SURFING: Women Winter Warriors

Lisa Spellman, about to set off in Montauk during Saturday’s snowstorm, finds surfing to be “an amazing equalizer.” Tin Ojeda

   Pulling on a wetsuit and bounding into 43-degree water with a surfboard might not top your to-do list this winter. But for a group of local women, the hassle of layering up and contending with the cold is decidedly worth it.
    Bettina Schuler of Montauk has been surfing for almost nine years, and began her foray into winter waters about five years ago. “Surfing did not come easy. It took me three years to even feel like I vaguely knew what I was doing in the water and feel like I was having fun,” she said. “Once I felt more comfortable, I started surfing more in the winter.”
    Andrea Shapiro of East Hampton learned how to surf in the winter and has been at it for six years. “I’d rather surf in the winter than not surf,” she said. There are definite perks. “You have the waves practically to yourself or with one or two friends. It’s beautiful, and it’s nice to be able to exercise and enjoy the outdoors when most people aren’t outside,” she said.
    Evelyn O’Doherty of Springs has surfed for almost eight years, and was introduced to the sport by her husband. She loved it, and quickly became obsessed. A family tradition to surf together on holidays and birthdays landed her in the water during winter months. “Terrified at first, I was trying to please them, but after a while, it became the norm. It’s what we do now,” she said.
    Getting dressed for the water is half the battle. Schuler’s gear includes a five-millimeter wetsuit with an attached hood, five-millimeter gloves, and seven-millimeter booties. She also piles on long underwear, socks, and an extra fleece rash guard underneath her wetsuit for extra warmth.
    “Once you suit up, you want to get the most bang for your buck,” said Marissa McNaughton, a Montauk resident with seven years of surfing experience, including five winters in the water. Besides struggling into a super-thick wetsuit, and lobster claw gloves (the thumb and index finger are independent, and the last three fingers are clustered together), McNaughton has to braid her long, curly hair to keep it from becoming a tangled mess after surfing.
    Shapiro wears a one-millimeter liner under her wetsuit and a swimmer’s cap under her hood to ward off the wind. She also applies a balm to her skin for protection from the wind. “I’m warmer in the water surfing than bundled up in my warmer clothes watching,” she said. “The water ends up being warmer than the air. Outside, if it’s 20 degrees, the water is 40 degrees.”
    Lisa Spellman of Montauk and Manhattan, who “fantasizes about winter surfing in August all the time,” has been at it for the past two and a half years. “The wetsuits are pretty amazing. I feel like you get more credit than you deserve because you’re really warm with the wetsuit,” she said. However, the wrong size wetsuit can be a problem, as O’Doherty discovered while using her husband’s hand-me-down for her first winter in the water. “It was two sizes too big, which means water gets in. Nothing fit right.” Now she has her own wetsuit, which keeps her drier, and is more flexible. “It’s easier if you have the proper equipment to stay out there,” O’Doherty said.
    Typically, Schuler said, “I can only last an hour in the winter. You just get cold; it zaps your energy. And then I’m wiped out for the rest of the day.” To justify venturing out, Schuler makes sure the conditions are good. “I go in once a week or once every two weeks. I’m pickier.” Also, she selects her waves with more care. “I’m more conservative with the waves I take in the winter because I want to minimize my chances of going under the water,” she said.
    McNaughton, who surfs for two-hour sessions, said, “In December the water is still warm. When it washes over you it isn’t that bad, but in February, it’s brain-freeze temperature. If your wetsuit gets wet, imagine that going down your spine.” Spellman stays warm with the exception of her feet, “It can take hours for your feet to defrost when you get out. Also, your face takes a beating.” But none of this is enough to keep these women out of the water.
    There is a growing group of women who surf year round. “We used to have ‘surfer-girl’ potlucks and alternate at each other’s houses,” said Schuler. The dinners, which helped establish a network for women to meet and talk shop were held monthly for years, and still occur occasionally. “Typically surfing has been a male-dominated sport, and it’s great to have women to discuss the challenges of surfing. Guys have different body types and a different center of gravity. We have different fears and inhibitions that guys don’t understand,” she said.
    “There is a split between men and women,” said O’Doherty, “If I talk about surfing with confidence, men will not take it seriously or dismiss it. With other women, we’re mutually supportive.” O’Doherty also teaches surfing and has noticed a difference between the sexes. “I feel like with guys, it’s about the excitement, the adrenaline, stand-up and ride the waves. For women, it’s more about safety — wanting to make sure they can navigate in the water with that big, cumbersome board, getting comfortable in the water, and how to get away from the board when they do get knocked by a wave so they don’t get conked in the head,” she said.
    “Men are more competitive and aggressive with one another, and women are more supportive,” she said. While O’Doherty has noticed some equality in the water, she said men “try to outdo one another, and they don’t like it if women are catching more waves than they are. We hold our own.”
    “With women there’s less competition, the women that I surf with. It’s not like with men, it’s all about guys who want to get all the waves. The women, we have fun with each other and hoot each other on,” Schuler added. “There’s no difference between men in the water and the land,” said Spellman, “They steal your waves like crazy and totally specialize in snaking and dropping-in, for them that’s a huge distinction. We’re just buoys out there.”
    According to Spellman, if the women are unfamiliar, men assume they will not go for a wave, and take it for themselves. “In the summer it’s brutal. You’re like a gladiator; you have to just go for it,” she said. “For me, what I love about surfing is that it’s an amazing equalizer,” she added.