Surfing Maine’s Winter Waves with Ethan Bauer Van Dusen. By James Edward, edited by Sierra Christman.
When winter hits the Northeast, it is hard, fast and long, but with the bitter cold and snow come the seasonal activities. You might choose to spend your winter hibernating, or you might be out in the elements at every opportunity. Of all the snow-dusted wonderlands in this area, Maine boasts a large number of frozen ponds and lakes for hockey, ice sailing, fishing, even tobogganing—yes, they have the Toboggan Nationals here. Other major winter attractions in Maine and neighboring New Hampshire are the ski resorts, snow sledding (also known as snowmobiling) and numerous winter festivals.
I was amazed to find that in the heart of winter, January and February especially, a group of diehard fanatics head to the beaches of Maine and New Hampshire to don their wetsuits and brave the frigid, icy waves. Welcome to the sport of extreme winter surfing.
In a local bar some time ago, I overheard a conversation between a man and a woman about surfing. They were talking about surfing year round here in Maine. At first, I thought the man was having a laugh at the woman’s expense, but as he continued, he named where he surfed, the equipment he preferred and the boards he liked. I was intrigued enough to jump in on the conversation, and that was how I met Ethan Bauer Van Dusen. A humble and free spirited mid-coast Maine native, he happily told me all about his love for surfing. I couldn’t help but respect his passion and drive.
The remarkable thing about Van Dusen’s surfing is when and where he surfs. When Van Dusen told me the amount of money one would spend on a wetsuit to surf in February, I nearly fell over. It is not a sport to be taken lightly. After we’d started to get to know each other, I had another chance to sit down with him and find out more about his journey through the freezing blue swells.
“I’ve always had so much respect and love for the ocean,” Van Dusen says. “Growing up on the coast of Maine, I was always close to the ocean. Whether it was looking through tide pools with my dad when I was young, or swimming in Rockport Harbor in the summer, I was attached to the big blue from such a young age. As I got older, I started getting into the culture of extreme sports. I used to watch surf videos of guys like Andy Irons, Kelly Slater and Dane Reynolds, and I always wished I could be out there like the guys. Even before I surfed, these professional surfers were my idols.
“I remember the feeling I had when I paddled my first wave. I knew that this was the sport for me.” -Ethan.
“So one summer while I was in high school, my friends and I decided to take surf lessons. I remember the feeling I had when I paddled my first wave. I knew that this was the sport for me. After that surf lesson, there was no looking back—I was hooked. I was and am addicted to the thrill of surfing deep blue waves. I went to a well-known Maine surf shop after that and bought a 6’2″ short board. I wanted to teach myself on a short board rather than a long board. I wanted to rip the face of that wave up, not surf gracefully like the long boarders I’d seen. Over time I became more and more comfortable on a short board. The deep bottom turns, the cutbacks and being out in the ocean sucked me deeper into the world of a hardcore surf addict. The euphoria I get when I catch a wave is like no other feeling I’ve ever had. Now I ride both long boards and short boards. As long as I’m out there, I’m happy. Winter or summer, I will never pass up a good swell.”
Like most things in life, there’s a balance of good and bad when it comes to the surf scene in New England. “[In the winter] the crowds rarely get out of control,” Van Dusen admits. “Summer can get a little crazy, but in the winter it’s only the diehards out there, and all of the true winter surfers know that there are plenty of waves to go around. I’ve only had problems a few times. Most everyone is so happy to be out there that they’re willing to follow the surf conduct and not drop in on you when you’re already tearing down the face. The sunset sessions in Maine during the winter are so breathtaking.”
Van Dusen goes on to explain that it’s not all fun and games. “The biggest drawback is the freezing cold water,” he says. “You need to be prepared: full-hooded wetsuit, at least a 5/4. Boots, gloves, Vaseline for your face, the whole nine yards. I wear a full Patagonia setup: Patagonia boots, gloves and an R4® wetsuit. Keeps me so warm. The right equipment is very important.”
The intense winter cold is at the heart of the challenges that these surfers face. Van Dusen admits that even the commute to the beach, especially during a storm, can be risky. “When there’s a foot of snow on the ground but the surf is going off, it can be a treacherous drive to the beach,” he says.
“Besides that, there can be inconsistent swells. Don’t get me wrong, when the surf is good, it’s good. But when there is a little dry spell, the need for swells can really set in. If you’re patient, a nice swell is bound to hit the shore sooner or later.”
With that said, Van Dusen declares that overall, the surf is better in the winter. “Waves get a bit bigger due to the more extreme weather, the lineup is less crowded due to the below freezing temperatures, and you’re out there with dudes and ladies like yourself—all true soul surfers. If you’re surfing 30° water with air temperatures of 5°, you know you really love what you do.”
Some of Van Dusen’s favorite surf breaks in the Northeast:
• Higgins Beach, Scarborough, ME
• Old Orchard Beach, ME
• Gooches Beach, Kennebunkport, ME
• Long Sands, York, ME
• Reid State Park, Georgetown, ME
• Popham Beach, Phippsburg, ME
• Hampton Beach, NH
Keep up with Van Dusen’s North East Surfing on Instagram @bonzerhaole
Filmed with a GoPro
Article by James Edward