If you ever walk the beach or drive by the ocean in the middle of February or March, you might catch a glimpse of wetsuit-clad surfers in the water and wonder why anyone would paddle out in the winter. It’s toe-numbingly cold on land and water temperatures dip into the 30s, but this doesn’t matter to the southern Rhode Island surf community. Where there are good waves, there will be surfers.
Kerry Wholey, a 52-year-old surf instructor at Narragansett Surf and Skate, has been surfing for 30 years and embraces the colder months. “We get really good waves because of all the storms. There’s less of a crowd,” Wholey says, appreciating winter’s contrast to the typically smaller swells and crowded waters that dominate summertime.
Special winter perks aside, surfing is a lifestyle that Wholey couldn’t abandon for any season. “Surfing is a way of life, and it’s a meditation as well, because you’re very in the moment when you’re surfing. You’re not thinking about anything else. There’s a therapeutic aspect to it, certainly, but the reason for that is that the activity requires your full attention,” Wholey explains.
Wholey’s appreciation for year-round surfing is echoed by Abby Boone, a 33-year-old registered nurse in the Hasbro Children’s Hospital Emergency Department. She’s used to colder waters, having begun surfing in York, Maine before moving to Rhode Island 14 years ago. “I find surfing in the winter really fun and inspiring. Surfing in a snowstorm is one of my favorite things,” she says.
Like Wholey, stowing her boards away for the winter isn’t an option for Boone. New England surfing is only “warm” in the summer and fall, forcing her to wear her thick 5mm wetsuit from about November to May. Shying away from lower temperatures would mean surfing for less than half a year – something she couldn’t do. “I would miss surfing too much so I have learned to adapt to the colder weather and water in order to do what I love.”
Just as Wholey considers year-round surfing meditative, Boone calls it her “positive outlet” and finds it very helpful for mental wellbeing. “It was really important for me this past year working as a nurse during the pandemic. I think a lot of people in New England suffer from varying degrees of seasonal depression in the winter, so any way you can get outside more and move your body the better.”
While winter surfing is certainly rewarding for local surfers like Wholey and Boone, for those who are new to winter waves, Boone has an important message: “If you did pick up surfing during the pandemic or are a beginner, always be respectful and mindful of your surroundings. Surfing can be really fun, but it can also be really dangerous. Only surf the spots that are appropriate for your skill level, be aware of your surroundings, and learn proper surf etiquette. Always respect the ocean, and those that have been surfing in it for decades before you.”