Posted by: M.A. | September 6, 2007


I never go surfing in the winter in Nova Scotia if the air temperature is below minus twenty degrees Celsius. A guy has to know his limit. But there are plenty of good days when it’s only maybe a flat zero or ten degrees below zero and the water temperature hovers between zero and minus three degrees. Wave density in cold water surfing is very interesting and I find that those light-water summer waves just don’t have the same punch as a good, heavy, close-to-solid icy winter wave. That, after all, is what winter surfing in Nova Scotia is all about.
Big chundling winter storms out in the North Atlantic conjure up powerful swells that hammer this coast. A couple of years ago, a big winter storm slammed the coast in the middle of the night and sent a couple of unexpected waves right through the patio doors of my neighbour’s house and into the living room. If it had been daylight, I or one of my friends might have been on that wave.
Usually, though, we surf off the tip of the headlands where you can paddle out without having to duck-dive through frigid water. There’s a nice point break a few miles down the road where you can paddle out in deep water, snake over into the line-up of say two or three surfers, and pull into a powerful head-high glassy wall of cold, clean energy. First, though, you have to slip-slide your way across big boulders glazed in ice, some with funky headgear of caked snow, and then slide your board out across frosty rockweed and glistening kelp fronds that welcome you back to the winter sea.
Despite the calm quiet beauty of this place, winter wipe-outs can be cruel as Central Park thugs. Seconds under water can be painful. You come up sucking hard at sub-arctic air and wait for the ice cream headache to arrive. Usually it’s just a sledge hammer to the side of the head and several seconds of wanting to ralph your breakfast. But it goes away.
Do we have ice in the water? you want to know. Yes. Some. Like the time I was riding a cool six-foot wall and ducked low when I noticed it was about to loop in front of me. I went for the head dip only to discover that a chunk of ice the size of a micro-wave oven was lobbing over me and my board. Fortunately, it slammed down into the trough and didn’t ding me or my board.
We’ve had ice pans slip into the break zone too on occasion. You can get off your board and lounge for a bit on your private little island or even try to make the drop on the right size slab of ice if the cold has made you woozy enough.
One of my worst experiences was actually this past January — all alone at sea on a sunny, windless one-degree Fahrenheit day with junior waves. The zipper on the back of my drysuit came completely undone from my overzealous paddling. I kicked out of a nice little blue wave, dense and just a tad slushy with tiny shreds of sea ice (the way I like them), and fell backwards, spread-eagled into the sea. It felt like hot knives stabbing into my shoulder blades. Full on winter North Atlantic filling up my dry suit. The seawater didn’t exactly drag me down but it meant I had to swim super slo mo to shore dragging a fair piece of my frigid friend, the North Atlantic Ocean. Without protection, it was mightily cold. Muscles began to seize. I waddled out of the sea and staggered across a crusty white shoreline of snow and ice-jewelled rocks. And then I had to lay head-down at the foot of the hill with my feet at a 45 degree angle tilting upward to drain the water out of my suit (and over my head) so I could walk the quarter mile to my car.
After that it was home to thaw in front of the wood stove and melt the saltwater icicles left dangling from my hair.


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