At 6:30 A.M. last February 1, as Bill Mozak drove through the snow-covered streets of Scarborough, Maine, he was moderately excited. He had risen before dawn to listen to the marine radio. Offshore buoys reported only a mild swell. "It sounded small, about five foot," he says. In fact, the surf was far bigger than he suspected. As he neared the rocky jut of Higgins beach, he could see the tops of 12- to 15-foot waves through a light snowfall. A nor'east gale held the frothy crests aloft. The windchill stood at-50. Mozak stripped off his clothes and donned a full wet suit with hood, gloves and booties. He carried his surfboard across the icy beach and waded into the 37� water.
Three hours later Mozak was back at his Portland shop, Bill's Surf and Skate, to extol the water conditions on his 24-hour surf line (207-761-WAVE). "We're talking big," he said. "It's definitely 12 to 15 feet...with bigger sets coming in. It's really clean this morning.... Blowing northeast right now. Go out there because it's really good." In surfing argot: He was stoked.
The 29-year-old Mozak is a stalwart member of Maine's fraternity of frostbite surfers. When winter storms send throngs of New Englanders to the ski slopes, a hearty band of 100 or so Down East surfers performs nose rides and cutbacks in one of surfing's bleakest outposts. Says Mozak, "We're the iron men of surfing."
"Next to Alaska, Maine is the most hardcore spot in the world," agrees Steve Zeldin, editor of Surfing magazine. "I admire anybody who can go out in that frigid water and still enjoy themselves."
Tucked among deep-water bays far from the warming Gulf Stream, Maine surfers endure a particularly bitter cold. Saltwater spray often freezes in the air. Frostbite is common. Wading through chest-high snowdrifts to reach the water could qualify as an extreme sport in itself. Northern surfers fortify themselves by cranking up their car heaters and pouring steaming-hot water into their wet suits. "You battle hypothermia every time you go out," Mozak says. "When you duck-dive waves you get vicious ice-cream headaches. You can't handle that kind of cold for prolonged periods. If you get pounded paddling out, you feel light-headed, like you're going to black out. You either head back in or it's oblivion." I laving said all that, Mozak still talks the talk. When asked if some days are simply too cold, he says, "I haven't seen one yet."
The thrall of surfing offsets Mother Nature's chill, especially when the notorious nor'easters kick up mountainous ground-swells over Maine's rocky bottoms. Polar-bear surfers prefer the seething waves bestowed by winter storms to the civilized delights of freshly powdered ski slopes. "Even the best day of skiing can't compare to a fair day of surfing," Mozak says. "Skiing is a sport, but surfing has a soothing, spiritual aspect."
Doug Dryburgh, who surfed in Southern California while growing up on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, was surprised to find shapely waves when he moved to Portland two years ago. "I wasn't too optimistic at first," he says, "but I became a believer. Your face feels like it's going to freeze and crack off, but it's worth it. I've had days that rivaled my best in Los Angeles. I sent photographs home to prove it. My friends don't believe me. They've accused me of doctoring the pictures."
Two days after the big swell, I returned to Higgins beach with Mozak. He carried two surfboards, one short and one long, on the roof of his Saab, but Casco Bay had calmed into an unruffled gray expanse. Mozak stood in the snow chatting with Mike Connors, a 53-year-old molecular biologist who began surfing two years ago in the summer and persisted through winter with a convert's devotion. "I just got hooked on it," he says. "I don't know why or how."
Winter surfing was barely done in Maine as recently as 10 years ago. After all, local waters are nippy enough to inhibit swimming even in late summer, when temperatures barely reach the low 60s. Only a die-hard dozen or so persevered after the Gulf of Maine began its autumn descent to bone-numbing chill. Thanks to the introduction of warmer, thinner wet suits, the roster of frostbite surfers has doubled in recent years. Nowadays you might see as many as 20 regulars at Higgins beach on a winter morning.
Mozak likes the camaraderie, if only for the distraction it provides from the hellish conditions. "The water is 10 times colder when you're out there alone," he says. "All you do then is think about the temperature."