The wind is blowing sand into sea gull eyes. It is cold enough to test new long underwear with a walk on the beach. Not a day you'd expect to see two guys in the ocean, surfing.
"Winter is the only time of the year you can depend on good waves," says Art Baltrotsky, 18, from Bethesda, with sun-lightened brown hair, peaches-and-cream complexion and sky blue eyes. Except for the rubber wet suit he is wearing, he looks the way surfers are supposed to, like Troy Donahue looked 20 years ago. "When everybody else hates it at the beach, we love it."
Two generations after beach blanket bingo, Jan and Dean, woodies, wipeouts and Annette Funicello, there are still surfers shooting the curl in search of the endless summer. Not as many as there were in the mid 1960s when surfing boomed from a water sport into a teen-age subculture, with a language that magazines like Time and Newsweek translated for the rest of America.
But anywhere that waves roll nicely into shore, even in subarctic waters off Nova Scotia, someone is riding them. Baltrotsky will tell you, with the saddest face he is capable of, that it ain't what it used to be.
"Nobody sings songs on the beach around bonfires anymore," says Baltrotsky, a University of Maryland freshman. "Surf bunnies? Don't I wish."
For Baltrotsky and his best buddy, Moe Rice, another 18-year-old Maryland freshman, the surfing life is a lonely one. They are what used to be called "soul surfers," kids who live to surf and dream of perfect waves. Baltrotsky missed the first week of college to compete in a tournament in North Carolina in September. Rice says he is perpetually doodling waves when he should be taking notes in statistics class. Both of them say being a surfer at Maryland has all the glamor these days of a stubbed toe.
"People have demented impressions about surfing," says Rice, who says he was the only surfer at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. "There just aren't any people around here who surf."
Ocean City surfers have always suffered the scorn of wave riders from Florida, New Jersey and North Carolina where the water is bigger and consistently better for the sport. And the east coast in general is considered by surfers from California and Hawaii as just a few degrees better than a farm pond for truly "radical" riding.
"Whenever I say I'm going surfing at Ocean City, people are so flipped out," says Baltrotsky. "They say, 'You can't surf there. There aren't any waves.' " Most of the time, those people are right, he concedes. But if the weather is suitably nasty, there are good waves to carve. Surfers pray for tropical storms, cold fronts and hurricanes.
"We don't have a lot of east coasters on the international circuit," says Marcy Blakely of the Surfing Information Bureau, located in Southern California. One exception is Wes Laine, 21, from Virginia Beach, who follows a tour that plays the coasts of Australia, Japan, South Africa, Hawaii and the United States.
The top professionals in surfing can make more than $100,000 a year. The sport doesn't support many that well. There are fewer professional surfers who make a living at their sport, for instance, than there are professional golfers. But then surfers never have to compete in Akron.
While the professional scene has improved over the last few decades for surfers, the social aspect of the sport, that made surfing as much a life style as a recreational pursuit, has almost disappeared. Surfers like Baltrotsky and Rice, who are too young to remember the Beach Boys when they still had hair, consider that a loss to American culture and their own pleasure.
But with or without the beach parties and Annette Funicello, they promise to stay on the water, through summer storms and winter freezes, to ride their waves.
"You spend so much time waiting for perfection," says Rice, soaking wet, shivering on the beach and ready to return to the water.
"The feeling is impossible to describe," adds Baltrotsky. "It's like trying to control something that is uncontrollable. It's like skiing but the mountains are moving."