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Monday, April 4, 2005
Updated: April 6, 9:51 AM ET
Cold Pill

By Jon Coen

The smell of sunblock hangs heavy in the air. Throngs of tanned souls lazily watch the action under a sweltering summer sun. The water is blue, the fans are stoked and free swag's aplenty. This is the summer surf contest scene. But not this contest. For the coldwater surf warriors of the Northeast, the fourth-annual Red Bull Icebreak, held April 1 in Nova Scotia, Canada, is an icebreak from the norm, a 32-degree test of a pro surfer's grit.

The day's lineup, determined by five regional qualifying events, was a thorough representation of the East Coast cold-water surf community. Riders from Maine, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Nova Scotia braved the freezing temps to drop in for top honors and a $4,500 first-place prize.

People actually surf in 32-degree water?

Yep. A chill in the water or a falling flurry doesn't stop the drive of Atlantic Ocean surfers, even during radical temperature shifts—from North Carolina to Newfoundland, the Atlantic has some of the greatest water temp differences in the world (August temps: Cape Hatteras, NC, 81 degrees. Anchor Brook, Newfoundland, 38 degrees).
The few, the brave, the cold ... A spectator's-eye view of the surfers competing in 32-degree Canadian Maritime lefts during the Red Bull Icebreak in Nova Scotia, April 1, 2005.
  Halifax, Nova Scotia, surfer Matt Healy spoke of ice in his local waters. Aside from the chill factor, he claims, "You gotta watch out for the chunks."

But how do the pros keep from freezing?

In recent years, wetsuit technology has helped keep surfers toasty in water down to the low 30's, but the truly dedicated adopt their own warming methods on extended sessions or particularly cold days. At this year's event, held at a remote Nova Scotia point, the Northeast's top pros discussed the insanity of dodging hypothermia in the lineup and brutal winters past.

"I drink as much as I can, and save up a good pee," laughs Brenden Petticrew, of Virginia Beach. "I try to get one out before I surf, and one pee once in the water."

Matt Keenan likes to do a few laps on the beach before surfing his homebreak of Ocean City, NJ. "I tried running around on the boulders to warm up, and I almost broke my ankles," he says of the rocky Canadian headland.

Wetsuits are not designed to keep you dry. They let water seep into your suit to be warmed by your body and the water, in turn, insulates you. Back in the days of archaic wetsuits (mid 80's) the old timers learned to bring a jug of hot water to dump in their suits before they paddled out.

It isn't any easier to float frontside when you're covered head-to-toe in rubber. Just ask the Icebreak's winner, Jesse Hines: "I hate surfing cold water," he says. "I surf in the winter only when it's really good."
Surfers are still pulling this old trick, although some have added new twists.

"I keep a five gallon water bottle, the kind they deliver to your house for drinking water," says Noah Snyder of North Carolina's Outer Banks. "I fill the whole thing with steaming, hot water and bring it to the beach. It's enough for three or four guys to fill up their suits."

The coldest day Snyder ever surfed was, "Five degrees, in Buxton, NC, right after a trip to Costa Rica. Brrrrr."

Atlantic City's Frank Walsh is a big-time caffeine junky. "I've had times where I couldn't find any hot water," admits Walsh. "And I had to pour hot coffee in my suit." And in an absence of coffee, "There's always vodka. That stuff keeps you warm."

These surfers are hooked up with big time wetsuit sponsors, but So Cal-based designers don't know what it's like to take off your suit and have it freeze on the ground beside you, so winter warriors know the value of an out-of-water classic: the thick, one-piece Carhartt to pull on after the suit is pulled off. Pro Randy Townsend of Surf City, NJ, reclined on the boulders watching heats, sporting what construction workers call the "lifer" suit. If you own one, you're banging nails for life.

Florida's Ryan Carlson didn't finish top six, but he did turn heads and fire up the cold water with his arial attacks.
And the winner is ...

Not a Canuk, or a burly Maine surfer, but a Carolinian, Jesse Hines. Despite wearing more rubber than you'd find at a NASCAR race (6 mm suit, gloves, booties and a hood), and surfing a full day of freezing water, Jesse Hines tore the 200-yard lefts apart with the style of an artist and the aggression of a pirate.

"I hate surfing cold water." Jesse says. "I surf in the winter only when it's really good. And then I drive right back home in my wetsuit. The guys from Jersey and further north are way more dedicated."

For more information on the Icebreak, visit their website at

First Place -- Jesse Hines -- Outer Banks, North Carolina
Second Place -- Frank Walsh -- Longport, New Jersey
Third Place -- Sam Hammer -- Lavallette, New Jersey
Fourth Place -- Dean Randazzo -- Somer's Point, New Jersey
Fifth Place -- Matt Keenan -- Ocean City, New Jersey
Sixth Place -- Andrew Gesler -- Ocean City, New Jersey