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Surfing in the winter

Clad in neoprene wet suits, surfers brave the freezing waves.

By Kalyani VittalaContributor / February 18, 2011

Jeff Cronin, left, and Jim Cunning enjoyed winter surfing at Nauset Light Beach in Eastham, Mass., Jan. 14.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Toronto

Their form-fitting, neoprene black wet suits stand out in sharp relief as Mike Sandusky and Rob Baytor plow through untouched snow about a foot deep in Toronto's Ashbridge's Bay Park, rushing to reach the ice-encrusted beach at the edge of Lake Ontario. They raise their surfboards and jog into the water just as the morning light finally starts to filter through the cloud cover and gently falling snow, the remnants of the brutal winter storm that had hit Toronto the night before. The air temperature is about 25 degrees F. but feels closer to zero degrees because of the wind chill, and the water is just a few degrees above freezing.

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"You get the biggest waves right after a winter storm," says Mr. Sandusky, who owns Surf Ontario, an equipment retailer for his chosen sport. "I've been surfing in the winter almost every swell in the last four years and we've been selling a lot more suits and boards this year. It's safe to say it's doubled in the last four years and growing."

The snow continues to fall as Mr. Baytor and Sandusky paddle their boards a couple of hundred yards past the whitecaps, and three more wet-suited surfboarders arrive and take the plunge.

When considering the great surfing hot spots, one doesn't instantly think of the Great Lakes or the Northeastern Atlantic coast of the United States. But winter surfing is growing in popularity due, in large part, to the improvements in wet-suit technology. Small surfing communities can be found as far north as Newfoundland and all the way down the Eastern Seaboard, and the frigid waters and the brutal winters of the Northeast only seem to encourage the die-hards who say the stormier the weather, the better the surfing.

Sandusky and Baytor used to ski and snowboard, but they admit that surfing has taken over both their winter and summer sporting schedule.

"It's more extreme, kinda more intense because [when you're snowboarding] you don't have a five-foot wave coming down on you," says Baytor, who is an artist. He adds that cold water can really hit a surfer hard.

"But it's good for you," Sandusky argues back, "improves circulation, boosts your immune system." Baytor laughs, saying "Easy there, David Suzuki," referring to a well-known Canadian scientist and broadcaster.

Sandusky first discovered surfing while he was spending a winter in Hawaii shortly after university.

"I came back from my trip and thought, 'there's waves on the lake!' I thought I was the first person to think of [surfing here]," he recalls with a laugh. "Then I got out there and discovered that people had been doing it since the '60s. At first I thought surfing in the winter was crazy, and then I bought a wet suit and discovered that it's not so bad."

Wet suits are most often made from neoprene, a buoyant, fairly flexible rubber. The first surfing wet suit was designed and commercially sold by an avid young surfer in San Francisco named Jack O'Neill back in 1952. These early suits allowed surfers to extend their seasons into fall and winter.

Kieran Horn is the marketing manager for O'Neill Wetsuits, now of Santa Cruz, Calif. "The biggest difference with the modern suits is in the materials and the seam construction," he says. "The foam has gotten more stretchy, and when you have a more flexible wet suit you can have a thicker wet suit. That has opened up new boundaries for surfing, like in the Northeast."

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