Keith Natti recalls a blistering 6-degree day last winter with 30-mile-per-hour winds.
“It was probably as perfect as any place in the world could be, with nobody out,” said Natti, a Gloucester native and owner of Twin Lights Surf. “And it was cold, it was definitely cold. But for the hour I got out in the water, I couldn’t ask for anything better.’’
“The wind was blowing so hard, the water on the sand was freezing so you were walking on a skating rink. It was definitely intense,” Natti said. “Your skin in the water and in the air, it’s all one in 80-degree water, but when it’s 30 degrees and you duck dive, you feel like you ran into a wall.”
Surfing is only one of the activities that draw visitors and locals to the shores north of Boston during the summer. But when daylight begins to fade and the air begins to chill, the surf community stands alone.
Hamilton resident and Beverly native Patrick Belmonte has been surfing since his teens. Now 33, he is a cofounder of Change is Simple , and environmental education nonprofit based in Beverly.
“It’s better than people would think,” he said of the local swell. “When I say where I’m from, people are surprised about the waves. It’s something special about being out in the winter. There’s no one around. During the winter you’re by yourself and it’s really pristine.”
With the temperatures averaging between the low 20s and high 30s from January to March, one of the biggest obstacles these surfers face is the consistency of the surf.
“You have to make the most of everything in life no matter what it is, and it’s a trade-off,’’ Belmonte said. “The winters are cold and the swells aren’t consistent, but we don’t have huge crowds and the water’s clean. Every place has its benefits and New England is a special spot. There’s always a little nook or corner that you can always find that has a decent wave.”
In recent years, Natti, Belmonte, and others have noticed an uptick in the number of those willing to throw themselves into the freezing Atlantic waters. That’s in part thanks to advances in wetsuit technology that allow surfers to stay warmer longer.
“There’s definitely a culture, it’s definitely not the same as what you’d see in a warmer climate,” Natti said. “Probably in the last six years, it’s really exploded and a lot of it is due to technology.”
The local surfing community is tightly knit. It’s more than just braving the cold, but also a matter of protecting their playground.
Pennsylvania native Jim Vincent Jr. moved to Gloucester in 1996 after spending his younger years surfing the Jersey Shore. He is also a cofounder of Humans for Oceans, a group based in Essex that raises awareness about the ocean and conservation.
“Having come from the outside and having to spend some time getting to know the locals, to go out with people you don’t know you have to be respectful,” Vincent said. “The incredible sense of community that exists up here; that piece of the New England surfing is just awesome.”
Belmonte said he regularly surfs with others ranging from 15 to 65 years old.
“It’s a hearty group, lots of beards, lots of jokes all the time,” he said. “It’s more about the friendship and experience than about our competition. It’s more about sharing stories and passing our boards around.
“We’re pretty gritty. You have to be smart and persevere. You have to understand weather models and patterns and research to find the swell,” Belmonte said. “And it’s not always the best conditions. But we’re gritty and we figure it out.”