Campus News

Bowdoin Winter Surfers Make Waves All Their Own

Story posted February 22, 2006

When the snow starts to fall, Sean Sullivan '08 has a tough choice: Does he hit the slopes or catch a wave? "Either way," he says, "when the storm comes, I wanna go."

Wave? As in frigid Atlantic Ocean wave? Yup. Sullivan is one of more than a dozen Bowdoin students who regularly surf the Maine waters in winter.

Fall and winter are actually the best times to surf in Maine, according to aficionados. That's when offshore hurricanes and Nor'easters bring large swells onto beaches including Popham, Reid State Park, Small Point and Portland-area beaches such as Higgins and Scarborough.

Winter surfing is an extreme sport that has gone through, well, waves of popularity at the College. After the hurricane-heavy season of 2005, it's cresting high.

Bittl, Hudson, and Stack don wetsuits in the snow for a January session at nearby Reid State Park.

In spite of the popular myth that Maine winters are unrelentingly frigid, winter surfers are not hanging ten at ten degrees, says Jessica McGreehan '08. "It's actually not that cold in the water," she says. "You've got your wetsuit on, and gloves and head gear, and that keeps you pretty warm. Normally in the winter you can stay in for about an hour ... and then you hit a point where it's suddenly cold."

With recent water temperatures of roughly 38 degrees, that may be an understatement.

But Bowdoin's surfers - including Sullivan and fellow sophomores Samuel Stack '08, Peter Hudson '08, Bennett Haynes '08, and Jim Bittl '08 - are willing to brave the cold for that hour of what Bittl describes as "gloriousness - almost every time it's great."

The group meet several times a week, at dawn, when winds are lowest and they have the beaches mostly to themselves. The hardest part, all agree, is getting in and out of their wetsuits - which offer roughly five millimeters of porous rubber insulation between them and the sea, but offer little protection against the cold air.

They take turns "shredding" the waves, mostly observing surfer's etiquette, which says the paddler closest to the breaking curl gets first dibs on the wave - providing the surfer can stand up. They learn from each other, and through trial and error, the rules and the skills required to surf Maine's frigid waters, which are not without their dangers.

Randy Pelletier, Bowdoin Information Technology Creator, Barnboard Surfboards
Randy Pelletier

Bowdoin students aren't the only ones icing Maine's winter waves. Randy Pelletier, a senior administrator for Bowdoin Information Technology, regularly surfs at local beaches on his own custom-made surfboards.

Pelletier grew up in California and says he began building his own boards because "Maine surfing calls for a different kind of board than in California. Here, you need a wider board and flatter surfaces on the bottom, because the waves are flatter and more drawn out and wet suits add a lot of weight."

Pelletier makes a range of boards - mostly six and a half foot short-boards. Each is carved from a polyurethane core, covered in fiberglass cloth and given a final resin coating. Boards take approximately 10 hours to craft.

"There are definitely some world-class spots here," says Pelletier, who sometimes pops off for a quick session during lunch. "And at one cove this winter, there have been two seals that watch each session. They sit about 60 yards off and you can see them wondering, 'What are you doing here?'"

"I think the biggest danger is other surfers," says Samuel Stack. "But it's not as crowded here as it is on the West Coast. The biggest injury is Reid at low tide; we've broken boards there; I've face-planted into the sand. "

Dangers aside, Peter Hudson says he begged Stack to take him out after watching him surf from the beach:

"I'm from Atlanta," says Hudson, so there wasn't exactly any surfing there, but there was something so appealing about it to me. The first day I went out, it was huge. It was early November and I played around in the whitewater. I think I stood up that first day and I knew that I was a surfer. I didn't even catch a wave really, just the experience of being in the water ... the rest is history."

It's a history that stretches back several generations at Bowdoin.

An April 25, 1969 article in The Bowdoin Orient titled, "The Endless Winter: Me. Surfing," details the formation of a surf club at Bowdoin. "Driven by insanity of uncertain origin," wrote alumnus Martin Friedlander '71, "members of Bowdoin's Admiral Peary Surf Club have been taking to Maine's tepid thirty-eight degree water ... Anyone interested in dodging ice floes, or learning how, is welcome to attempt membership and the hardship it entails."

Fittingly, Friedlander's son, Jeffrey '08, is now among those who enjoy winter surfing at Bowdoin. "There are quite a few surfers in our class for some reason," he observes. "I guess we are replenishing the surfer pool."

Riding a wave

While no club formally exists, Samuel Stack likens it to a team sport: "If I'm going surfing the next morning, I go to bed early. It's Saturday night and we're all going to bed at 10 o'clock so we can go surfing the next day at dawn. Find another kid who's that dedicated and not on a team."

Jessi McGreehan is among a scant handful of women who surf at Bowdoin, but says the sport is gaining popularity among women throughout Maine and all over New England.

"When I first started surfing, there were no women out at all," says McGreehan, who grew up in the Portland area. "The number is growing a lot now and that's really exciting."

She seems slightly amused at the enthusiasm of her male winter-surfing counterparts at the College. "The boys are a lot more excited about it than I am," she chuckles. "I've been doing it for longer and I know how much you freeze your tush off."

For their part, the "boys" bow to McGreehan's experience:

"Jessi rips," says Bittl, in perfect surf slang.

"She's like the original Maine surfer," agrees Haynes. "When we got here she was the only one who knew where the beach was. She's a native. She sort of led us to the Promised Land. I mean, we could have figured it out ..."

McGreehan gets a kick out this: "There's chivalry in surfing still, I guess. We're definitely friends."

But more than the friendship or the physical workout, the students say extreme surfing is the perfect antidote to extreme studying.

Three Bowdoin surfers
Jim Bittl, right, with his posse of Bowdoin surfing "broahs", Sam Stack middle, and Pete Hudson, left.

"There's nothing better to get my mind straight," says Bittl. "I've made a lot of my academic decisions based on surfing. It's just pleasant to be out there, to see the dawn."

McGreehan also says surfing helps her find balance and self-expression. "It's a thing that is relaxing," she says. "Just the ocean itself is very calming. Surfing is just another way to make contact with the ocean.

"Some people are like, 'These people are crazy!'" she adds. "Yeah, we're totally crazy. Still, I think people find a way to express themselves at Bowdoin. Surfing is just another thing to do."

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