The Northeast's Endless Winter

Rich McMullin

Weather wise, it's been a rough winter for the northeast. But if you're a surfer like New Jersey's Rob Kelly, Ryan Mack, and Andrew Gesler you're probably not complaining. The surf has been all-time.

From the shallows to the reef and the deep water beyond, the water is more shades of blue than Crayola has in its repertoire. Even on the small days, there's surf to be found somewhere. Often, ferocious mornings test your mettle then they fade into carefree afternoon sessions followed by a fresh fruit drink and fish on the grill. From Central America, the South Pacific, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Indonesia, the tropics have long defined our surfing ideal.

But it's everyone else's ideal as well. Forget the mayhem of the North Shore. For every Mexican river mouth or Tahitian reef pass, there is not only a local contingent, but scores of travelers who have been dreaming about those famous leg burners or that perfect bowl section. How often have you arrived at tropical perfection to be turned off by the mob of other surfers?

One surf company even tells us "Life is Better in Board Shorts." Maybe, but it is also a lot more crowded. Turns out, everyone wants paradise.

The Northeast's Endless Winter

So what does today's surfer have to do to get uncrowded waves? You could spend two months salary to get to some remote island in the Mentawais and find six other charter boats already there. Canadians are scouring the coast of British Columbia for coves and slabs. Europe was charted long ago.

But there is a section of coast, right here in the U.S. that has had some fantastic days this winter. And they're not all that remote. In fact, most of them are within an hour or two of Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Mike Gleason, who often spends a month of winter posted up at the Volcom house on the North Shore battling for a few gems at Backdoor, has been on something of a local surf trip this winter, getting meaty pits from his own neighborhood in Long Branch, N.J., all the way up through New England.

"This winter has been incredible -- Not only a lot of swells, but a lot of good swells. It's been the coldest year I can remember, and some of the coldest water I've ever surfed in," says Gleason, one of the East Coast's most respected barrel riders.

The active weather pattern that has made the Mid Atlantic and Northeast the new snow belt, has also bought one swell after another this winter. Now bear in mind that East Coast winter swells usually go something like this: Waves are flat, winds come onshore, storm approaches, snow, rain, sleet or combination of all three, swell builds, wind goes offshore, surf fires if the tide is right, swell is over. You can also add in the potential factor of your town flooding or having to dig out from three feet of snow. But you get the idea.

This winter hasn't just been extremely active, it's been extremely cold, even between polar vortexes.

"The consistency and quality of surf can be directly related to the jet stream pattern over the East Coast. The stubborn deep trough over the Eastern half of the U.S. has persisted for much of 2014, allowing storm systems to develop further south and move northward up the coast before moving offshore. This is one of the ideal tracks for Mid Atlantic surf, allowing building wind swell in before the storm system moves far off the coast," says Micah Sklut of, an East Coast-based forecast site.

"In contrast, some winters can be filled with 'clipper' systems, which just move down from Canada and bring offshore winds without building surf."

But here's the deal: Not a lot of people like to surf in 33-degree water and fewer will surf when the air is so much colder that the ocean is steaming. East Coast breaks turn into donkey shows when the water warms up. Sure, wetsuit technology has come a long way, but it still takes an extreme level of dedication to surf through a winter like this. Hence, if you want to get waves to yourself, you can probably find them in North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine during this type of winter.

"I don't mind the cold. As long as there is surf, it doesn't bother me. I actually prefer it, because like big surf, the cold is crowd control. This winter I surfed the biggest waves I have ever surfed on our coast at 15-to-20-foot faces. It was an adventure to say the least, one will be talked about for a while," adds Gleason. It's been a wonderland for photographers as well.

"Finally a real New England winter," exclaims noted Maine photographer, Nick LaVecchia, "I live for this, even when it's -38 at sunrise with eight inches of snow falling weekly, ocean temps hovering at freezing and occasionally sea ice forming along the coast."

There's nothing like surfing in boardshorts. But there are so few empty waves in the tropics anymore. Even that once-in-a-while wave gets mobbed with surgical swell strikes being so common.

It's unlikely that anyone is traveling to Long Island, the New Jersey Shore, or Cape Cod for the next coastal low. These swells rarely last longer than a day and chances of getting skunked are way higher than the temperature. We all know the Atlantic might just go on hiatus for three weeks at a time. But if there is a place in the continental U.S. where surfers can find him or herself surfing throaty tubes with just one or two friends, this is the coast. And this is the winter.

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