The Winter Ritual to Surf: It’s an art form in New England, by Travis Hayes

Travis Hayes winter sup surf ritual in New England
Travis Hayes winter sup surf ritual in New England

It’s not finding a place to go, it’s finding someone to go with that makes the New England winter wave search so memorable.

Travis Hayes winter sup surf in New England
Marblehead Massachusetts: Within the view of the Boston skyline but yet so far away on a day like this! Photo by Kealan Shilling
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A Prius quietly pulls into a dirt lot on the curve of a road. The stone pillars marking the private entrance and the trees of the surrounding woods are coated in a thick dusting of pure white, newly driven snow.

In the predawn gloom, the iridescent snow glows brightly, illuminating the darkness under the towering oaks and pine. All sounds are muted; the wind whispers through the pines and a fog horn bellows from a nearby lighthouse. He is already suited, warm in his steel and aluminum cocoon. He grabs his keys. One more gulp of coffee and his booties crunch softly into the blanket of snow.

The ritual begins.  Exiting the vehicle, unstrapping the board, grabbing the paddle, tucking the keys away in a safe nook, checking the latch to ensure it is locked…strapping on his surf cord. Only then does he slide on his gloves, otherwise the clumsiness of his neoprene mittens would make all the previous tasks quite impossible.

Travis Hayes, sup surf New England winter
Year round sup surfer, Rick “sup the creek” Weeks off Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod Mass

He’s done this a thousand times
The din of the ocean churns in his ears. His heart is thumping, his mouth upturned in an enormous grin. He bounds across the road, crusty with newly laid salt and sand, and hops into a 4 foot drift at the periphery. Gleefully, he enters the darkness of the pines; his frame vanishes within their arms. On the winding little trail the sound of the endless marching of swell intensifies, his excitement grows. Our surfer emerges through the scrub that frames the dark point and cove where shadowy ocean lines bend into the bay—clean, head high wedges cranking down the rock reef in uniform precision. The sun has yet to emerge from the dawn’s horizon, but its rays begin to silhouette the little point and the house upon its hump. In a second, he is over the smooth gray cobblestones, across the seaweed-wrapped rocks, and out upon the water.

Sets continue to peel as he paddles to the lineup. With each wave that passes his enthusiasm builds exponentially. He reaches the takeoff rock as a sweet set approaches. Spinning on his little performer board, he strokes once, and down the face he plunges, laying out horizontally into a nice bottom turn.

Travis Hayes winter sup surf in New England, Gloucester Massachusetts
Travis Hayes on Dawn Patrol, somewhere in Maine. Photo by Micky Lawler

“The sun has fully risen, and the snow begins to drip from the limbs of the trees…barreling lefts reeling mere feet from the exposed, glistening black rocks”

The wave does its job by spinning over the submerged rocky line of boulders. He snaps off 10 cutbacks before popping out over the top of the lip, and back out for more. His heart is pounding, his legs shaky with excitement. He is a solitary figure on the water, totally alone. Not another soul except for some sleeping birds and the occasional seal.

Outings to the sea
While standing in silence, he thinks of his wife and daughter, still asleep and snug under their warm winter blankets. He thinks of how lucky he is to have this solitude.  How, in other parts of the world, this type of experience has been forever altered by the onslaught of enthusiastic hordes of wave riders. He thinks, “Is this for real? Am I really standing here all alone with utter perfection at my feet?”

Gulls and other water fowl begin to gather on the rocks, awakening from their frigid slumber. He wonders how they survive. Subzero temperatures, snow covering every surface, they huddle on the rocks in tight little clusters. Perhaps they are thinking the same thing about him—a crazed human standing on the freezing water in a black rubber suit.
The sun’s rays break the horizon and coat the underbelly of last night’s retreating storm clouds in a soft orange and red hue. Sets continue to heave at the same, precise location, and he continues to ride each one with great fury and zeal. Despite the 20 degree air temperature, a sweat begins to break upon his brow. After 30 minutes he’s already had 20 waves. It’s ridiculous. He begins to laugh at himself and his good fortune.

On the road he sees a familiar vehicle rolling down the hill. The driver begins to flash headlights at him as he drops down the wall of another head-high gem. Within 15 minutes, another wet-suited frame emerges from the trees and climbs down the snowy rocks to the water’s edge.

Travis Hayes New England winter sup surf tradition
Jimmy Grimsley finding sanctuary in Rhode Island.

“Is this for real? Am I really standing here all alone with utter perfection at my feet?”

He paddles out like a crazed mad man, eyes red, froth emanating from his ears. He turns on an inside set, and begins bashing the lip from his backside, hooting loudly down the line like some crazed lunatic. He returns to the lineup wearing a smile. They look at each other in knowing bliss. This is their perfection. This is their paradise not yet lost.

Before long other cars begin to stop and watch from the road. Hunched over figures sulkily sip their coffee and watch, silently judging, as the two friends continue on their revolving wave machine, trading rides and cheering each other on. It’s only a matter of time before multiple black figures emerge from the brush. These are other “locals,” though the majority are not native to this place. There is a handful that grew up in the town, another one from New York, one from New Jersey, one from Oakland, California! They are the regulars. They have surfed together for many years. The lineup is orderly and efficient. Everyone enjoys tremendous rides.

Travis Hayes winter sup surf in New England
A couple of buds find some leftover surf from Nor’easter Nemo at Good Harbor Beach Gloucester, Mass. Winter sup surf session in New England.

“This is how a life should be lived. “

As the hours pass on. Some of the riders take their leave, returning to jobs, families, to responsibilities. But not the original two. They stay and enjoy the thrill of the low tide that creates barreling lefts reeling mere feet from the exposed, glistening black rocks.

The sun has fully risen, and the snow begins to drip from the limbs of the trees. The water is an emerald green, the sky an intense vivid blue. The point is powder white, lined at the base by ebony granite.

They surf until their bodies ache with pleasure, fatigue and numbness. Their muscles and limbs are lactic, tightening and sore with the gathering chill within their bones. Their mouths are pasty and white around the edges. Their faces red from exposure to sun, wind and cold air—purple rashes blistering their armpits, yet they have never been happier. Smiles beam from their faces as they walk back to their cars. This is how every day should begin. This is how a life should be lived.




Travis Hayes is a year round sup surfer and sup racer from New England where he lives with his wife Hollie, and daughter Waverly in Maine.
Travis Hayes is a year round sup surfer and sup racer from New England where he lives with his wife, Hollie, and daughters, Lila and Waverly, in Maine.
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Sponsored by Sunova SUP and Kialoa Paddles I grew up in Falmouth Maine, nestled in a house built in the 1740s, the same house in which my mother and her three brothers were raised. I spent the majority of my childhood on the ocean, fishing with my uncles or on adventures with my cousins at our family cottages on Cliff Island and Little Sebago Lake. I caught my first wave in 1995, while attending college at the University of Oregon, Eugene. I moved back to Maine in 2000, and started surfing more regularly with my high school friends. In 2010, I purchased my first stand up paddleboard online, mainly for flat water paddling to keep in shape when the waves were absent. I caught my first wave on a sup several months after and was immediately hooked. I currently live with my wife and daughter in Cape Elizabeth, ME and spend my free time exploring with my family, surfing with friends, and racing my paddle board throughout New England.