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The Temperature's Down And the Surf's Up in N.H.

Winter Brings Big Waves and Die-Hards to Granite State Beaches

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2004; Page A03

HAMPTON, N.H. -- At 6 a.m., the temperature is below freezing, the highways across this state are slick with black ice from an overnight nor'easter, and Jim Loft checks the weather forecast and decides surf's up.

"I live in a rigidly framed world, with meetings and responsibilities," said Loft, 45, an architect from Concord, who learned to surf growing up in Southern California and moved to New Hampshire 17 years ago. "When there's a swell, you can just take off for a while and get away from all that. The key is you have to be flexible."

John Meehan of Rye, N.H., heads to the frigid early morning surf. "The off-season really is the season here," he said. (Jonathan Finer -- The Washington Post)

Some might say you also have to be a little bit nuts.

The prevailing image of surfing culture exudes warmth: sun-dappled beach bums in Bermuda shorts or dental floss bikinis, palms sashaying in the tropical breeze and water roughly the temperature of a YMCA swimming pool.

But the surging numbers who ply the Granite State's 13 miles of craggy coastline know no such comforts. On this recent winter morning the weather is foul, and the beaches, water and sky are almost indistinguishable shades of gray.

By the time Loft arrives at a stony strip of land called Rye Rocks, 20 other early risers of all ages are already bobbing in the penetrating chill of 40-degree water, waiting for a wave.

"There's definitely a bit of an insane factor," said Jack Keefe, 43, of Hampton. "My dad used to say, 'You know you're stupid, right? Other places have better weather, nicer beaches, bigger waves.' I'd just tell him, 'You raised me here, whose fault is that?' "

Depending on the tide, it takes the surfers here about 15 minutes of frenzied paddling to reach what they call the lineup, where waves begin to break. The first moments in the water are the most painful, before their skin, insulated by a wetsuit, heats a thin layer of water that makes it possible to surf for hours.

The harsh winter here is the best season for waves, as storms barreling up the East Coast can leave days of large swells in their wake. With wetsuit technology improving, surfers here say, more and more people are showing up on days better suited for skiing.

The surfing equivalent of a burkha (only skin tight), their gloves, boots, hoods and "6/5/4" wetsuits -- named for the thickness, in millimeters, of the neoprene material at the torso, legs and arms, and joints, respectively -- leave only a portion of their faces exposed to the elements.

"It's a bit counterintuitive, but the off-season really is the season here," said John Meehan of Rye, N.H., whose favorite surf spot is a peninsula off Hampton known as Boar's Head. "In the summer you get more people out there, because of all the tourists, but in the winter, you get a more advanced crew, the regulars."

The community is close-knit and remarkably diverse. Among the die-hards on a recent weekday morning were a carpenter and a chiropractor, an executive recruiter who is an amputee and a former professional hockey player.

Some are squeezing in a few waves before work; others will play hooky all day. A few high school students hurriedly paddle to shore, just before their 8 a.m. classes.

"People who have been surfing here since the '70s say you used to have to drive around half the day to find someone to go out there with you. Now it's sometimes too crowded," said Jeff Denholm of nearby Kittery, Maine, who said the longest he has ever gone without surfing was the four months he spent recuperating after losing his arm in the drive shaft of a fishing boat off Alaska in 1992.

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