From the Mag | Cold Power

Words By Sam George | Photos by Jim Brewer

That broad tongue of exceptionally warm equatorial ocean water that licked the western coast of North America, known simply as El Nino, was especially kind to Southern California over the 2015-16 season. Most specifically, where I’m concerned, at least, along the shores of Malibu, where summer water temps broke all records—75 degrees, at one point—and as early February, I was still paddling in trunks. Mid-winter, mind you, the water having dipped down to what I’d call chilly yet not cold. On this particular day I found myself cruising past a middle-aged surfer on conventional equipment, who sat on his board, the water up to his sternum. Middle-aged, I guessed, because covered as he was from head to toe in neoprene, from his five-mil booties to his hood, his exact age was hard to determine. But he looked up at me as I paddled by, his cheeks scrunched by the tight hood, his expression not altogether jovial.

“Don’t you ever get cold?” he asked.

I glanced down. “Cold?” I thought. Sure, I’ve been cold. Real cold.

Rigged out in rubber just like him, except much thicker and with gloves, too. I remember paddling out at the fabulous point break of Olafsfjord in Iceland, only a few miles south of the Arctic Circle. Air temps below freezing, snow covering the granite flanks of the fjord right down to the water’s edge. At the time I’d hardly ever standup paddled wearing a full wetsuit, let alone a 6/5/4 mil with thick booties, gloves and a hood. But the waves were so good—and the lineup so empty—that all I’d thought about was getting out there as quickly as possible. I wrestled into the neoprene armor, grabbed my board and paddle, clambered over the rocks and headed out. Sort of.

First thing, paddling with thick gloves on and no wax on the paddle. Discovering, as rows of powerful, frigid whitewater approached, that my rubbery hands would not obey my will, but would slide up and down the slippery shaft in a manner considered obscene in different circumstances. Second revelation: booties really stick to deck pads. As I struggled to get a grip on my paddle, I also tried to step back toward the tail, anticipating, should I ever achieve purchase on the carbon fiber shaft, paddling over the sweep of frosty foam. Tried to step back, being the operative term. Now I found my feet stuck to the deck as if to flypaper—I couldn’t slide forward or back.

There I was, three rows of 38-degree whitewater bearing down, standing stationary with my feet glued to my board, a stick of what might as well been black licorice in my hands, thinking, in one of those bright flashes of memory, of a trip to Costa Rica when it was so hot that I couldn’t keep the wax from melting on my board.

Then the ice weasels came, hundreds of sharp teeth gnashing at the exposed skin of my face. Or at least that’s what it felt like when I came up from my dunking. Had I been able to breath I would have certainly gasped. As it was, I simply gazed about stupidly, as if wondering, “What was it like, being alive?” The next wave hit—by now I was outside my body, musing, abstractedly, over a line from Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.

“Only once in all that time he had again the glimpse of the earnestness in the anger of the sea. That truth is not so often made apparent as people might think. There are many shades in the danger of adventures and gales, and it is only now and then that there appears on the face of facts a sinister violence of intention…”

When you start recalling passages from century-old literature you know you’re cold. Yet somehow I’d crawled back up onto my board, risen to my feet, gingerly clutched my paddle and began making progress out into deeper water beyond the shoulder of the perfectly peeling swells. There I stood, my legs quivering like a new-born reindeer (the analogy perfectly appropriate considering the backdrop) sucking in great draughts of frigid, albeit heat-giving, oxygen, feeling consciousness seep back into my outraged nervous system. And I hadn’t even caught a wave yet.

So yeah, buddy, I’ve been cold. But standing there I couldn’t find the words suitable to express just how wonderful it was to be paddling in the middle of winter with the sun on my bare back, me in my trunks, he in his full suit, booties and hood. So I just smiled.

“One of us is crazy,” I said.

Story originally published in SUP magazine’s 2016 Skills Guide