Endless Winter

It's barely after sunrise, or it would be if the sun were out, which — this being New England in the winter — it isn't. There is an unrelenting wind, however, which makes the temperature of 14 degrees feel like exactly zero. The roads along the coast are slick and empty, lined with houses shuttered for the season or whose occupants are hunkered down this morning waiting for a foot of snow to drop.

Waves lap at the concrete seawall at Hampton Beach, which is abandoned but for a handful of dog walkers leaning vainly for warmth against the desolate facades of Mad Maggie's Billiards and the Happy Hampton Arcade. A faded placard advertises winter rentals to the empty street.

North of town, beyond the honky-tonk, the houses spread out a little, the cold wind becomes tinged with the smell of salt air, and a secluded beach comes into view. This beach is white not with sand, but with snow. There is snow on the rocks, snow on the seaweed — snow everywhere except the places where the tide has pulled it out. In those places, there is a thin crust of ice. Even the seagulls seem to be shivering.

Three cars are parked along the beach, and there are footsteps in the snow that lead up to the surf and stop. Just offshore, in the direction of these footsteps, three figures covered head to toe in jet-black wetsuits bob among the whitecaps just beside a rocky break, fiberglass surfboards tethered to their ankles. Nothing is exposed but their faces, which are pink. Very, very pink.

A swell approaches that looks promising, and the surfers pick their way along it for a while. It doesn't crest. This morning's surf is mediocre, even by New England standards. Finally, one of the figures catches a wave, assumes his gunslinger crouch, and goes for a good long ride — though “long” is relative because the waves here break only about 50 feet from shore. He quickly paddles back to join his friends. Even mediocre waves are precious in a place where the surf is so fickle.

Around here, the endless summer starts in the fall and runs through spring, when the waves are driven by the winter weather and the oceanfront is empty. New England surfers live for hurricanes and nor'easters, but most of the time put up with short runs, short waves, and freezing water. They race for the east-facing beaches of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine in the worst conditions — which, of course, for them, present the best conditions — with battered boards on makeshift racks atop their cars, and industrial-sized jars of lip balm on their dashboards. They jealously guard their favorite beaches and their favorite breaks, ostracizing novice surfers who intrude at their own considerable risk. They wait weeks or even months for decent surf. When they do surf in a storm, they do it tethered to a nine-foot hunk of fiberglass in front of North Atlantic chop that pounds the jagged, shallow shoreline with enough force to capsize hardy, oceangoing fishing vessels.

It is precisely this that surfers say attracts them, along with the seclusion of New England's empty coastline in the winter. Much of the rest of New England sleeps in, forgetting that there even is an ocean out there half the year — precisely the half when it is at its most majestic. Stuffed into 6 millimeters of neoprene to stave off hypothermia, surfers often have this seascape to themselves.

New England surfers aren't the bronzed, young blonds of Malibu legend. Many are in their forties. Three out of four are men. They don't call each other “dude,” and they don't think it's funny when other people do. They range from plasterers to software engineers. But they are no less ardent about the sport than their counterparts on the more temperate Pacific coast — and possibly more passionate.

Another car, a black Land Cruiser with two surfboards on its roof, pulls up along the beach. Two men get out and huddle like referees at a football game discussing a tough call. The conditions are awful, but not awful enough to surf. “A little under par,” says one. Which, around here, is saying a lot.

New England is no more known for its surf than for its surfers. On the West Coast, surfers take for granted that there is almost always surf. On the East Coast, the conditions vary wildly not only from one hour to the next, but from one part of the beach to another.

Surfing in New England in the summer is, in general, an unexciting proposition, and not only because the beaches swarm with people. In the summers here, the wind is generally out of the Southwest, when every schoolkid praying for a snow day knows the biggest storms and strongest winds come from the Northeast. And what drives the waves is wind.

But in the winter come nor'easters, fierce storms that can blow for days at 22 to 63 knots, or about 25 to 72 miles per hour. Nor'easters are spawned when the jet stream dips far south and introduces cold arctic air to warm tropical air, generating energy that translates into wind. They are literally cyclones that, once formed, flow counterclockwise, meaning that they batter the coast with winds out of the Northeast. Since these conditions are more common in the winter, that's when winds — and surf — are at their height. Even when a storm like this occurs far offshore, it creates huge waves. In fact, ocean swells get larger when they're driven for a long time over a long distance. This distance is called the “fetch.” The greater or longer-lived the fetch, the bigger the wave.

It was a nor'easter that sank the Andrea Gail, the fishing vessel whose demise was featured in the book and film The Perfect Storm. The Blizzard of '78 was a nor'easter that killed 54 people, wrecked 2,000 homes, and caused $1 billion in damage. Even a less extreme nor'easter churns up waves as high as 12 to 15 feet — too high, it turns out, even for all but the hardiest New England surfers. “Most East Coast surfers would shy away from that kind of surf because they don't have enough experience,” says Frank Aikman, a physical oceanographer at the Coast Survey Development Laboratory of the National Ocean Service, who grew up surfing off Long Island. “That's big surf.” Most New England surfers prefer to go out on the “backside” of a nor'easter — well after the peak.

Still, true nor'easters occur here only about once a month, on average, mainly between December and March — good news for homeowners and highway crews, bad news for shovel salesmen, those hopeful schoolkids, and New England surfers.

And that's not the worst of it. Waves steepen as the water shallows, until they finally crest, or break. In New England, especially at high tide, the waves mostly break on the beach. This is called a shore break. Where there is a point protruding from the coast, the waves will sweep around it; surfers like the ones near Hampton Beach will often congregate beside a point and ride the waves from there. This is called a point break. The steeper the bottom, the steeper the waves, and the shorter the ride. And except around Cape Cod, the shoreline off New England generally rises more steeply than the sea floor off the coast of southern California. This means that the waves rise faster here, picking up and almost immediately dumping surfers right back in the icy ocean. Compare this to the inexhaustible California waves that Frankie Avalon could ride for six or seven verses. Meanwhile, a local offshore wind that's too strong can meet New England swells just as they tantalizingly approach the beach, flattening them right before the eyes of those long-suffering surfers.

On the other hand, when all the elements converge — after a moderate nor'easter out at sea with decent waves that aren't too steep at high tide on a New England beach with a gradual bottom and an onshore wind that can create a wave right out of the opening credits of Hawaii Five-0.

This almost never happens.

The wind on Ocean Boulevard is whipping the American flags so hard their poles are bending. But, as usual, it's blowing in the wrong direction — north to south, raking the coastline and flattening the swells. An occasional surfer tests the waters off the Hampton Beach seawall, or “the Wall,” as surfers call it. Most almost immediately give up.

Bob Consentino and Dave Skinner watch from the street. They brought their boards this morning in Skinner's pickup, but they know better than to bother going in. They've been doing this too long — Consentino since his wife bought him a boogie board for his birthday 15 years ago, Skinner since his brother talked him into surfing for the first time when he was 35. Now Consentino, a commercial photographer, is 46, and Skinner, a plasterer, is 45. They can set their own hours, which they do, to coincide with surf conditions. Last year, Skinner gave Consentino a calendar of tides for Christmas. “This sport keeps me in great physical condition,” Consentino says. “I can't imagine that I won't still be doing this when I'm 60.”

The two men watch the listless surf. “The surf breaks here all winter long,” Consentino swears. “One day it rained so hard, it looked like the desert in a windstorm. Instead of looking like waves, they looked like sand dunes.”

“It was beautiful,” Skinner says. “Wasn't that beautiful?”

“There is nothing that compares with winter surfing,” Consentino says. “We actually prefer the cold solitude of winter. It separates the 'cool factor' surfers from the ones who are really dedicated to the sport.”

“You have the ocean to yourself,” says Skinner. “The crowds are gone.”

“It's very Zenlike,” Consentino says. “For me, this is my Zen.”

The two men are joined by another surfer they know, Chris Grippo, who is 32 and a product manager for a software company, and Grippo's wife, Debbie, who is not a surfer and who is shivering in the wind. “The sane people realize it's very, very cold,” she says, pulling the sleeves of her sweater over her hands. “I think these guys are crazy, even being married to one. I won't even go into the water in the summer, and to think these guys get up at 5 in the morning to do it in the winter. . . . It's been very difficult to understand that.” She understands it well enough, however, that she agreed to move from Chelmsford to Hampton to be closer to the beach.

The guys are looking at some photographs that Consentino shot of a memorial to Robert Hayes of Amesbury, a surfer who was aboard American Airlines Flight 11 when it crashed into the World Trade Center. One hundred surfers came to the Wall, where Hayes had been a regular, and paddled out on their boards to form a circle. His wife and two kids watched from shore. “I might have seen him when he surfed here, I might not have seen him, but just out of respect for another surfer, I had to be there,” Grippo is saying.

“This is a very important cross section that you're looking at right here,” says Consentino, who has a shaved head and a mustache that trails down each side of his mouth, and who is wearing a leather jacket. “People who surf together are from so many walks of life.”

Which is not to say that surfers always get along. On the contrary: Many are downright hostile to the steadily increasing influx of beginners, who they think surf because they like the clothes. The experienced surfers hope it's just a passing fad. Some disdain the idea of a magazine article about their sport. “Within an hour everyone in town will know I'm talking to you,” one says over coffee at JB's Bagels, a popular surfing hangout near Hampton Beach whose owner is a surfer. Even veterans aren't welcome in some fiercely guarded breaks; if they do show up, they're frozen out. “There are some close-knit cliques that you'll never get into,” Skinner says. He shrugs. “I don't think I'd want to be in them anyway.”

More of these kinds of conflicts seem inevitable as the number of New England surfers continues to rise. Only five years old, the Massachusetts chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, an association of surfers concerned about clean water and beaches, now has 655 members. The Surfriders organize beach cleanups, run respect-the-beach classes in schools, and campaign for greater beach access. (Massachusetts is one of only two states in the nation — Maine is the other — that effectively shut off much of the coast from public use by considering private property to extend to mean low tide instead of high tide.)

A handful of the Surfriders meet one Sunday a month on folding chairs amid the multicolored fleeces and long underwear in the Patagonia store on Newbury Street, which now sells surfboards — evidence in itself, some other surfers grumble, that their sport has been appropriated as a fashion statement. Many hard-core surfers are also Surfrider members, but some deride the newcomers as the “Pata-Gucci” crowd. “What kind of people does that attract to the sport? The wrong people. They want to look cool. They want to tell their friends they're surfers,” one longtime surfer says.

“They put the board on top of their Xterra with the kayak,” says David Parks, another surfer. “Whereas guys like me got into this more out of passion — not as a fashion accessory, but as a way of life.”

Parks is still upset about the day there were so many people at his break that a novice surfer got in the way of his board. “You never would have seen that many people in the water just five years ago. There are just too many people out there who don't have respect for the water.”

Parks, who lives in Newburyport, is 38 and tall with graying hair cropped short. He's been surfing since he was a 6-year-old kid growing up in Bradford, when his parents gave him a skimboard, a flat piece of wood shaped like a breakfast tray. The idea was to throw the skimboard on an outgoing wave and stand up on it. He got his first real surfboard when he was 16, as soon as he was old enough to drive to the beach.

After college, Parks moved to California to live the surfing life. He rented a trailer, drove a Volkswagen Beetle, and worked framing houses above Monterey Bay. “It was the whole surf-bum lifestyle,” he says. “Work all day, strap the boards onto the Beetle. That car was so banged up that some days we had to push it to the beach.”

When he returned to Boston, he started surfing off Nantasket Beach in Hull. “A lot of Bostonians, you tell them you surf, they sort of scratch their heads. They have no idea there's surf so close.” The surfers liked it that way. “There's that New England coldness in terms of attitude. It's territorial. Not a word, not a nod, not an acknowledgment, not a hello.” It was a stark contrast to his friends in California. Parks understands it, though. “In other places, you have a consistent break. Here you have this three- or four-hour window of opportunity in the morning and the afternoon, and the break may be 100 yards wide.” Too many people in the way, and even that small opening gets smaller. “It's not like skiing,” says another surfer. “The mountain's always there. But there's a limited amount of waves.”

Surfers try to get ahead of the swell as it steepens, right in front of the whitewater in the breaking part of the wave, which is called the curl. The place where everybody sits and waits for this is called the pit. “The person closest to where the wave is going to break, that's his wave,” one surfer says. “If you're farther down the line, you can't take that wave. That's called dropping in, and in a lot of places it will earn you a fist in the face.”

Parks holds even more scorn for nonsurfers who buy into what he calls the Jeff Spicoli stereotype, after the character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High whose motto was, “Hey, bud, let's party!” “The opposite is true,” says Parks. “Most surfers are passionate about what they do.”

Like many surfers in New England, Parks is drawn as much by the experience of being on the ocean in the winter as he is by the challenge of the sport. He left his job at a high-tech firm and is training to become a brewmaster because it will leave more time for surfing. He checks surf conditions every morning on Web sites such as www.swell.com, by telephoning surf shops, and by intuition. “You get a feel for the tide, the way the wind is blowing, whether there's a bite in the air. You almost feel it in your blood.”

That's what brought him to Long Sands Beach in York, Maine, late one winter day. In the West, the sun was setting beyond Cape Neddick Lighthouse, which was hung with Christmas decorations; in the East, the moon was rising. Parks was alone in the water while his girlfriend and his flatcoat retriever, Archibald, watched from the beach. “It was just peace and calm,” he says. His reverie was interrupted by a six-foot swell that drove him to the water. “That brought me back to reality,” he says. Parks was ready when the next wave crested. “Every surfer says this. But it was the perfect wave. It seemed like an endless drop. That exhilaration . . . it was the greatest feeling. It's just indescribable.”

His face was purple and his ears were blocked as he got back in his Jeep and blasted the heat. “People have no idea how great this can be,” he says.

The two men taking measure of the waves this morning on that snow-covered spit of sand just north of Hampton Beach are Trevor Failor and Barry Kelly. Failor, who is 31, is a manager at a software company. He has a broken surfboard hanging in his office — he snapped it riding 12-foot swells off Nantucket — and four intact boards jammed into the storage room of the building where he lives in Charlestown, near the Freedom Trail. When he takes them out and straps them to the Land Cruiser, he says, “People, especially tourists, look at me like they're thinking, What the hell is this? Is that a windsurfer?”

More often than not, however, it's still pitch-dark when Failor drives to Watertown to pick up Kelly, 28, marketing manager for the media division of Berklee College of Music. The two have driven from Rhode Island to New Hampshire hunting waves, one of countless pairs of surfing buddies who spend their winter weekends on the otherwise largely deserted coastline. “We e-mail each other back and forth, and if it looks like there's a storm coming in that will hit in time for a Saturday or Sunday, I'll be dancing in my cubicle,” Failor says.

It has not escaped the attention of these men that surfing in New England can be vexing, risky, and uncomfortable. “I've slept a lot of nights in the back of this car,” says Failor. “One time I was in Rhode Island sleeping in a parking lot, and a cop came and knocked on my door. I think he thought I was in there with some 12-year-old girl. I said, 'Officer, the only thing long, hard, and stiff in this car is my longboard.'”

Conditions are extreme, and not only because of the temperature. It isn't like the nice, soft coast of southern California. “You're going to be surfing over a lot of rocks,” says Kelly. “And your mind isn't as quick when you're in the water in the cold.” Learning how to surf is tough, too, in such an inhospitable climate. “Beginners are really kind of seen as being in the way,” Kelly says. “It's really not a very welcoming sport. You're completely ignorant when you go out for the first couple of months and then you realize, I'm getting in these people's way and no one likes me. But you can't go out and practice every day because the conditions have to be right.”

Which, of course, they usually aren't. For all their trouble, the pair might catch just one good wave over the course of the hour or so that they can stay out in the water in their titanium-lined wetsuits. “But that one wave has you really, really wired,” Kelly says. “There's something about it. The world sort of disappears. You just feel the energy of the ocean. It's so beautiful — so serene.”

A wave, says Failor, “is a moving, changing, living beast. It can be your best friend, or it can be an absolute bitch. It can just take and pounce you; it can throw you down, slam you into the rocks.”

This morning, though, as usual, the ocean doesn't want to play. And Failor has to hit the road.

“Trev's going to a winetasting,” Kelly volunteers scornfully.

“He's giving me shit about being a fancy boy,” says Failor. “I said, 'Hey, you've got to pull the surfers out of the Neanderthal image.'”

But on most days when the surf is slight and the waves are disappointing, the two friends drive a little farther north into the mountains of New Hampshire.

“You've got to love a place like New England,” Failor says, “where you can surf and ski on the same day.”