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...

surfing in boston

Photograph by the kozowyk brothers

Look closely and you can spot the hints. A busted-up surfboard nailed to the deck of a two-family home. The occasional car cruising slowly as the driver, dressed in a wetsuit, a board riding shotgun beside him, scans the water.

A kid pedaling his bike with a shortboard under his arm and a towel over his shoulder. There’s even a surf shop in the adjacent neighborhood, though its presence has confused several locals, according to co-owner Mark Wysocki. “People come in and ask, ‘Why do you sell surfboards?'”

He sells surfboards because nearby lies a section of shore where the sea sometimes does show off its power. Hawaiian-bred surfer Larry Hanson was cycling through the area in 2001 when he noticed the Break for the first time. “I kind of got lost, and I looked out at the water and saw this knee-high, perfect peeler and said, ‘Whoa! What is that?'”

There aren’t supposed to be rideable waves near Boston, not within just 10 miles of downtown, anyway. Of course, the vast majority of the time the surf here is nonexistent, or too sloppy to enjoy. Hanson happened to show up at one of those rare moments when wind, weather, and tide all cooperate and grant local surfers a chance to do their best impressions of Californians. Within these slivers of time, swells generated hundreds or even thousands of miles away complete a complex journey that has brought them across the open ocean, around the Harbor Islands, and over the shoals that generally guard Boston’s shores.

The Break itself is well guarded, too, in keeping with the culture of the sport. The Illuminati have nothing on surfers. Wave riders are intensely dedicated keepers of secrets, and when it comes to Poseidon’s bounty, a sort of protectionist paranoia takes hold. Even asking questions about this spot provokes an odd curtness among those who know it’s here. The owner of a popular surf-forecasting website, which serves as a Weather Channel for waves, tells me that he removed all mention of the location from his site because of harassing e-mails. Not surprisingly, people were furious when Wysocki and his partners opened their shop in 2007, fearing that this would attract hordes. In deference to the surfer’s code, I can’t report exactly where this strip of water sits. But I will tell you what I discovered when I went looking for it myself.

On my initial visit to the Break, it’s not apparent what its regulars are so desperate to protect. It is early spring, a time of year that has delivered good waves in the past. Yet in the predawn the water is flat. The beach and sky are gray, dismal, bleak. A huge stretch of dark clouds sits on the horizon like a distant mountain range. The air is stale, citified. And then, finally, a sign. Not a set of waves, but a single old car. It pulls up hastily, and the driver, a young man in an unzipped hoodie, jumps out and stares at the water. I peer into his hatchback, see a board angled into the passenger seat, and join him in a studious stare at the ocean. He tells me he’s new to the area—based on his brogue he could still have an Aer Lingus boarding pass in his pocket—and that he was out a few days earlier riding perfect, head-high waves with only four other guys. “It was gorgeous,” he says.

 

A small collection of pioneering wave riders has been surfing at the Break for decades. Chick Frodigh, 56, says that when he used to work downtown in the 1980s, he’d go up to the top of his office building and look out the windows toward the Harbor Islands. If he saw waves breaking, he’d jump in his car at lunch, change into his wetsuit while driving, surf for 45 minutes, then head back to the office before he was missed. Steve Crombie, 26, who grew up nearby, recalls riding hurricane-generated swells in the early 1990s, when he was barely tall enough to be allowed on a roller coaster. “There weren’t so many guys around then,” he says. “There were days with awesome, awesome barrels.” Legend has it that another rider paddled out into massive swells during the 1991 nor’easter that Sebastian Junger chronicled in The Perfect Storm. The waves that day were enormous enough to deposit sand and rocks nearly a block inland from the beach, which made it a fine day for a surf.

Back then, riders did more than battle big swells. They also had to brave the harbor’s infamous pollution. Rich Quist, 28, remembers when the water was brown and roiled with a yellowish head of foam. He once cut his foot on an engine block that had been tossed into the sea. “You’d have to dive under a layer of shit to get out to deeper, cleaner water,” adds Wysocki, the surf shop owner.

surfing in boston

Photograph by the kozowyk brothers

These days the water quality varies. You can’t quite see the heart of Boston from the Break, but the effect of its proximity is obvious. A nearby sewage plant now pumps treated waste into the ocean. Winter floods dose the water with petrochemicals, antifreeze, ice-melting salt. These are very much urban waves crashing before a city beach. Sometimes brownish in color, the water often looks like a pool that hasn’t been cleaned in a while. Depending on the day and the direction of the gusts, the air can taste like a sea breeze or the asphalt-tinged winds of the Mass. Pike. In the distance, trucks rumble on highways; jet engines roar overhead.

That nature would intrude here in the form of occasionally beautiful waves is not just an oddity in an otherwise metropolitan landscape. It’s also a happy consequence of a geological obstacle course laid out millions of years ago.

 


The kinds of waves that surfers crave—large, smooth lines rolling toward shore with a sameness that can seem computer-generated—aren’t produced near the beach. They’re born far out to sea, often in massive storms moving over the ocean. The chances of their wriggling into the harbor to somehow be found by surfers at the Break are incredibly small.

To get large swells you need wind, blowing intensely in a consistent direction over hundreds of miles of water. That’s how choppy ripples build into energy-filled waves. Only when a storm is strong and persistent enough can it send clean swells toward a coast thousands of miles away.

Hurricane waves are the most coveted, but those swells don’t always reach the Break. Out on the open ocean, several hundred feet typically separate the peak of one sizable wave from the next, according to Bob Hamilton, a coastal engineer with the Woods Hole Group and a veteran surfer. As a rule, he says, the sea floor begins creating drag on waves when the depth of the water is half as great as the distance between their peaks. So as the swells reach the continental shelf—the spot where the sea floor starts rising toward the shoreline—the ocean bottom begins sapping them of their pop. Shallow water is a wave killer, and unlike the coasts of, say, Rhode Island or southern Massachusetts, Boston’s is sheltered in a harbor, 50 miles from the open sea.

Prevailing weather patterns don’t help the Break much, either. Hurricane swells generally move up from the south, which means that the Cape, extending out from the coast like a giant flexed arm, absorbs the brunt of them, leaving Boston in a kind of wave shadow. Still, some swells can sneak in. Hamilton, who carried out extensive wave-modeling work near the Break in the late 1990s, explains that waves tend to refract, or bend, toward shallow water and away from the depths. And on occasion the Cape’s northern tip redirects some waves into the harbor.

From here, the swells have to make it past the Harbor Islands and over a collection of underwater shoals and rock ledges. These glacial leftovers rise from the harbor bottom to steal still more energy from the waves. But Hamilton says that in certain fortuitous cases these undulations can also focus waves the way a lens focuses light, restoring some of the energy previously drained out.

Finally, several hundred yards offshore, the swells that have made it this far meet a last twist of luck in the form of a curious geological feature that directs them toward the Break. “There is a very shallow boulder deposit that sort of focuses wave energy toward that area,” says John Ramsey of Applied Coastal Research and Engineering in Mashpee, who also has done extensive research in the area. “That’s what gives you the waves there.”