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VIDEO: Learn How to Surf in Winter in New York City

By Katie Honan | February 13, 2015 8:53am
 Get in on all the blizzard surfing with lessons and tips from longtime surfers. 
Learn to Surf in New York City This Winter
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ROCKAWAY BEACH — When it's cold outside, the surf heats up.

Surfers in New York City brave the cold water temperatures, fierce winds and even snowstorms to catch some of the year’s best waves.

"Surfing in the winter is fun because it is when we get our best waves and most favorable winds," says Bobby Butler, 30, who's been surfing Rockaway Beach year-round for most of his life.

"It also sucks."

Paddling around in a thick wet suit, which is necessary in the waters, can be brutal, he says. The waves are also larger and more dangerous, so surfers have to be more skilled and confident.

Temperatures can range from below freezing to 45 degrees, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Yet many still get out there.

If you're thinking of trying to learn or catch waves in the winter, here's what you need to know:

Where to Do It

The city's only legal surf beach is in Rockaway, from 67th to 69th streets and 87th to 92nd streets. It's open year-round from dawn to dusk, but there are no lifeguards on duty.

Further regulations can be found here.

Take a Lesson

Some surfers don't think you need to pay someone to learn how to surf, but when you're learning in the winter it's necessary for safety and borrowing the proper gear, especially if you've never gone out there before. There are many surf schools in Rockaway Beach, but most close up for winter. 

Locals Surf School, though, runs year-round private lessons that cost $100 an hour, and all gear is included.

The school is run by two surfers, Michael Kololyan and Michael Reinhardt, who've gone out in Rockaway winters since they were kids.

When the waves are good, the mostly empty ocean is a great place to learn, they said.

Lindsay Brake, 33, began surfing last summer but took a lesson just a day before a blizzard was scheduled to hit New York City with 2 feet of snow (it turned out to be much less.)

Brake, a construction manager, said she was “super stoked” for her first surf of 2015 and said it wasn’t that cold with the right wet suit and gear. 

“I was surprised, I didn’t feel the cold of the water as quickly as I thought I would,” she said.

Get the Right Wet Suit

If you think you're going to make winter surfing a new passion, you'll need the right gear when water temperatures dip into the 40s and 30s.

Wet suits that are 5/4 mm (the thickness of different parts of the suit) are recommended once the water dips below 50 degrees — and suits at a 6/5 mm thickness are recommended below 40 degrees, surfers and guides said.

Booties, gloves and a hood are also necessary when the water temperature gets below 50 degrees.

Winter Surfing in Rockaway Beach
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

Local surfer Scott Blutstein said having the appropriate wet suit is the most important thing for winter surfing.

"If it's December, you don't want to have a 3/2 mm, just like you don't want to be one of those weirdos wearing a 4/3 mm in August," he said.

The suits can be expensive — running hundreds of dollars, depending on brand —but you can also rent them at local surfshops, including Breakwater Surf Company, 67-20 Rockaway Beach Blvd., and Boarders, 192 Beach 92nd St.

Call ahead to check for availability and hours of operation.

Prepare Yourself Physically and Mentally

Surfing in the cold is “more restrictive” physically than when it’s warm for many reasons, Reinhardt said. But there can also be a mental block to get over.

“Sometimes you wake up cold in your bed, and you don’t want to go out in the cold water,” he said. “It’s all mental. Making sure you’re warm before, have a full stomach with energy to burn.”

Being in good shape before helps, too, since it’s harder to paddle with a thicker suit.

“Fatigue can come easily because you are paddling harder” in a thick suit, Reinhardt said.

And it’s really important to avoid flush, which is when water gets into your wet suit, he said. This can be done by making sure your suit fits you well and isn't too loose. 

“A winter session can last two hours or 15 minutes depending on what you do before,” Reinhardt said.

Make sure you have a plan for when you get out of the water, too, Blutstein says.

"Proper planning for after is important, especially where you're taking your wet suit off and what you're putting on right after," he said. 

Respect the Water and Other Surfers

Just like when it’s warm, abide by the local rules of the ocean and display some surf etiquette.

Locals Surf School breaks down the surf etiquette on its site, and includes the important rules against dropping in and losing control of your board. Read it before you get into the water. 

Don’t Get In Over Your Head

If you think waves are too big to surf, they probably are, says Butler.

“Winter surfing is not for everyone,” he said.

In addition to the temperature, "going under the water hurts, and maneuvering in boots, gloves, and a thick wet suit is tiring and difficult,” he added.

“Additionally, there are less people around to help you if you get in a bad situation ... People can't help you when the water is 35 degrees.”

He doesn't recommend you try it alone, and reiterated the dangers of getting out in the winter.

“You may think it’s cool to tell your friends that you surfed in the snow, but unless you are completely confident in your own abilities in the water, it could be a huge mistake.”

Thick wet suits and more gear can also be expensive — but when the waves are good, he can't help it. 

“Sometimes I feel like I have to go out in the freezing cold because the waves are so good,” he said.