Make no mistake: Cold-weather surfing is hard. Your eyelashes can freeze together. A single stray hair can solidify and break of. You can slip on a chunk of ice and plunge into dangerously cold water. You can feel temperature-induced pain in your forehead, the infamous “ice cream headache.” But if you do it right, and you really love to surf, South County is a fantastic place to catch some winter waves.
Just ask Tricia Pan, who co-owns Narragansett Surf and Skate. Pan grew up in a surfing family – her father is the legendary Rhode Island surfer Peter Pan – and she received her first winter suit at 12 years old. “The wetsuit technology has come a long way from when I was a kid, that’s for sure,” says Pan. “That’s a big thing, when you finally get your own suit. It’s just like when you get your own surfboard – it’s a whole new world. The first time, you feel cold, but you’re not wet. It’s not until it starts creeping in that you feel the wet. But it’s not that bad. And after a little bit, you start to warm up again.”
Thermal materials are vital for winter surfers. Suits can measure six millimeters thick and come with hoods and gloves. Only the face is ever exposed to frigid ocean, and participants tend to look like wave-riding ninjas. Hardy athletes can ease their way into fall and spring surfing, adapting to thicker activewear and chillier waters.
So why would anyone do this? More chances to hang ten – and in one of the best locations in the Northeast. Summer only lasts so long, but proper insulation makes four-season surfing possible. Pan says the best swells usually come between late August and October, thanks to hurricane season, but it’s possible to perform pop-ups all winter long. Hundreds of Rhode Island surfers ride their boards all year, heading down to places like Central Beach in Charlestown, where they may be the only living souls on the sand. Last month, Narragansett Town Beach hosted the New England Mid-Winter Surfing Championships, an annual tradition since 1968.
“You have to love it,” says Pan, who offers cold-weather surfing classes for newbies.
“Like any kind of crazy, you creep in slow. People in California have no idea.”
Narragansett Surf and Skate