Here on this desolate frozen shore, each breath of frigid salt-filled air plumes out of you like a wintry smoke. As the temperature plummets, lashing winds steal the feeling in your face and the sound of waves crashing onto land creates a rhythm of warning.
Make no mistake, this sea is dangerous. Deadly for the untrained and alone.
But for thrill-seekers, this scene marks the end of a long hunt. A van-full of people pour themselves into their wetsuits, grab their surfboards and prepare to take on what they describe as a magical experience fuelled by adrenaline and pure fun.
Welcome to the world of surfing on Prince Edward Island’s North Shore. The people with self-described questionable sanity? They’re the Rustico Surf Club. They live for this.
“There’s no stopping me,” says Julie Arsenault, looking out onto the waves.
“If you have the good gear, if you have the mitts, and the boots and the wetsuits … it’s quite enjoyable. You don’t really notice it until you get out of the water, and that’s when you [start] noticing that it’s really cold here,” Arsenault said.
“But we all snuggle into our car, put the heat on and tough it out because it’s worth it. Totally worth it.”
On a scale of one to 10, Arsenault said the cold is a 12. “Extreme.”
But these temperatures and the wind that comes with them are the best way to surf on P.E.I., she said.
In the summer, beaches are typically calm around Prince Edward Island. Except for the odd weather event, the tide is kind and typically rolls as if to massage the shoreline. A stark contrast to the winter, when waves pummel the sand. A fight between land and sea that surfers want to be in the middle of.
And with the cold the way it is, the surfers said it’s unsafe to go alone.
Together they’re comfortable, watching each other closely and surfing fairly closeby. The cold flow makes it ideal weather for wave-riding, but the right tide is difficult to find.
“You can be there for hours and not catch one wave, but when you catch that one wave you’re hooked right away for sure,” Arsenault said.
Andrew MacLaine knows the sensation well. He learned to surf in Australia and brought his talents back to the Maritimes.
Often he and his friends would go to Nova Scotia to surf, until he discovered what the Island’s winter conditions had to offer more than a decade ago.
“It was quite magic. We discovered a lot of waves in a very short stretch of coastline here on the North Shore and it’s been paying off,” he said. “I’m a wimp when it comes to cold. I do not like the cold at all, so that says a lot — if I’m willing to go out in the snow and the ice to get into the water.”
MacLaine is one of the co-founders of the Rustico Surf Club and talks every day with his group for the latest on weather, waves, or just to swap stories and memories of the sport. They’ve even incorporated movie nights and community cleanups, so the bonds they’ve created go beyond the boards.
“It really is a good community feel,” MacLaine said.
Fellow co-founder Jeff Beer agreed.
“I’d say the community here is super accepting and super, just, stoked to have anyone come out,” Beer said. “I include myself in that, to have more than Andrew and I out there. When we have six, seven, eight people, I mean, that’s a crowd here which is amazing.”
On any given day that’s prime for surfing, the group chat is on fire and so begins the chase for the perfect spot.
The hunt is part of the experience, as they pile into their vehicles (the leader of the pack is a van nicknamed the “surf machine”) and take the scenic route along the Island’s North Shore.
The group even has a professional-looking printout of its favourite haunts, or surf breaks, as they call them — places they’ve identified as the best surfing locales.
The favourites run from Rustico around to Cavendish and are nicknamed just for the heck of it. There’s Sushis, Anne’s Land, Headaches, Impossibles, Sunny’s, Fudgebombs and Rockwall, to name a few. The level of difficulty is up for interpretation. There are no black diamonds or green circles here.
What they’re looking for most, among many items on their wave-rider checklist, are whitecaps that grow and rage against the shore. As they drive, fingers point at each beach, heads move up and down and side to side to catch a glimpse of what’s on offer.
A keen eye spots the perfect scene, and boom. In only a few minutes, vehicles are parked and the small cohort of surfers pull into their black wetsuits — which MacLaine describes as like “being bear-hugged by an elastic band” with only facial features exposed to the elements.
They then grab their boards and it’s off to the water.
Being able to maneuver through the tides is a skill that comes over time. Above being able to bear the freezing temperatures, surfing requires the finesse just to balance on the board — then comes the challenge of being able to soar through the tides.
For new surfers the learning curve can be painful, MacLaine said.
“It’s a lot of work. The ocean is very challenging, waves have a lot of energy. It can be very exhausting,” he said. “You might get discouraged easily because you might not see a lot of progress really quickly. We like to offset that with the positive vibes side of things.”
Beer said winter surfing is different from other board sports, like snowboarding, so while it’s not an easy sport to pick up and play, the long journey of improving, run after run, is part of the fun.
“In snowboarding the hill isn’t moving, it’s how you manipulate your board. With surfing, the wave is different, it’s different every time. You have to learn to read all the conditions, what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. It’s the challenge, and the challenge is the fun,” Beer said.
“When you do actually catch a wave? It’s amazing.”
They get the odd stare when they’re out on the water. Passersby are sometimes confused about what they’re up to, and one time even called 911, they said.
“The sanity is questioned, a little bit, but that’s OK,” Beer said. It takes a certain type of person to want to go out on the water in these conditions, but the group knows there’s more out there that’d fall in love with the sport.
Arsenault has been involved with the Rustico Surf Club for years and said she wants to see more Islanders out alongside her on the water. Before surfing she did paddle boarding, and said more people from the summer surfing world — or new altogether — should give winter surfing a shot.
“I hope that the community grows and we have more and more people in the water to experience it,” she said.“It’s an experience, it’s a feeling that’s unforgettable and indescribable as well.”
MacLaine and Beer are of the very same belief. They can’t get enough of it. When the surf comes to a close, and they head to shore to strip down from their wetsuits, they’re already thinking about the next time out.
Beer doesn’t just have the next surf on his mind, he’s thinking about his retirement and what he plans to do in his twilight years. He could, like many, enjoy some well-deserved sunshine in Florida, California, or Arizona when the snow and sea ice come calling.
Nope. The world of winter surfing is what he’s built for. At least for now.
“I’m no spring chicken, so I keep doing my stretching and trying not to get injured,” Beer said. “I don’t golf, so this is what I want to do, going into my old age.”