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Surfing in the winter

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

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Julie Baldwin, who lives near Halifax, Nova Scotia, can attest to the flexibility. A member of the Canadian national surfing team and mother of two, she says, "I surfed until I was 7 months, 3 weeks during my first pregnancy and 8 months, 3 weeks [into] my second. I finally had to give up when my wet suit got too tight and it just wasn't comfortable anymore."

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Ms. Baldwin says she did check with a surfing buddy who is an emergency room doctor to make sure it was safe to surf in her condition. He gave her the go-ahead but told her to make sure she knew her limits. "Frostbite and hypothermia do occur definitely," she says. "I think those generally happen in your earlier stages of surfing, when you are under the water more from falling, and not as familiar as to where to be or go to avoid extra submerged time."

"Most surfers would probably agree that they have suffered from minor frostbite on their feet," she adds. "Generally this means it takes longer to warm up after a winter session. When your feet start to get cold, you should get out." She adds that winter surfers tend not to "listen" to their feet, and that finishing a session with almost no feeling in them is common.

Jim Cunning agrees that knowing your limits is key to avoiding the dangers of a frigid surf. He lives in Orleans, Mass., and is an instructor at the Cape Cod Surf Camp.

"The cold can get exhausting, and it can make you make bad decisions or throw your timing off. That's something that can happen with beginners," he says. "It's the numb fingers that bother me the most." That and getting hit in the face with a wave. "It's like having a giant ice-cream headache all over your head. You have to stay focused and remember not to breathe in."

But, Mr. Cunning says, "Everyone who surfs on Cape Cod eventually ends up surfing in the winter.... The waves here are smaller than you would get in Hawaii or California but they're superfast and they have so much energy and power."

According to his surfing buddy, Jeff Cronin, who went to graduate school to study atmospheric sciences so that he could more ably forecast the local surfing conditions, the reason for the fast, powerful waves is that "The nor'easter comes up and the winds blow towards the coast and the ocean is basically a washing machine. As [the wind] goes past us, it blows back offshore and that cleans up the waves and creates that mare's-tail that you see" in the surfing movies. He adds, "Our ideal would be a hurricane going by in September or October."

Mr. Cronin, who lives in North Eastham on Cape Cod, says, "A lot of times, I'm scared, but when I'm done, I feel amazing. Like a runner's high – but 10 times better."

He has been surfing for more than 20 years, and started winter surfing about 10 years ago. "Basically I eased into it around the time of 'The Perfect Storm' in '91 or '92 before the wet suits got good. Sometimes we had to wear two suits," he recalls.

Meanwhile back in Toronto, Sandusky, and Baytor finally emerge from the water. Their faces are bright red from the cold, and icicles are hanging off the peaks of their wet-suit hoods, but they're both wearing exhilarated grins. The cold hits them once they're out of the water and they grab their gear and race back to their vehicle. They crank up the heat to stay warm until they can get home and remove their wet suits under a hot shower.

Sandusky says, "If I couldn't surf, I wouldn't live here, but I still prefer surfing in the summer, even though the waves are bigger now and in the fall."

Baytor concurs: "It's better than not surfing at all."

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