Becoming a True New Jersey Surfer

Shore surfing in the summer was a no-brainer. In the winter? Not so easy.

Thad Ziolkowski surfing
Thad Ziolkowski, seen here in Deal, finally embraced winter Shore surfing after resisting the chilly plunge for years. Photo: Mike Yanetta

Waves are like people: unique individually, while sharing local and regional traits—accent, attitude.

The classic New Jersey wave is a wedging jetty peak—thick, hollow and somewhat intimidating. Having grown up surfing waves of this kind at Sebastian Inlet in Florida, I fell in love with New Jersey on first surfing here in the mid-’90s. I lived in Manhattan at the time, but drove down to catch swells whenever I could.

Then, in 2016, I moved with my family to Montclair—as much for the surf as the schools, to be honest—and I’ve been deepening my knowledge of Garden State waves (and the Parkway) ever since.

But it was only recently that I was able to cross over a longstanding barrier: to surf through the winter months. For most of its existence, New Jersey surfing was a seasonal sport. Winter ocean temperatures dip into the thirties, after all, and early dry suits were cumbersome and leaky. But wetsuits have improved so much in recent decades that surfers are out in the water on the coldest days of the year without a second thought.

Each fall, when the waves were at their best and the warmth of summer lingered, I regularly found myself vowing that this winter, I would finally join them. But Florida imprinted me with an association of surfing and subtropical warmth. The prospect of driving to the beach in the winter on slushy roads, then plunging into an ocean that would leave me gasping and dizzy, struck me as perverse. And so once again, I would hang up my spurs until May.

Then I became friends with Chris, who lives in South Orange but grew up at the Shore in Seaside Park. This past summer and fall, Chris and I surfed most of the best swells together. A few months later, Chris matter-of-factly proposed catching a swell that popped up in mid-January.

It was exactly the sort of gloomy, blustery day that had made surfing seem unimaginable in all previous Januaries. Patches of snow skidded across the parking lot. The ocean was the color of cappuccino, with big, hollow waves breaking hard and fast on a shallow sandbar. The 15 or 20 widely spaced surfers in the lineup were being rapidly borne north on a current.

But Chris’s acceptance of the cold had a steadying effect on me. We suited up, walked down to the water, and paddled out.

Two hours later, I emerged stoked and happy—albeit with lips so numb, my words came out slurred. That lone session and my friend’s example somehow reset my inner thermometer. I went on to surf all through February and beyond.

I was a true Jersey surfer at last.

Thad Ziolkowski is the author of two books on surfing: “The Drop: How the Most Addictive Sport Can Help Us Understand Addiction and Recovery” and “On a Wave.” He is currently writing a thriller.

Read more Jersey Shore, Shore & Travel articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.

Required not shown
Required not shown