Cold Water Women
Building Connections in a Niche Surfing CommunityBy Meredith Haas | Photographs by Cate Brown
It’s 7:30 a.m., and I don’t feel much like pulling myself from my warm bed on a Saturday morning, even though the sun is shining brightly through the window and the surf is up. The soft ping from my phone on the nightstand summons me.
I’m heading out now is all it reads. With a huff of exertion, I roll out of bed and begin the process.
It’s mid-March, which means the air is in the mid-30s to 40s with water temperatures about the same. I pull on my knee-high wetsuit socks that make the next part of pulling on the wetsuit 100 times easier. Winter wetsuits are not as flexible as their warm-weather counterparts, owing to a substantially thicker construction of neoprene that provides protection from the painful cold. The socks reduce the friction, helping the wetsuit glide on until my knees. From there, it’s a shimmy dance to get it over the rest of my body.
Once encased and with booties on, I toss my gloves, a handful of towels, a mug of coffee, and a surfboard into a sand-filled car and head to the shore. At the break, I stuff my hair down the back of my wetsuit, pull over the hood that binds tightly around my head, which mutes most ambient sounds, and pull on my gloves—leaving only my face exposed.
My feet are protected from the periwinkle-studded rocks as I wade out towards the surf—the wetsuit doing its job in keeping the cold water at bay. As the water deepens and I begin to paddle, any stiffness wears away. Eight other heads are bobbing in the water, waiting in the lineup for their turn. As a set rolls in, I see one pop up and then another, gently cruising down the line of a wave. With everyone all hooded up, it’s not easy to determine who is who until they’re underway and I can see the color of their wetsuit or board, or the way they move on it. At the end of her ride, my friend sees me and waves with a big smile. I’m glad she texted.
There’s a demographic of women you don’t see much of when it comes to surfing. Women consumed head to toe in thick neoprene, surfing in colder regions that require wetsuits at least two-thirds of the year.
“You just never see representation like that,” says Abby Boone, a pediatric nurse and Wakefield-based surfer. “Growing up and working at a surf shop, I just can’t remember seeing magazines, TV, or movies showing women surfing in hoods. They were always in bikinis or short wetsuits.”
Boone, a cold-water surfer from York, Maine, has been surfing for nearly 20 years and says there’s a whole community of women who surf cold conditions day in and day out year-round who haven’t been represented. “I felt like women in the Northeast were a demographic left out.”
This drove Boone to start the Cold Water Women Instagram account as a way to celebrate this small niche within the surfing community and connect like-minded women.
“I just wanted to celebrate real women in real conditions because this is just life for us. Many of us have jobs we have to go to, [children], or other responsibilities, and are just stoked to surf when we can, even when it’s hard,” she says. “I wanted to create a space for us to connect and share that bond.”
“The surfing may not be as flashy or aggressive as our male counterparts,” says Chrissy Duffy, a pharmacist and Narragansett-based surfer who helped inspire Boone to start Cold Water Women. “But there is grace, beauty, and a sense of light heartedness that comes with these women.”
To capture that grace and beauty, Boone has relied on the support of many photographers up and down the New England coast who have contributed a number of images to the account, says Boone, noting that the quality of images pays tribute to the women that are passionate about surfing.
“When Abby reached out to start this online community, I was totally supportive of her, her mission, and I certainly had content to contribute,” says Cate Brown, a Rhode Island-based photographer who can often be found as a bobbing head amongst the surfers, geared with her fins and camera ready to capture those nose rides, party waves, or steep drops. “There’s just something so different about having a group of women in the lineup. There’s a level of support and camaraderie that’s truly organic and wonderful, and the more women who can feel that … is a win in my book.”
For Medelise Reifsteck, a real estate agent and Matunuck-based surfer, it was the first time she had seen anyone in the New England surfing community highlighting women. “It was really nice to see someone focusing on the women. That’s what I love about [Cold Water Women].”
In the two years since it launched, Cold Water Women has expanded its reach beyond New England to other cold-water communities of women from all over the world, whether it’s the Pacific Northwest, Nova Scotia, the U.K., or Denmark.
“It has definitely helped to build connections in Rhode Island and elsewhere,” says Boone, explaining that Cold Water Women still only covers a fraction of the women out in the water but that it is has helped connect her personally to more women surfers locally, and she hopes to connect with those abroad once the pandemic is over.
Medelise Reifsteck enjoys the surf despite the cold.
It takes a special kind of grit to surf in regions where the water temperatures may not even peak at 60˚F in the summer, never mind the frigid temperatures of the winter.
“I would always make an extra effort to approach girls in the winter because those are the girls that are really surfing,” says Watson. “There’s this different commitment because you have to put on all of this stuff and then take it off, and it sucks.”
That, and surfing in winter gear is just hard, adds Boone. “All the gear is restrictive, you lose your dexterity, you can’t feel your footing,” she says, adding that it can be hard to even hear with the hood cinching down on your face. “In spite of that, it’s really cool to see people get out there.”
Winter surfing is a niche within a niche, and one that’s been growing steadily for women because the reality is, as Boone points out, that in these colder regions, if you don’t surf in the winter, you’re missing out on six or more months of the year—a time when the waves are better and there are generally fewer people in the water. But it also means dealing with much colder conditions and numb faces, numb feet, and numb hands.
For some of us, the experience may be a little more intense. The term “screaming barfies” is often used by ice climbers or mountaineers to describe the painful sensation when your hands or feet begin to warm up after being cold for an extended period of time.
Boone takes off amid the spray and flurries.
The actual medical condition is referred to as the “hot aches” and can occur after winter surfing or any other cold-based activity. For me, personally, it feels like my hands or feet have been hit with a sledgehammer, knocking the wind out of me and leaving me with this nauseous feeling. I want to scream in pain and hurl at the same time, hence “screaming barfies.”
“Yes!” says Reifsteck, in agreement with my description. “It almost takes your breath away when it’s at that excruciating point of blood going back into your extremities … You push yourself and stay out longer, like, ‘meh, it’s not that bad,’ and then it’s like, ‘holy s—.’”
It’s not always agony, she adds, noting that it’s just those really cold days that make it difficult to stay out for any length of time. She describes other days in the middle of the winter that can be beautiful, sunny, and clear with no wind, making it quite comfortable out in the water. “It’s like this best-kept secret … like you’re getting away with something.”
For those that live less than 15 minutes from the nearest break, everyone seems to agree that suiting up at home is the best choice.
“If I’m already suited up and the waves aren’t awful, there is no way I am backing out. I find if I have to put my wetsuit on in a freezing parking lot or side of a road, I am more likely to skip a session if the conditions aren’t that stellar,” says Duffy.
Reifsteck agrees that it can be easy to talk herself out of a session when it’s cold and the waves are small, but that the effort of getting on her wetsuit propels her to get in the water, and she never regrets that she did. But then it’s straight home. “I almost never get out of my wetsuit until I get home … I can’t even imagine taking my wetsuit off on a 20-degree day after I’ve been surfing for an hour in 38-degree water. I just want to get home and warm.”
Chrissy Duffy chats with Boone before their surf session mid-winter.
While there are those isolated days of cold agony, almost everyone will agree that it’s worth it.
“It’s meditative—stress and time do not exist when I am in the water. No matter how crowded the lineup is or poor the conditions are, I always leave the water with a better feeling than when I got in. It washes the day away and leaves me with a feeling of lightness,” says Duffy, who recently had a baby and is looking forward to getting back in the water. “Surfing also gives me time with my friends and an opportunity to meet new people, which is not always easy with our busy everyday schedules.”
“I feel like myself when I surf,” says Watson, who hasn’t been able to get out in the water as much as she’d like to with a 5-month-old. “I think about it all the time. Any exercise I do is to be strong so I can get back in the water.”For Reifsteck, surfing has evolved over many life stages. At first, she says her early drive was to get better and be a part of the surfing community. And when she got divorced, it became a way to connect with other women and make new friends during a hard period. Now, she says, a lot of her motivation has to do with staying healthy and young.
“It gives me a sense of pride that I’m still doing it … Sometimes I force myself when it’s cold because I always enjoy it once I do it, and it helps me stay healthy physically and mentally,” she says. “The day I don’t go in to surf is the day I’m starting to get old.”