“I’m so sorry I’m late. I just had to feed several hungry, freezing teenagers,” says Michelle Sommers as she picks up the phone at her home in Maryland. She describes the row of wetsuits hanging next to her family’s hot tub as her children rustle in the background. “We just got back from surfing. When the surf is good, you drop everything.”
Looking at the snow swirling against a black sky outside my window, I wonder aloud why anyone would dive headfirst into the Atlantic Ocean in the dead of winter.
“It’s simple. The surf is better,” she says.
Like Sommers, surfers describe chasing waves as an all-consuming addiction, where schedules are rearranged at a moment’s notice. On social media, screenshots of wave forecasts are met with kid-on-Christmas levels of anticipation. Beginning in November, winter storms off the East Coast reward wave-chasers with substantially better, more consistent swells. While summer waves might measure thigh-deep, winter can offer waist to chest-deep conditions. Combined with deserted beaches and fewer surfers in the water, some say the conditions rival spots on the West Coast—minus several degrees. Women now comprise a fast-growing segment of the winter surfing scene, which they report offers a simultaneously thrilling yet calming escape.
A silver Subaru station wagon pulls up to a beach in Southern Maine on a frigid morning in late January. The temperature outside reads 14 degrees Fahrenheit. A surf wax tin hangs from the rearview mirror and a plastic bin sits next to the folded seats. Tess Jacquez, a 31-year-old from Portland who works in solar energy and as a part-time surf instructor, hauls her 9-foot-long orange longboard out of the trunk and surveys the coastline. Earlier, at home, she performed a gymnastics routine to wriggle into a wetsuit made of 6 millimeters of thick, unforgiving neoprene, still damp from the prior day’s ride. Fighting the smelly, full-body Spanx is the first test of a surfer’s mettle.
“The first time it took me half an hour to get it on. I watched a bunch of YouTube videos to figure it out,” laughs Ashley Gunn, a 34-year-old nonprofit professional and AMC member from Boston. “When you come out, you literally start to ice over. I couldn’t get out on my own, so I just drove home in it.”
“There’s a lot of swearing involved,” says Jacquez’s fellow surf instructor, Kate Strait, 39, an eighth-grade science teacher from South Portland.
Jacquez runs white, buttery wax over her board, which helps to secure her footing in the water. She then yanks the wetsuit’s tight hood over her head, her brown hair obscuring her face before she stuffs it under. She pulls on cushioned boots and bulbous black gloves as her friend Molly bounds up to the car, exclaiming, “This spot is way better. I’m so excited!” Soon, friends Greta and Caitlin arrive, and despite the cold, the number of surfers in the water has grown from 10 to 30 in a matter of minutes. The sun glitters on the horizon as Jacquez scans the shoreline. She secures her Velcro ankle strap, picks up the board, and trots in.
The first splash can feel like “a million little ice picks hitting your face” according to Tricia Pan, 42, owner of Narragansett Surf and Skate shop in Rhode Island. The water slowly rushes through the seams of the wetsuit, filling it up “like a creepy little ice bath” before the thick insulation traps the wearer’s body heat and warms the water inside. Surfers compare paddling in a proper wetsuit to skiing with the right gear.
Apart from feeling a Slurpee brain-freeze after taking waves over the head, few of these women surfers dwell on being cold—save for one memory of a choppy day when their eyelashes froze shut. The ocean temperature is actually a few degrees warmer than the surrounding air temperature during winter. Instead, they all speak to a feeling of joy.
“Last year I went out on New Year’s Day to watch the sunrise. There is something different about the beach in winter,” Gunn shares. “It’s super peaceful and magical. It’s nice to start off the year like that, playing around in the waves in this gorgeous, golden water.”
Gunn developed a curiosity for surfing growing up in Florida, but it was not until she took trips to Norway and Portugal that she fell in love with it. When she moved to Boston, she took lessons at Cape Ann SUP, a surf school and shop in Gloucester, and when winter fell, she did not want to stop. She got started with the help of a local women’s surfing group on Facebook. Members pointed her to Craigslist to find an entry-level board and a used wetsuit. They also shared which spots were promising and occasionally when people were meeting up. “There is a different type of energy that women bring to sports. It feels more collaborative. You can ask questions. You’re not performing in a way,” she says. “At the same time, it’s a solitary sport.”
Sommers echoes Gunn: “Women are more supportive, they cheer you on, they want you to succeed.” But she cautions not to expect that same spirit universally, noting that surfing is intrinsically territorial and independent. “There is a pecking order when you go out on the water. You have to respect more seasoned surfers, and there is strict etiquette.”
Pan puts it more bluntly. “I’m not, ‘Yay! Go girls!’ in the water. It shouldn’t make a difference,” she says. “You’re either a good surfer or you’re not. And once you put on that stupid wetsuit, who can tell anyway?”
Whether newcomers stick it out remains to be seen, but what’s clear is that more women are picking up surfboards. Women represented approximately 5 to 10 percent of the surfing community until the 1990s; they now make up about 20 to 30 percent of surfers worldwide, and those numbers continue to grow, according to Lauren Hill, a professional surfer and author. It’s not just a West Coast phenomenon, either. The Eastern Surfing Association (ESA), a membership and competition network that spans Maine to Florida, has roughly 5,000 members and counts Kelly Slater and Lisa Anderson among its alumni. Sommers, who also is ESA’s executive director, says that while the network does not formally track gender representation, she has observed, anecdotally, an uptick in interest among women on the East Coast.
She sees it in her role as the owner of Sommers Surf Lessons in Ocean City, Md., which she founded because she could not find a female instructor in her early days of learning to ride. After several friends requested surf lessons with her, they expressed appreciation for the one-on-one nature of learning from a woman. She started offering lessons and women’s surf camps in 2009.
Similar camps and meetups dot beaches from Maryland north through New England. Strait and Jacquez run Ladies Slide, a popular summer surf instruction and ride group, through Maine Surfers Union. They estimate they have taught more than 300 women to surf over the past six years and the numbers have grown exponentially every year. They now report seeing past students in the lineup, nailing their rides, and thanking the two for their support. Most participants are in their 20s and 30s, but teens and older women are flocking to sign up.
“The best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun. Obviously, we’ll laugh when you fall, but there’s no shame or guilt and you’re not made to feel stupid,” says Strait. “It offers a safe environment to learn about ocean safety and to know we’re not going to judge them.”
Just off shore back in Maine, that camaraderie is evident as Jacquez skims over the glassy water before a wave overtakes her board. As she heads back into the surf, her friend Greta rapidly stands up. Making eye contact with Jacquez, Greta shrieks with delight and seeming disbelief. Like a proud coach, Jacquez’s arms shoot to the sky in celebration, whooping before her friend crashes under the waves. As she bobs up, the two trade notes on their rides.
When temperatures drop, the weekly groups scatter and a smaller crew remains, though that crew is getting larger too. Pan recalls having to buy kids’ wetsuits and double layering men’s gloves to fit her 4-foot-1-inch frame when she first started. Wetsuit technology and women’s sizing have democratized access to surfing. “The technology has definitely improved. I used to have to wear plastic bags on my feet,” she says. “When I was a kid, there were three other women in the water; that’s it. Now, when I paddle out, there are women everywhere. It’s much different.”
One of those three women that Pan references is Lee “Gidget” Ferrera, from Wakefield, R.I. At 61, she is a past winner at ESA’s annual Mid-Winter Championships and has been a fixture in the local scene for years. She first got interested in surfing tagging along with her boyfriend in California. She recalls two roles for women then—a “betty” (a dated term for an attractive girl) on the sidelines or a hyper-masculine tomboy—and asking, “What if I’m neither?” Like Pan, she has witnessed new generations take to surfing, including her daughters.
Ferrera credits surfing with being a consistent source of joy, but also for getting her through the toughest times of her life, including divorce and loss. “Instead of getting inflamed, I’d say, ‘We’re going to table this conversation; I’m going out in the water for a while,’’’ she says, describing her late marriage. She shares how the tradition of paddling out to form a circle with loved ones made coping with her oldest daughter’s passing more bearable. And it helped her most during chemotherapy treatment for cancer.
“They’re saying you can’t go out in the water, and I said ‘Hell no.’ I wasn’t at my strongest, but it was a great way to escape and forget that you were sick,” she adds. “Just to catch that wave and know that I can still stand up and surf this week, that’s what helped me through a lot of that. And I’ve been a survivor 14 years now.”
Each woman describes surfing as akin to a form of therapy. Several liken it to church, a time to be in nature and feel small and humbled. Strait compares it to active meditation, requiring total concentration to repeat each element—identifying waves, timing an entry, and standing up on the board. That intense focus, against a sunrise backdrop where the sky is indistinguishable from the color of the ocean, equates to a transcendent experience.
“The hood muffles what you can hear, and so does the snow when it’s flurrying. Everything kind of slows down a bit. You feel like you’re in a snow globe,” says Jacquez.
Women surfers report feeling a kinship with others who abandon everything to pursue waves. As business owners, college professors, and research scientists—as well as mothers and spouses—they deliberately choose to make time for their passion. “If the waves are waist- to chest-high, that’s more important than Christmas dinner. We’ve been late to a wedding because of waves. When you’re a surfer, especially in New England, waves are your first priority,” says Pan.
“When my kids were younger, surfing was my time to escape—to get away from being a mom or from work,” says Sommers. “You come out of the water a different person—a better, happier person.” As an outdoor and physically distanced activity, she says many people turned to surfing when COVID-19 lingered over the summer. She anticipates more women will continue through the winter as the pandemic continues to strain people’s mental health and they seek restorative outlets.
Instructors caution that winter surfing is still an extreme sport and not for the faint of heart. They encourage those with less experience to take a lesson or two before heading out—and to prepare to get hooked.
Ferrera quips, “For me, it’s sanity, even though people think it’s insane.”