It's a gray, dismal afternoon in March. A few snowflakes spin through the air as the waves crash off Hampton Beach. A terrible day for surfing - except in New England. ``The surfing is much better in the winter because the northeast storms bring the waves - up to 10 or 12 feet. It's the only time when it's consistent,'' says Eric Norgaard, a sunny, easygoing guy who drives past the beach on his way to work and stops in for some runs when the waves are good. ``Most people think I'm crazy, but there are a lot of guys who surf,'' he says.``If there are big waves, you'll find 40 to 50 surfers here.''
Unfortunately, the waves aren't in the 10-foot league on this particular day; they're more like a miserly four feet. For one thing, the wind isn't right.
``When it comes from the east it's OK,'' says fellow surfer Jeff Jones. ``When it comes from the west, it makes 'em mushy. It's coming from the north today.''
Mr. Norgaard says that people go out on mediocre days like this one to practice up for the days when the waves are better and scarier.
``I've seen waves ... that when one guy fell he bounced twice before he got to the bottom. It feels like being in a washing machine with baseball bats - I've heard it described that way. Especially when you're going round and round with your board.
``The great thing is, it's never the same. You just can't count on going surfing. Half the fun is looking for that day, looking for that wind....''
The thing that makes winter surfing here bearable is technology. The one-piece wetsuits that actually keep you dry - called ``steamers,'' according to Norgaard - weren't available until about four years ago. ``They used to wear the two piece suits with the beaver tail; you freeze to death,'' he says.
Mr. Jones, who has been surfing for eight years, says his suit cost him $400. ``When the water is about 28 degrees, it helps a lot. On a nice sunny Saturday I can last all day long. There are those days when it's five below, 10 below zero, when you can only last two hours maybe.''
On this day, it's about 28 degrees F. Tiny snowflakes fall and disappear on the polished flat black stones of the beach. (``When it gets so you can barely see the beach, it's fun,'' says Norgaard.) There's old snow on the concrete retaining wall, and, across the road, more snow on the roofs of the small, close-set white houses. Two joggers trot by; they would have seemed like diehards yesterday, but now they seem reasonably snug and toasty in their bright jogging suits.
``I'm not a good surfer, I just like it,'' says Norgaard, putting on his hood and gloves. He says that, at 27, he is old for a surfer, though there is a ``hard core'' of older surfers. Everybody today seems to be about 17 - ``this is the after-school crowd,'' he explains.
He stretches, picks up his short white board with its small, fuschia-tinged fins, and tromps off into the surf.
Once everybody's out on the water it's hard to tell who's who. Somebody spots a wave and starts paddling toward it; he's up for an instant, and then he's down, his board sinking slantwise, slowly disappearing behind a wave. Somebody else gets a good long ride of a few seconds or so, white water spraying wildly about the knees.
Every so often people emerge, with scarlet ears and noses, water streaming off their sleek black suits, and assure you that it's really warmer in the water than it is on the beach.
Dave Cropper and Drew Clark, two red-headed teenagers, agree that it takes a lot of commitment to be a winter surfer in New England.
``The first day I really hated it, because I got pounded,'' says Mr. Cropper. ``But I just kept with it. When I started there were hardly any people. But now there are two surf shops and a lot of people who do it - or think they do it.''
``The cultivated surfer look,'' says Mr. Clark.
Cropper says all sorts of people surf here: ``from doctors to lawyers to students.''
We get into a brief discussion of common surfing expressions: a ``floater,'' which is going into the white water, and across, and then back into the wave; a ``cut back,'' which is a 90 degree change of direction; and ``off the lips,'' which is when you go off the top of the wave. ``And of course, what every surfer looks for is that tube ride,'' he says, referring to that classic surfing ride right under the curl of the wave.
``Usually you surf after a storm; the next morning people get out. Surfing in the sunrise when the sun comes up - that's called `dawn patrols,''' Cropper points out.
After a while, they go back in the water. And a little bit later, several surfers who don't happen to be surfing on this particular day stop by at the beach just to check out the action. One is Duffy McCarthy, who says that he's just returned from surfing in Puerto Rico: A friend picked him up at the airport and they drove straight to a surf break - ``stopped by my house to pick up a wet suit.'' He says you forget how cold it is here.
``Duffy has surfed with seals,'' somebody says.
``The seal popped out and rode the waves - it was insane,'' he says, laughing. ``We were pretty impressed. The kid can surf. Must have been a California seal.''
The conversation wends one way and another and then turns to the weather: a different topic for surfers than it is for most people.
``We're all experts on the weather channel; surfers are the only people who wish for bad weather,'' says Jack Keefe, who looks a bit older than the others and is wearing a herringbone coat.
Mr. Keefe says that surfers here are pretty friendly, pretty accepting of newcomers, and they look out for each other. ``Most places you go to, you're shunned,'' he says. ``We get guys here from Florida and Hawaii, we put 'em up, we feed 'em.''
About this point the sun comes out and the water goes from gritty gray to a clean glassy blue tinged with pink. Then after a bit the sun is gone for good, and people begin clearing out. The beach is empty, and wetsuits lie like puddles on the ground on either side of a pickup.
It hasn't been the greatest day's surfing, though Eric Norgaard says these things appear different in retrospect. He says the most common surfing expression is not ``off the lips'' or ``cut back'' but ```You should have been here yesterday' - that's what everybody always says,'' he explains. ``Tomorrow they'll have been tubed today; that's the way it is.''