Nothing goes to plan when you play in winter waves.
Words Jon Gaffney Images Nick LaVecchia, Gregory George Moore, & Jon Gaffney
Video Iron & Air Media
A surf trip is planned on best guesses. You’re at the mercy of nature, chasing offshore storms in hopes of finding perfect swells, but expectations and reality rarely align — which is especially true if you’re surfing off the coast of Maine in the dead of winter.
"Let's keep in mind, we're surfing in the winter. It's not going to be enjoyable," says New York-based longboarder Mikey DeTemple as we comb through weather and surf reports. Maine's seacoast is longer than California’s shoreline and offers some of New England’s best surf, with waves that can reach up to 15 feet high, and over the next five days we’ll head north along the coast in a Toyota 4Runner and Tacoma, pulling over wherever we find surf. Also joining the Iron & Air crew are California longboarder Anna Ehrgott and seasoned surf photographer Nick LaVecchia. A common truism in the fishing and lobstering towns along the Maine coast is, “Time and the tide wait for no man,” and I say that the surf listens to no man. We hope to find surf, but we can’t plan on surfing.
Southern Maine usually has some of the best, most consistent surf in New England, but unfortunately the storm system we're relying on for winter swells is moving slower than anticipated and is now heading north toward the Downeast coast of Maine, which juts out into the Gulf of Maine. So Downeast is our new destination, but first we visit Grain Surfboards to borrow longboards for Anna and Mikey, then stop by Woody's Performance Center in Topsham to hitch up a trailer loaded with a Yamaha YZ450 Timbersled and a Yamaha Sidewinder SRX LE snowmobile, then start the long drive to our rented house.
At dawn the next day, we leave to check out some promising surf spots. A few miles out the two-way radio crackles to life: "Pulling over ... there's an eagle in the field messing around with something." Nick jumps out of the 4Runner and points his camera at a bald eagle, sitting in the middle of a stark white field as it finishes its morning meal, leaving a bright red stain on the snow. As it flies away we notice a group of trucks skating across the ice of a nearby lake, and we can't pass up a chance to powerslide our rigs on the wide-open lake topped with over a foot of ice. As Iron & Air’s director of marketing Greg Moore spins around in the Tacoma, wide-eyed Anna bursts out in laughter. I hand her my binoculars so she can see the truck at the other end of the lake towing kids in an inner tube. "See?” I say. “Totally normal.”
As we drive off the lake, a curious young man in a Boston Red Sox hoodie approaches us. Jacob Knowles, a lobsterman since he was 12 years old, spends his free time flying around in his 1955 Cessna “tail dragger” ski plane, searching for untapped remote lake fishing around Maine. When he asks if one of us want to go up with him, I’m quickest on the draw. Taking off in a small, 65-year-old plane on skis with a pilot I’ve just met seems a bit dicey, but the payoff is worth it. Flying above the rocky Downeast coast, I look down and see harbors of lobster boats, mountains, and granite boulder islands splayed out below us. My head is still somewhere in the air long after we land and head back to the house in the Toyotas. The day doesn’t go to plan and we don’t get to surf, but planning to be flexible allowed us to reap unexpected rewards.
The next morning the waves are unreal — big and thunderous. The sun lights up the water as it rises from behind a small island off the point where we've parked. A few inches of snow fell during the night, blanketing the tops of boulders jutting up out of the ocean spray's reach. When day breaks, we see why we can’t surf here: the waves are rising up and closing out on dry reef. There are gorgeous overhead barrels rolling in with most sets, so we try to find any angle in, but all agree it would be great ride ending with a grisly pounding on the unforgiving stone shoreline. We drive to a few nearby surf spots but see more of the same; due to the conditions, waves are breaking either too close to the rocky coastline or too far offshore for us to reach without a boat. There’s nothing to do but wait and see if a different tide gifts us with the right combination.
Afternoon brings lower tides, and while the waves are still breaking uncomfortably close to the rocks, we decide there’s just enough room to squeeze in a ride, as long as you cut right on the wave. Anna, Mikey, and I pull on our thick neoprene wetsuits, and as they set the fins on their longboards with a James Brand knife, I inflate my surfing mat, grab my swim fins, and dive into the water. From January to March, the water temperature here is typically in the mid- to low 30s, with even lower air temps — a combination that can humble even the hardiest of watermen and -women. The brutally cold water instantly shocks my system, and I jealously watch as Mikey and Anna knee-paddle out on their boards, avoiding the cold just a bit longer.
From the shore, the waves looked farther from the rocks than they actually are. There are more boulders hiding directly under the takeoff, so I stand on one as I wait for a clean set. Both Anna and Mikey start paddling for waves and catch a few. The way the wave breaks, they disappear from view for a few uncomfortable seconds, then emerge arms outstretched, balancing and walking their boards. I catch two clean waves, my head skimming only inches off the water, but my third wave goes wrong. I don’t exit early enough and get pinned inside, and the wave starts dragging me and my surf mat toward the rocks. Underwater I try to power through the backside of the wave, but it’s a losing effort and I let go of my mat, which is never to be seen again. The winter ocean takes what it wants.
That night we celebrate finally catching some waves with a big dinner and a few well-deserved drinks. The weather shifted during the day, and now it appears the storm system we’ve been chasing will sit over Downeast instead of continuing up the coast. Our original plan was to head farther north, but we decide to stick with the storm and the promising surf report. In the morning, we’re buried; the largest storm of the winter dumped 14 inches of snow overnight. The surfboards strapped to the 4Runner’s roof have disappeared in a white hump and the surf report is a complete mess, so we dig out our trailer, then drive back to the frozen lake to play around on the Yamahas.
Anna, Mikey, and Nick take off on the snowmobile, and Greg follows on the Timbersled, a Yamaha YZ450 modified with a forward ski and a rear track. Hours pass in laughter as both blue machines braap around in the powdery snow, but eventually Anna, Mikey, and Nick want to head out and continue the search for surf. I stay with Greg, who is giddily ripping up and down the lake like a little kid, his thick beard caked with snow and ice. When he runs the fuel tank dry, we return to the cabin to thaw out. The surfers return from a sadly waveless day, but everyone is in high spirits as we share stories, drink beer, and pack for our trip home.
In the morning, we check the surf report one last time and see that the best break in southern Maine might be hitting. Anna, Mikey, Nick, and I scramble to load our gear into the 4Runner and get on the road as fast as possible. We've got a narrow window of opportunity, what with Anna and Mikey flying out of Boston in the evening, a lot of miles to cover, and the tide to contend with. It’s a long, white-knuckle drive, with only quick rest stops for fuel and facilities. An hour before sunset we pull up to the point overlooking the break. Anna and Mikey scramble down the rocks, boards clasped in mittened hands. There are plenty of waves to catch and a golden hour to make the best of them, and the fading light dances with Anna and Mikey and their longboards. In this idyllic moment, we feel redeemed and can better appreciate that our haphazard, far-from-perfect surf trip was more fun — and more fulfilling — than we ever expected or could have planned for.
The payoff for venturing out into the water is incomparable. These are moments earned, not given, providing new perspectives not found on shore. On a sunny day such as this, an offshore wind throws small rainbows off the passing peak of a wave, and the water burns yellow-orange in the last minutes of the day. As the headlands dip into shadow and I start thinking about flight times, I see the faint shape of black wetsuits carrying yellow and red boards back along the waterline and crank up the heat in the 4Runner. In this moment, I’m thankful none our original plan remains intact.