The Miracle Break

There is a secret surf spot in Boston. It's about 20 minutes from the State House, without traffic, and nearly impossible to pick out. When the conditions are just right, though, it becomes a kind of urban nirvana. And that makes it a place the regulars will do almost anything to defend...

Along with hurricanes, the mighty New England nor’easter can deliver swells, too. Since these storms move in from the northeast, the waves they produce don’t have to make that turn around the Cape. The trouble with a nor’easter, though, is that it also brings the kind of weather that can ruin waves near the shore, pounding them with heavy winds, reducing them to a choppy mess.

What the particulars of wave mechanics and undersea features add up to is tremendous unpredictability at the Break. “It’s so fickle,” says Hanson (who, in keeping with the secrecy of the Break, asked that his name be changed). He estimates that the waves are rideable—big enough to stand up and surf on without prompting you to wonder whether you should have stayed home—less than 45 days each year, and legitimately good around 12 times annually. And he’s not even talking about whole days. Each of those sessions might last just a few hours before the wind intensifies, the tide changes, and the waves disappear. Because of the factors involved, wind charts and buoy readings that indicate how large the swells are in the middle of Massachusetts Bay aren’t much use. “The eyeball is best,” says Hanson. Indeed, most of the hard-cores live within a few minutes of the Break, and drive by as often as possible to check the conditions. To find the waves worth riding, that’s what I start doing, too.

 

The first time I paddle out, the air is cold, thick, and damp. As I head into the water, a lone surfer is walking out, red-faced. He’s a regular here, and looks the part, brawny and aged. Many of the locals resemble hardened fishermen, not the sinewy, six-packed surf studs you see in movies. Their standards are different from those poster boys’, too. The waves today are fairly small, but that doesn’t bother this man. “Guys whine, ‘Oh, it’s too small.’ Go to Hawaii then!”

We start talking about the Break, but he cuts our conversation short. The tide is changing, and he wants me to get out there and catch a few before the ocean flattens out. The Break is offering an opportunity, and he doesn’t want me to miss it.

The surface of the sea is glass-smooth, the waves 3 feet tall and rolling in steadily. The water is nearly ice-cold, in the low 40s, but I remind myself that this is toasty compared with the heart of winter, when the temperature dips near freezing and the regulars spend hours out here regardless. Wysocki, the surf store owner, is tall, thin, and 34 years old, with longish hair and a goatee. He doesn’t look particularly hardy. But he tells me later, not bragging, just matter-of-fact, that throughout the winter it’s not uncommon for him to surf for two hours straight. Other guys he knows will stay out twice as long; they’ll run back to their cars to pour a Thermos of hot water down their wetsuits, then paddle back out for more. They’ll surf in the snow and the rain, and they aren’t dissuaded by the fact that the wax on their boards sometimes turns black from the jet fuel exhaust that falls from the sky and collects in a film on the sea’s surface. Hanson and a friend once surfed for two hours at night, using the light from street lamps to find their way. If you happen to be there when the Break offers rideable waves, you surf. No matter what.

Given all this, I should consider myself blessed. It’s daytime, and the water is harsh but not frigid. A broken strand of kelp floats by; a pair of seagulls dive for fish. Despite the slightly unnatural color of the water, it almost feels like nature. With the city back over my shoulder, I sit up on my board and face the approaching swells. A wide mound of water rolls in. The section nearest me stands up taller, transforming from a gentle hill into a 4-foot-high wall. I turn, paddle, jump to my feet, and sweep down to the right, sneaking in a turn and a half before the rest of the wave collapses into whitewater. The fog has thickened. Now even the weather-beaten houses are hard to discern.

They aren’t perfect swells, offering only small, three-to-five-second-long rides. They don’t pack much punch, and the taste of the water has me convinced that I’ll ride out of here with an infection. Plus, I’m no hardened local. I’m freaking cold.

But I’m also alone. Two million people are working in tall buildings just a few miles away, and I’m by myself with these waves. Instead of natural beauty, what the Break offers is the potential for peace and solitude, a kind of oneness with the ocean that completely liberates you from time and place.

surfing in boston

You can’t quite see the heart of Boston from the Break, but the effect of its proximity is obvious. These are very much urban waves crashing before a city beach. The air can taste like a sea breeze or the asphalt-tinged winds of the Mass. Pike. (Photographs by the kozowyk brothers)

Even in New England, where one might not expect crowds, decent surf breaks can beckon throngs. The well-known break at Point Judith in Rhode Island, for instance, gets bogged down with as many as 100 surfers on a good day. To avoid packs like this, surfers scour maps for coastal nooks and crannies in search of undiscovered breaks. “All surfers are living in this perpetual state of wanting more,” says Matt Warshaw, author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing. “If you’ve got this spot, you’ll use intimidation, vandalizing, even violence to keep people out.”

Being a peaceful sort, I was at first a little wary about paddling out into Boston’s secret surf spot. Yet my introduction to the place wasn’t as hostile as I feared. Sure, I was interrogated during an early visit, but a few waves later, the same person who’d angrily asked me how I’d discovered the Break complimented me on my board. Catch a particularly nice wave, and you’re likely to earn whoops and hollers from your fellow riders, not the competitive, I-can-do-better stares common at the more popular spots. The regulars take turns and conduct casual, across-the-water conversations. “It’s not about going out there and trying to be a pro surfer,” Wysocki says.

That solo day I enjoyed isn’t a rarity, but at the same time, the crowds have begun to arrive. On some days there might be 30 riders in the water. Even on these overpopulated days, though, the Break can retain that rare friendly vibe.

The dedicated regulars insist that it can offer near-perfect waves, too. Hanson has surfed all over the world, and he says that when conditions are right, the spot is truly special. “When it’s good,” he says, “it’s amazing. There are big, hollow barrels breaking over a foot of water. I’ve caught waves a hundred yards out and ridden them all the way in to the beach, hopped right off my board onto the rocks, and walked off.”

These transcendent sessions happen only a few times a year, at most. I’ve spent nearly a year stalking the Break and never seen one. In fact, I don’t even think it’s the legendary days that the regulars are protecting. The Break, with all its complexities and unpredictability, reserves those swells for the small, lucky group that lives close enough to check the ocean daily and has the occupational flexibility to ride waves at 2:30 on a Wednesday, if that’s what’s required.

Instead, they’re guarding the experience of surfing with people who will ride in snow and rain, through shit and sewage, and walk out smiling—people who understand that knee-high waves in the middle of winter can deliver as much joy as clean barrels in the heat of summer.

Then again, maybe the magic of the Break is simpler than that. Maybe it reduces to an instinct that there just shouldn’t be a surf break here. As Hanson puts it: “To be able to surf in Massachusetts Bay? That’s pretty tops.”

 

Gregory Mone is a contributing editor at Popular Science.