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[degree]
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
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
"Next to Alaska, Maine is the most hard-core 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
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." Having 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 groundswells
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
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
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."
Not everyone welcomes company. In fact, Mozak predicted that
some fellow frostbiters would chastise him for talking to a
reporter. "Maine surfing is the biggest secret in the United
States," he says. "There aren't a lot of surfers up here, and
they like it that way. They're extremely protective of what they
have. As Mainers put it, they don't want people from 'away.'"
Sure enough, I received a call a few days later from a
second-generation Maine surfer, who discouraged me from writing
this article, for fear that it would invite an influx of
surfers. "If it's a question of money," he said. "I think we can
work something out." He offered me $7,500 to abandon my inquiry.
He blamed Mozak for popularizing surfing's last uncrowded
outpost. "He came up here with the intention of turning this
place into New Jersey, one surfer at a time," the worried man
said. "Every surfboard he sells rips out a bit of my soul." This
sense of protectionism might ring true if the conditions
resembled those in places like San Clemente, Calif., or Hanalea
Bay in Hawaii. But I found it hard to imagine clamorous invaders
beating their way through the snow to participate in the frosty
opposite of The Endless Summer.
The 100 or so winter surfers scattered among the rugged bays
east of Portland are less concerned about a foreign invasion.
For one thing, the 12-foot tides disguise their favorite spots.
"You could drive by half a dozen times and not see any break,"
says Joe Crary, a guide for sea-kayak trips who started surfing
10 years ago at age 36. "The seventh time you might see a
perfect wave." Because the breaks are ephemeral, the surfers
converse at length on the vagaries of winter weather patterns
and tide cycles. "My phone starts ringing days in advance of a
swell," says Crary. "I don't even want to think about my phone
The wildest breaks were first surfed by Jay Speakman, who moved
from Maui, Hawaii, in 1970 to work as a lobsterman on Little
Cranberry Island, just south of Bar Harbor. Speakman, later
joined by his brother Chris, scouted offshore breaks while
hauling lobster pots on his boat. Their fellow lobstermen
overcame initial doubts (one threatened to summon the Coast
Guard if the brothers surfed) and began to call in wave reports
on the radio from their remote routes. On winter workdays the
Speakmans would drop anchor and retrieve surfboards stashed in
the engine hold. "Those winter swells were every bit as
challenging as the waves on Maui," says Jay, who now lives in
Oregon. "I guarantee we were the first to surf 90 percent of
those places." No wonder. Most were weed-covered ledges
accessible only by boat. The most remote of the Speakman
destinations was Mount Desert Rock, an island 20 miles out to
sea, inhabited only by seals.
Jay Speakman barely scratched the surface before moving to New
Mexico in 1985. The serpentine Maine coast is said to be 3,478
miles long, not counting the coastlines of the 2,000 islands
offshore. The Down East archipelago extending to Nova Scotia
still contains a multitude of unsurfed breaks. "In some ironic
way, Maine has preserved the pure essence of surfing," Doug
Dryburgh says. "It's uncharted territory. It's surfing's final
Frequent contributor Mike Cannell prefers to surf in the warm
waters off Hanalea, on Kauai.