Braving record cold temps and ignoring common sense on a human-powered surf trip along the NE coastline
Words and analog photos by James Joiner
You ever come up with some wild idea—maybe there’re adult beverages involved—and say it out loud as though it were a good one?
Then, next thing you know, tickets are booked, promises made, and a crew of friends are calling from California asking what the hell you’d gotten them into, and in the middle of the gnarliest cold snap in recent memory at that? How the heck are they supposed to surf if the ocean itself is frozen sold? And is it even safe to ride bikes in sub-zero temps?
That’s pretty much how it went down this past January. I had decided it’d be super fun to get some friends together to ride fat bikes up and down New England’s coast in the middle of the winter. We’d chase swells most folks just watch through grimy windows in nautical dive bars while feeding on a regionally popular gastrointestinal trilogy of fried seafood, booze, and seasonal depression disorder.
"How the heck are we supposed to surf if the ocean itself is frozen sold?"
Just days before Jeff Johnson, Eddie Donnellan, James Nixon, and TF Contributor Anna Ehrgott flew in from California’s golden glow, Nantucket had been making headlines across the country with its slurpee wave while sharks died mid-swim in frigid Atlantic water.
What could go wrong?
Well, to start with, Eddie missed his flight, having succumbed to a particularly virile flu that left him—normally an unstoppably stoic giant of a man—sweating and shivering in bed under doctor’s orders. Luckily, we had the King of Stoke, James Nixon, along to keep spirits high, or we could’ve entered a tailspin of darkness and drinking that would’ve been hard to pull out of.
You know how some people are annoyingly perky, all the time? Nixon is like that, only he’s so truly and actually stoked, to the core of his being, that it’s not annoying—it’s amazing. You can’t help but smile when he’s around, no matter what’s happening.
I once saw him sleep on the ground for a week straight in the same clothes as we rode bikes through hundreds of miles and thousands of feet of elevation in rural Maine and New Hampshire, in late fall conditions (read: cold, wet), subsisting on convenience store snacks with thick black mud being continuously kicked into our gritted teeth by passing coal rollers and semi trucks. Dude didn’t bat an eyelash the whole time. He’s 100% positivity underscored by the occasional gnarly stunt, just for fun. Really.
On this trip, he got a flat powersliding through rusty nails, so we left him for an hour in a looming snowstorm and bitter cold to get help, only to come back to him smiling ear to ear inside a teepee he’d made for shelter, surrounded by trash he graciously picked up around the area.
Luckily, after the initial fright, tapping in to his bottomless well of stoke was barely necessary. The first day of the journey dawned sunny and warmer than it’d been in weeks, hitting nearly 50 degrees, and even though waves were flat we cruised the mirror-smooth beaches of southern Maine and northern New Hampshire on our bikes, then checked out the folks at wooden surfboard building institution Grain.
With no waves worth riding, we drove inland to a rock climbing gym that also hosted a variety of stationary wave options, steaming under blue and red neon lights. After a few margaritas, it was every bit as fun—and weird—as you’d expect.
Soon Eddie recovered enough to make a flight, and joined the gang. All together we meandered through Cape Cod and Rhode Island, pedaling our Specialized Fat Boys on beaches still frozen to concrete consistency, even with the return of seasonally appropriate temperatures. Numerous surf spots, that shall remain necessarily anonymous, were hit.
I will say this, there’s no sound quite like the howl of surfers used to warm weather trying to squeak out of super thick wetsuits as their bodies slowly succumb to hypothermia.
After a mellow day getting warm again, we headed back up to Maine, kidnapping photographer/font of local knowledge Nick LaVecchia along the way, and dug in to spend the rest of the trip feasting on seafood at Even Tide Oyster Bar and chasing Maine breaks. The grand finale came in the form of perfect small rollers in the midst of a driving snowstorm.
Huge thanks to Specialized Bikes for making this crazy dream a reality, Patagonia for the gear, Burley for the trailers, and Kodak for the boxes of film to shoot with. Can’t wait to do it again next year!