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Sub Zero Sessions

Head high, perfectly peeling, and perfectly frigid

I come from a small town in Nova Scotia. By and large, we do very little to dispel commonly held stereotypes of Canadians. Our women are pretty, tough, and can drink more beer than you. Our men are hairy, tough, and can drink more beer than you. We can all take a slapshot. We are quick to laugh and slow to anger, but fierce when roused. We have some of the worst winter weather on Earth, that we suffer through by barricading the door, making babies, and drinking more beer than you.

Myself, a handful of local lads, and an Irish import make up our small crew of surfers. We learned a long time ago that it’s best not to tell people here that we surf through the winter. It’s just not worth it. They seem to either think that we’re kidding or deranged.

I prefer… dedicated.

There’s a ritual. The night before a swell, we eat like prisoners. Exercise in the cold doesn’t necessarily burn more calories, but paddling in a 6/5/4 wetsuit does. In the morning, we pack our suits, gloves (7mm), boots (8mm), food, and a thermos of hot tea. We bundle up, strap the boards on the car, and drive for an hour to the Atlantic coast. Along the way, we get very strange looks from other motorists. As we get close, we put our boots and gloves on the windshield heater so they will be warm when we put them on. The water will be hovering just around the freezing point, and the air will be much colder. The wind chill can sometimes hit forty below.

In the winter the snowplows don’t bother to clear some of the back roads that we must traverse, so we are often forced to park the car well out of sight of the water, struggle into our suits, and set off through the snow. The long trek can be a blessing, however, as it elevates the heart rate and gets the blood flowing. We trudge on through the snow, straining through our hoods to hear the telltale sound of water crashing against stone. We’ve come to know this crazy coastline well, but finding just the right spot for constantly changing swell and wind conditions is an art that we are still learning. Finally, the snow thins and we carefully make our way over ice covered rocks to get our first glimpse of the ocean. With luck on our side, we are greeted with the sweetest sight: long, clean lines peeling down the point. No one around but a few curious seals.

There is the odd Great White in Atlantic Canada. A seventeen footer was caught off PEI in the eighties, and a large one allegedly sunk a small fishing boat off Cape Breton in the fifties. Their numbers have declined in recent years to the point that there has been a push to declare them an endangered species in the area. Even though it is too small to ever do any damage to a big fish, and even though everyone laughs at me, I always wear a knife strapped to my leg in the water. It somehow makes me feel better to know I can go down fighting if it comes to it. The chances of coming to blows with one here are infinitesimal, but the thought of the long walk back to the car and the longer drive back to civilization is unsettling. Any injury for that matter could quickly become a serious problem in these remote places, so we make a point of never surfing alone. When you are cold and stiff it is much easier to pull or tear muscles, and it is also easier to blow a popup, take a tumble, and get clobbered by your own board. We depend on one another to be there if anyone gets in trouble.

We stand together on shore for a few minutes, grinning, stretching, waiting for a lull. The winter waves can be wild and powerful. It’s usually very windy, but if you know where to go you can find spots every bit as clean and consistent as the autumn hurricane swells.

Winter surfing is a very mental game. You have to convince yourself that it’s really not that cold as you step into the water and launch. If you’ve timed it right, you can make it out without having to duckdive. If you haven’t, you take a deep breath, take the plunge, come up gasping, and pray that you never have to do that again. The face is the only part left exposed by our armour, but the shock of the sudden submergence is a jolt like no other. If you haven’t tightened your hood properly around your face your whole head gets flooded with frigid seawater. Some of us wear earplugs in the water in winter because the cold water and wind has been known to gradually cause the ear canal to close up.

Shake it off. Keep paddling, keep moving, stay warm. Make it to the lineup, and for christsake, pay attention to outside sets. You do not want to get caught inside out there and get held down in that water.

The reward for all of this is something very simple and basic that every surfer can understand. Fantastic waves, with no one out but you and your friends. Is it worth it? Absolutely. To me, there is something so pure and beautiful about winter surfing because it shows just how far people will go for the love of a sport. In a way, it really allows you to create something from nothing, because if you are willing to make that commitment, it can turn the coldest, nastiest day of the year into one of the best days you’ve ever had.

We surf until we are literally on the brink of hypothermia, stubbornly refusing to accept that our feet went numb an hour ago. We all wait for that eternal ‘one more wave’ until we’re finally all shivering on shore. Our lips are too cold to move, so we just chuckle and start stumbling back through our footsteps, trying hard not to let our frozen fingers drop our boards on the rocks. Back at the car, we start the engine immediately and crank the heat. We shed our suits as quickly as possible, then huddle in the car, waiting to defrost. When we feel life returning to our limbs we strap the boards on and head home. We talk about our waves. We laugh about our wipeouts.

We feel remarkably alive.

Cheers, boys. We earned it.

Hugh MacDonald

Hugh lives in Nova Scotia, Canada. He chases cold waves up and down the rocky coastline year round, and is blessed to have a beautiful better half who understands why.

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11 years ago

Beautiful piece. You managed to completely capture the casual exuberance that surfing allows.

12 years ago

Hi Hugh- Nice blog. I’d lie to explore the coast of Nova Scotia some fall. Is there a email I can contact you regarding some questions I have?

13 years ago

nice hugh, hope you and your surf partners and your “BETTER HALF” all have a grand time!

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