couldn’t cleanly catch another wave (well, the likely reason is that I’m a SPAZ). First, I was nose-diving. In Australia I had borrowed my friend Arran’s 5 foot 8 single fin and I was finding the transition back to a 7 foot board a little strange (and, let’s not forget, I’m a SPAZ). Of course, nose diving leads to wipeouts and wipeouts lead to being underwater. They also lead to being ‘caught inside’ which means having to duck-dive more waves to get back out. This also means being underwater.

The body doesn’t like being immersed in 3C water. It’s strange though, it’s not really that you feel cold. It’s more of a jolt or shock. You’re body just says “something is really wrong here” at the top of its voice. I would compare the sensation to suddenly being slapped during an intense conversation. So, rather than thinking “I’m cold”, I’m thinking something like: “But I love the ocean, and I drove so far to see it, why is it treating me this way?”

I decide to put a stop to this nose-diving business by sitting further back on my board and catching waves closer to their breaking point. This is a very good strategy, IF YOU’RE NOT A SPAZ! Having failed to take this into account, I get in position and take a very late drop. The thing about a late drop is you have only a split second. I spent that split second thinking ‘oh shit!’ and then enjoyed a savage wipeout. (Of course, the correct technique is not to think ANYTHING and just leap to your feet.) I went over the falls and got pushed down deep then sucked back upwards but, before I broke the surface, I was dragged back down and along by the whitewater. It was the first time I’ve ever had a long hold-down in true winter conditions. It is a rich experience for the senses. First, you get the dizziness of being tumbled around. Add the fear of hitting the rock bottom (the break I was at even has a few exposed boulders to take into account). Then there is the grip of the cold. Being tumbled around causes water to rush into even the best wetsuit but the cold mainly shocks the face because that’s where you’re totally exposed. And, let’s not forget that, as the hold-down continues, you start to miss oxygen. You REALLY miss oxygen.

That wipeout had me spooked, so my wave catching skills didn’t improve. After paddling for, and missing, a bunch of waves I finally got the kind of ride that sends me back to the surf at every opportunity. I caught another wave late but, instead of being an idiot, I just jumped to my feet and made the drop. Yeah baby! I then did one of my patented awkward bottom turns and rode for a good 40 meters. The stoke from that wave had me paddling back out enthusiastically even though my fingers were starting to freeze.

I didn’t catch any other decent waves of course. I wiped out a few more times and rode a couple of mushy shoulders but that was it. By the time I paddled in my fingers were difficult to move and my tight wetsuit was giving me shoulder spasms. Then I went back to the car where the real ordeal begins . . . getting out of my wetsuit. It usually takes me at least 15 minutes while shivering in the winter wind. I was able to change out of the snow in the middle of the road again but even there my feet froze once I took off my booties. They seemed almost translucent by the time I put socks on them. I had the heater on full all the way home and it was half an hour before I could move my toes comfortably and I was still getting pins and needles from the thaw as I arrived back in New Haven an hour and a half later.

Anyway, looks like there’s going to be swell on Saturday so at least I don’t have to wait long till I can go surfing again. Wohoo!

P.S. Thanks to Brad for lending me his car today. Hopefully Oscar or Jeremy (car owning surfer friends) will want to go on Saturday.


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