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More brave souls try winter surfing during the pandemic, with sales and traffic going up

The ocean is vast, with plenty of room to naturally social distance. While winter surfing has traditionally attracted mostly men, more women and kids are taking the cold plunge, too.

Maeve Smith, 13, surfs at the beach at Willard Avenue in Strathmere, N.J. on Jan. 27.
Maeve Smith, 13, surfs at the beach at Willard Avenue in Strathmere, N.J. on Jan. 27.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

After 35 years of surfing, Chris Konicki particularly loves winter surfing — for the intense waves, often bigger than at other times of the year, and the solitude. Yet this season, he’s not quite alone.

“I was out in early December ...,” said Konicki, a Strathmere, N.J., resident. “There were maybe 25 people out. Last year or the year before, you’d maybe see one or two.”

He’s not thrilled about that, preferring the tranquility of solo surfing or with just a buddy when, in the winter, he hits the waves about once a week, the water temperatures as low as the 30s and the air as cold as 20 degrees.

Konicki credited technological advancements in his gear — a thick, hooded wet suit with boots and gloves — with allowing him to surf in freezing temperatures. Even in the snow, he said, it’s “cool” to surf.

More surfers are enjoying winter surfing than ever before, said Michelle Sommers, executive director of the Eastern Surfing Association, based in Ocean City, Md., mostly due to the pandemic. The ocean is vast, with plenty of room to naturally social distance. While winter surfing has traditionally attracted mostly men, more women and kids are taking the cold plunge, too, she said.

“Most people are working from home and a lot of other sports have been canceled,” said Sommers. “Surfing has always been a socially distanced sport. You’re outdoors with fresh air and sunshine, being active. Winter surfing gear is so much better, and probably more affordable than it was just five or 10 years ago.”

Not only has she never seen so many surfers in the chilly water, but she’s also found surf shops sold out of gear, including a backlog of custom board orders. Younger kids — tweens and under — are also taking up surfing in large numbers, she said.

At 13, Maeve Smith has been surfing for half her life, mostly alongside her father, Clay, but last year she tried winter surfing for the first time. It didn’t take long for her to get used to the cold.

“Surfing is fun and makes you have a good feeling inside,” said Maeve Smith, who lives in Upper Township, N.J. “I surf in the winter because I like surfing so much that I want to do it all the time. I wear a wet suit, hood, gloves, and boots. It was cold at first but I got used to it after a couple of times.”

Clay Smith is proud of his daughter’s dedication. “I feel like cold water can turn kids off pretty quickly, and I’m always impressed that she wants to get up early and get out even when it’s cold,” he said.

Gregory Beck, co-owner of Surfers Supplies in Ocean City, N.J., sees Maeve Smith’s spirit in surfers of all ages. They want to be in the water longer, so they extend the season, he said. And while many surfers may have bought gear online in the past, more are now looking for immediate satisfaction, not wanting to wait to have items shipped. That’s good for business but he’s struggled to keep up with demand.

He typically places up-front orders in March to last throughout the winter. While some years he may need to reorder once, this winter he reordered stock three times, including wet suit boots, gloves, and wet suits, especially the thicker, 5-millimeter ones. While he wouldn’t give specific sales numbers, he said he sold 75% more winter gear this winter season than last winter season.

According to ActionWatch, a worldwide sports industry market research company, sales in the fourth quarter of 2020 of U.S. surf hard goods — surfboards, fins, leashes, and other equipment — increased by 78%, compared with the same time period the previous year. Entry-level products, including softboards and long boards, were most popular.

The biggest attraction to surfing, Beck said, is that, unlike other sports, no two days can ever be the same. In the ocean, every wave is different. The conditions change constantly, which keeps you on your toes.

“Surfing is spiritual, you’re dealing with Mother Nature,” Beck said. “Surfing by yourself can be a soulful experience, and when you’re with other people, in between waves, you’re talking to people and it’s social. When someone gets a good wave, you’re rooting for them. We’re sharing the stoke.”

Winter surfing is a financial investment. A basic surfboard, which can be used year round, costs between $375 and $595, Beck said. The added winter gear — hooded wet suit, gloves, and boots — run about $400 to $500 total. He encourages lessons, which are important to learn the basics, safety and etiquette.

Winter surfing isn’t for everyone, Sommers insisted. “When you’re learning to surf, you’re falling all the time, and to fall into frigid 40-degree-temperature waters is not enjoyable,” she said.

Cold-weather surfing can take a toll on your body. Scott Oliver, 61, can only surf in warm-weather locales these days. He started surfing at 15 years old and, until about 15 years ago, winter surfing was one of his favorite pastimes. Unfortunately, the cold water got the better of him and he developed what’s called surfer’s ear, a condition where extra bone forms in the ear canal because of exposure to cold water and wind.

“I went to the ear, nose, and throat doctor and the first thing he said to me was, ‘You’ve done a lot of winter surfing, haven’t you?’ ” said Oliver, of Strathmere.

Oliver admitted to missing most things about winter surfing — the waves are cleaner, you get a nicer break, and there’s a different swell pattern, he said.

“The winter surf used to be our little secret gem,” he said. “Now, there are a lot more people at the shore than ever before, which means a lot more surfers.”