5 Mills And New England Clam Chowdah
We settled in for another cold winter night while another nor’easter roared by and tightened its relentless grasp on our home, and the rocky shores and coastal villages of New England. As the first rays of light broke through the remnants of the storm, a familiar cold morning unfolded just like the rest of those dead of winter mornings: hot coffee and temperatures sinking into the single digits.
As we looked outside crystallized windows from the warmth of our cozy home, a sea of white poured across every direction. The sheer cold, snowy world paired with a few hours of sun makes a New England February a hell of a month to survive. It’s the ten-foot snow banks that really throw a cog in your routine, and the routine of Boston; it paralyzes us, freezes us, our cars and trains in their tracks. When it’s 15 degrees and dumping snow outside, all you can do is put your head down and fight for that silver lining, those moments after work, after you’ve capped a day of work, hopped a train and subway and muscled your way through head high snow-banks to get home.
Sometimes waves seem like the only thing to ease my mind from winters grip. It’s the thought that just a few minutes down those icy roads empty waves and lineups, rocky points and snow covered beaches. But it’s getting there that’s half the battle. The routine is as follows: grab enough clothes to keep you warm for the walk down to the truck, dig it out, clear of the cake of ice and snow and tuck your 5mm of neoprene right next to the heater. Being prepared and getting everything dialed for a winter surf mission will just get you out the door and on your way, now you’ve got to make it to the beach and into some waves hovering just a few degrees above freezing. In these temperatures, there’s little room for error. Everything from preparation to execution has to be on point. Simple things like duck-diving, timing sets, and even an impromptu decision to punch the eject button have to be done meticulously; being sloppy is not an option. Leaving yourself can lead to an abrupt end to your session.
On most days the snow and surf are just out of reach; a pane of thick glass and one door stand in my way. Work, phones, obligations – each is a component of that juggle we all know so well, that give and take that let’s us live. It’s those days when you’re staring out the window, daydreaming of frosty tubes and empty lineups that makes the wait, the patience all the more difficult.
As my foot tapped against the graphite carpet of my office, my mind began to wonder as I felt the subtle buzzing of my cell phone in my pocket; The name Ryan Chartrand light up my screen. A surf report and chance at striking gold took over. That was all I needed. I grabbed my jacket and quietly slid out the door. Ryan, met me with bloodshot, excited eyes; he was fresh off a trip from the mountains in New Hampshire, and had raced back to Boston during the wee hours of the morning for the chance at scoring a day in wintery paradise. We grabbed boards; wetsuits, wax, food and water and through it all in my beat up old Dodge Dakota.
The next few hours were spent talking spots, tides, winds, swell angles, music and our home team, the Boston bruins. Spot after spot seemed to need less water or more swell, which started fueling a sense of panic, one all to familiar to any East Coaster who makes it his priority to chase event the faintest hope of winter session. It’s the fear of getting skunked, a reality Ryan and I had already dealt with more times then our North East pride would admit. That’s the reality around here; nothing is ever a sure thing. You can have all the right ingredients but still not end up with the right recipe.
With daylight rapidly fading as the clock approached 3pm, we scoured the coastline with a sense of keen curiosity. After getting a tip that there might be a local beach break offering up some solid surf, we headed that way. After a short detour, we pulled into an abandoned summer beach town buried rafters deep in snow. Those first few moments were eerily quite as we passed vacant building after vacant building. Ryan chuckled and reminded me that “if we got stuck right now we would be so fucked.” Most of the roads weren’t plowed and proved difficult navigate, so we just left the truck running in the middle of the road and walked to catch a glimpse of the set up.
As we ventured outside the warmth of the truck, sharp, cold air pierced the skin and sunk into the bones sending that unshakable cold across every piece of exposed skin. As we made our way towards the overlook, we could see a faint view of the sea, and the wisps of offshore wind furling the lips of the waves; It was on!
As quickly as my numb hands would allow, I crawled into my 5mm of body armor while Ryan scouted a few locations set up his camera. Chasing winter surf alone is always an experience in and of itself. You can easily psyche yourself out when the elements are this unforgiving, but you’ve got to remind yourself to stay focused and warm, a mind space that’s a bit easier to reach and preserve when it’s reeling some fun head high barrels.
Once I suited up, I had a solid hike and field of snow ahead of me, beyond that was a slowly freezing ocean. Once you make it to that first row of waves, it’s always that first duck dive in 38 degree water that slaps you right in the face, reminding you it’s winter and you’re in New England. Its like what they say in boxing – “everybody’s got a plan until they get hit”; well let me tell you that first wave you duck under hits you like a ton of bricks, and immediately your game plan goes out the door. All you have left are your instincts.
After making it to the line up I could see a set feathering in the distance. I quickly got into position as a wave begin suck off the bottom and bowl up. I scrambled towards the shoulder as I realized I was deeper then I thought, but without hesitation I swung around and pulled into a frothy cavern. With the sun setting behind the summer rentals that were scattered like debris along the shore line, the wave doubled over and revealed a warmly glowing face now in the perfect line of sight with the last rays of a setting sun that shone through a gap between two of the abandoned salt box house. It only lasted a few seconds; it was that moment that grew into one of the best barrels of my life. It’s the little moments like this when you connect with the ocean, an experience only a surfer knows. It’s addicting, and it makes all the hard work worth it every time. Surfing in the winter can definitely be a love-hate relationship, but as long as you respect her with a dose of persistence, she can be very good too you, and you’ll persevere. My friends and I agree we wouldn’t want to live and surf anywhere else in the world. When it’s cold and snowing sideways and your catching some of the best waves of your life, you’re left with moments magnified by the struggles, cold, windy and ice that makes a New England winter unforgettable.
About the photographer, Ryan Chartrand
Ryan Chartrand grew up in Brewster, Massachusetts in the heart of Cape Cod. Not known for it’s surf, Cape Cod does have it’s rare days where the surf turns on and everyone drops what they are doing to catch a wave. Throughout his surfing years, Ryan wsa always into filming beginning with skateboarding. It wasn’t until he got his HVX-200, at age 17, the he began filming surfing, and after his first full video project, he’s been hooked ever since.
About the writer & surfer, Brendan Sullivan
Brendan Sullivan grew up surfing the windswept shores of Cape Cod. Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, Brendan is among a small crew of salty New Englanders that call this corner of the North Atlantic home. Their surf season transitions from warm August days in boardshorts to 5 mm thick wetsuits, lobster claw gloves and 7mm boots complete with sub zero winds ripping across the sea. Perhaps it’s the desolation, weather, salt, and rugged nature of life out here that carves and shapes these wind-chapped characters who call the outer Cape home; They’re a proud bunch, and a product of the sea just as much as the chowdah and beers that warm them after a day at sea.