Winter Surfing

The first time I saw people surfing off Maine’s frigid North Atlantic shore in the middle of February, I thought they were crazy.  The water temperature was around 39° and the air temperature was in the teens. Yet, there they were, paddling out to where the waves were breaking, and then riding them back to shore.  Again, and again, and again.

What are they thinking, I wondered? This is nuts!

I had formed an instant opinion of these surfers– and it wasn’t a positive one.

But I’ve since changed my mind.

It all started when I took seriously my own question, “What are they thinking?”  Really, what are they thinking, I wondered.  What motivates someone to go surfing in the winter? The water and air must be cold to the point of being painful on the way to numbing.  And it must be downright dangerous to be out there.

The only reason you would do something that seems this risky – at least to this skeptic who can barely tread water – is that there is a big payoff.  So what is it?

Some months after I posed my question, I learned of a film in the “Made Here” series (produced in New England) about the people who surf the waves off the coast of northern New England in the winter.  The surfers who were interviewed gave me a lot to think about.

As I watched and listened, I was struck by the skill, focus, and commitment of these athletes.  The ocean in winter is nothing to be trifled with and those interviewed are acutely aware of that.  They have no illusions about their vulnerability in the ocean’s temperamental waters.  They know that they can’t afford to let their attention drift when they’re standing on a board, riding a large ice-cold wave. When asked why they do this, their individual answers contained some common threads, including:

  • a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, and increasing mastery,
  • feeling healthy and being energized for the rest of the day,
  • connection with like-minded people,
  • a natural high,
  • a spiritual experience,
  • a feeling of being part of something much larger than oneself,
  • perspective on the world and one’s place in it.

Who wouldn’t benefit from the items on this list?

My initial ridicule of the winter surfers has turned into admiration and inspiration.

It seems to me that we all need activities that generate these qualities in our lives.  It doesn’t have to be a something as extreme as winter surfing.  It doesn’t even have to be a sport.  It might be something artistic or creative.

I think it does need to be something both enjoyable and challenging; something that requires skill and focus and instills a sense of accomplishment.  Ideally, it also helps us to also feel connected to others and the world around us.

And it should be something we do just because we want to. When we engage in activities with these qualities, they can help us lead more balanced and healthier lives. And they help to build resilience that can be drawn upon when we’re faced with adversity.

If you’d like to see the video I talked about, it can be found here: