It’s 35 degrees outside, and all Andrew Marsden can think about is catching a killer wave. Other people head indoors once the temperature takes a nosedive, but not Marsden: Instead, the 43-year-old surfer tugs on his wetsuit and gets ready to leap headfirst into the frigid Atlantic Ocean. Winter surfing brings plenty of hazards, like hypothermia, but Marsden just hopes he won’t hit another iceberg.
“Last year I was surfing in Boston Harbor and a chunk of ice the size of a refrigerator door suddenly rolled out of the water and struck the side of my surfboard,” he tells Smithsonian.com. “I didn’t have enough time to react, so it cut right through my fiberglass board and left a two-foot hole.”
With his board fixed and ego intact, Marsden is ready to get back out in the surf and compete in the 48th annual New England Mid-Winter Surfing Championships, which will take place February 20 at Narragansett Town Beach in Rhode Island. Since 1968, surfers as brave—or as crazy—as Marsden have flocked to this tiny coastal town 30 miles south of Providence in the hopes of qualifying for larger competitions across the United States and the world. In 2015, approximately 30 men and women and children of all ages competed, jockeying for qualifying spots in other contests and vying for winter-themed trophies featuring chilly icons like skiers.
The annual event is held by the Eastern Surfing Association, whose coverage stretches from Maine to Florida's Gulf Coast. At 10,000 members strong, it’s the largest amateur surfing association in the world. (Eleven-time world champion and Florida native Kelly Slater got his start surfing with the ESA when he was a kid.)
Peter “Pan” Panagiotis, who has served as the ESA’s regional director since 1972, says the championships are the world’s longest continuously running surfing event. Pan has been surfing since he was 13, and the now 66-year-old surfboard designer and instructor says it's never been canceled due to snowstorms or other types of foul weather. “We do it no matter what,” he tells Smithsonian.com. “We’ve shoveled snow [from the parking lot] to the beach a couple of times over the years.”
It might sound insane to want to surf in water temperatures that average about 32 degrees, but Pan says the perks far outweigh the cold. “During the winter, the beaches are practically empty,” he says. “The only people in the water are surfers.”
There’s another benefit of winter surfing: larger waves thanks to nor’easters, storm surges along the East Coast that typically occur between September and April and are caused by northeasterly winds traveling from the ocean to the coastline. The weather pattern results in waves up to 12 feet in height, compared to ones a quarter of that size in the summertime. Not that it’s without risk—the danger of hypothermia leads surfers to don six-millimeter-thick wetsuits, gloves and booties before jumping into the ocean. A few swipes of Chapstick on eyebrows, eyelids and lips help prevent chapping and keep ice from sticking. Otherwise, says Marsden, your eyes will dry shut.
“There’s also what’s known as the surfer’s whistle,” says Marsden. “You’ll hear surfers whistling tunes out in the water, because once you lose control of your lips, you’re in the beginning stages of hypothermia.” He swears by dumping a gallon of hot water into his wetsuit before getting in the water. Getting out of the surf when it’s cold and windy can also prove challenging, but Marsden has it down to an art: He puts a plastic bin outside his car door and stands in it while flooding his wetsuit with more warm water, stripping down to his underwear and hopping in his heated car. It may look weird, but Marsden says “it’s better than standing naked in the snow.”
Marsden’s daily surfing sessions also help keep him ready for competition. Last year, he took first place in two categories and advanced on to the Northeast Regional Championships. This year, he hopes to do the same—he has his eye on the much warmer ESA Easterns Surfing Championships in Nags Head, North Carolina. Even if he doesn’t qualify, Marsden will still head to the beach every day with a gallon of hot water swaddled in a towel in the backseat of his car.
“I’ve never not surfed because of the temperature,” he says. “If we get a snowstorm, as soon as the wind dies down, I’m out in the water. I see it as five minutes of pain to get in and out with five hours of intense pleasure in between.”