The Thrill of Riding Winter Waves

TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY JULIA CUMES

On a cold January morning, a lone figure carrying a surfboard is silhouetted against the blinding snow at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham. Besides a couple of curious seals and a flock of seagulls huddled together nearby, Cape Cod surfer Mark Kielpinski is completely alone on this wintry beach.

Kielpinski is one of a handful of Cape surfers who embrace the elements this time of year and heads into the cold and unforgiving waters to get his surfing fix. “Everything becomes very elemental,” Kielpinski says. “If you enjoy the full brunt of nature in its most primal form, then being in the ocean in the dead of winter can be exhilarating.”

In order to surf in these cold temperatures, typically in the 20s and 30s, Kielpinski and his fellow surfers wear a 5mm wetsuit, 7mm gloves and booties, full hood and often an additional chafe shirt or neoprene shorts underneath. The only exposed areas are eyes, nose and mouth. Wet suit technology progresses constantly, so the wetsuits get warmer and more flexible every year. “The first time I went out in a winter wetsuit, I was blown away by how warm I was and how possible it was to surf in such cold weather,”Kielpinski explains. “It hadn’t made sense to me before, but once I tried it, it opened up a magical doorway of possibility and allowed me to be in the ocean all year-round.”

Minimizing time spent exposed to the cold is critical. Kielpinski and his crew usually put their wetsuits on at home or in their cars. When they get out of the water, they drive home in their wetsuits. “By the time I get home, my feet are frozen and I just stumble into a hot shower, wetsuit and all,” says Kielpinski, laughing. Sometimes they bring thermoses of hot water and pour the water into their wetsuits as they’re taking them off.

Surfing alone in the colder months when the waves are big is dangerous. “It’s always wise to have a partner,” says Kielpisnki. If you’re 100 yards offshore and your leash breaks and your surfboard floats to the beach, it’s good to have someone there to assist you. “I’ve had several experiences where I’ve lost my board and a partner helped me. There was a time when a surf partner of mine was in a life-and-death situation—repeatedly being pummeled against a rock jetty by 8-foot surf—and without someone else there, she would have been in serious trouble,” he explains.

Many surfers have a crew they regularly surf with in the warmer months, but when cold weather arrives, that crew really thins out. “I know that when winter comes, I will have these two equally insane surfers I can paddle out with and I know we’ll have each other’s backs,” says Kielpinski, referring to his friends Eileen and Gibby, with whom he’s had many winter surf adventures. Kielpinski and his friends harness the amazing waves on Cape Cod, and when there’s no surf locally, they often head off Cape in Gibby’s surf mobile—an orange VW Westfalia Camper— to other beaches in Massachusetts or Rhode Island. “Once you’re in that secret winter surf club, it’s oddly addictive and we’ll go seeking it wherever we can,” Kielpinski concludes before plunging into the ocean and paddling out to where the waves are breaking.

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