"You going out?"
The water temperature was 43 degrees. The waves were breaking 40 yards offshore and even the smallest waves measured six feet, trough to peak. With no sunlight to reflect, the water was mostly gray, except for the head of white spray - angels' hair, French surfers call it - spewing off the curling crest of each wave. To a winter surfer, the conditions were inviting. They were ideal.
By Tuesday afternoon, there were at least nine surfers in the water off Seventh Street beach in Ocean City: a couple of young Australians on summer vacation; Pat Flynn, 29, owner of an Ocean City car wash and a leading employer of Ocean City surfers; Rich Henry, 21, a restaurant worker, an accomplished runner and a Navy enlistee; Jeff Bowdler, 23, a house painter who snapped a board in half, but not his back, in a nasty wipeout in Tuesday's dangerous surf; Matt Dalton and Matt Keenan, schoolboy surfers from Ocean City High School; Michael Monroe, 40, an Ocean City gardener, and Mitch Leonard, 26, former captain of the Holy Spirit High School surf team and manager of Surfers Supplies, an Ocean City board shop. Serious surfers avoid jobs that require regimented workdays.
Had their gaze been shorebound, the surfers - while hugging their boards and waiting on waves - would have seen the shuttered custard stand along the boardwalk, and, beyond it, a ferris wheel, frozen in place for the off-season. But their view was out to sea, trying to anticipate what the next set would bring, sizing up waves that were spawned a hundred miles away. They did not shiver and they barely talked, for Tuesday's surf demanded concentration.
Surfing is a difficult sport that requires strength, balance and a keen sense for how a wave gains and loses power. Winter surfing is particularly difficult. A complete winter wet suit - with boots, mittens and a hood - weighs about 15 pounds, including the water that is intentionally trapped between a surfer's skin and his suit. (Body heat warms the trapped water and protects a surfer.) In winter, a surfer is weighed down. He must also contend with trickier currents, less sensitivity and flexibility, and heavier waves. The last of these is his distinct pleasure.
On Tuesday, Leonard was riding waves on a bright pink board, designed in consultation with his boss, George Gerlach, the bearded dean of the Jersey Shore surfers and the owner of Surfers Supplies. The board was nearly 7 feet long, eight inches longer than Leonard's summer model, and weighed nearly 8 pounds, a pound-and-a-half heavier than his summer board. A heavier, longer board improves flotation and stability, at the expense of flexibility. That means fewer stunts. Monroe, the 40-year-old lawn man, used a board that was 7 feet, 6 inches long. "When you've got to work this hard to catch a wave, you want to be standing on your board for as long as you can," he said.
Conditions were strenuous on Tuesday. The current made getting out to the breakers treacherous, unless you went out in the narrow lane next to the jetty, where a rip tide pulled surfers out to sea, or into the rocks. You could be tackled by the crashing surf and thrown to the ocean floor, your body so twisted and weightless you sensed all life had been momentarily suspended. Your chin could be so numbed by the bracing cold that you didn't realize you were bleeding from it.
One might then reasonably ask, why do you surf in the 43-degree water, when the waves are so strong they could kill you? There are answers, there are answers.
Surfer Leonard: "You block out the cold, and you concentrate on the waves. The waves are more powerful and faster in winter, and that's why you surf them."
Surfer Monroe: "When you're excited about what you're doing, the weather conditions don't have much bearing on you. Thinking about cold is harder than being in it. Winter surfing is exhilarating because it's scary."
Surfer Leonard: "Surfing in winter is a soulful thing. I don't think I could have explained that to the nuns at Holy Spirit when I was in high school, but I could now. It's quiet - you're just out there with the waves, surrounded by ocean."
Surfer Monroe: "I've been surfing since 1963. I used to be pretty good, used to surf in contests. I'm not interested in competitive surfing any more. I just like knowing I can still surf, especially in tough conditions. After surfing, my wife says I always come in in a better mood."
Surfer Leonard: "I had one ride, right in the tube, that felt like it was going on for hours - time stops in the tube - even though it lasted maybe 15 seconds. It was like walking through a tunnel made of water. Everything was quiet, light, dry, warm. When you're in the tube, it's the ultimate feeling."
Surfer Monroe: "I didn't have a very good day. I'm 40; I'm getting older; I was tentative. But I still had a good time. One wave I caught just right. Getting up was effortless, I had a nice drop-in, made the bottom turn nicely, lined up really fast. Mitch was paddling out while I was on it. It was short, but sweet. Turned out to be my best wave of the day. I should have quit right there, but when the waves are good you want to be out there."