Freeze frame: Winter surfing in Canada

Forget Cornwall and California – try Canada. Chris Nelson heads to a wintry Nova Scotia to test his surfing skills against shoulder-high waves – and toe-freezing temperatures

It is still dark as I struggle into my damp wetsuit. My feet are beginning to numb as I stamp my feet and breathe a warm, ghostly mist onto my pink fingers. The new block of malleable cold-water wax I've brought from Cornwall has protested at the drop in temperature by turning into something that resembles a lump of diamond-hard, coconut-scented flint. I fear if I try and wax my board it will only result in a shower of sparks.

My earlier mutterings of "Why am I doing this?" have now morphed into a much louder complaint as I "Brrrrr" my way over frosted grass, board under arm, towards the beach. Sunlight cracks the horizon and the sea is ablaze with an intense fiery glow. The beach to my right stretches all the way to the distant boulder-fringed point, where lines of peeling white-water roll, fanned by a gentle offshore breeze.

Now it all makes sense. The beach is alive with classic shoulder-high waves, but it is devoid of any competing surfers. In Queensland, Bali, California or Cornwall, there would already be a pack of hungry wave riders scattered through the line-up. I pause for a moment to drink in the scenery. No need to rush: I have this stunning playground all to myself. Welcome to surfing in Nova Scotia.

While the east coast of Canada may not seem like the ideal place to chase world-class waves, there is method in my madness. This time last winter I'd been bobbing on my board off Central America in the searing tropical heat, face smeared with white zinc cream, a floppy hat providing token cover from the sun's rage. The surf was almost identical, only then there were about 100 other souls scattered among the breakers.

As surfers, our quest is always for the perfect wave, but the fine print has always included a warm-water clause. Over the decades we've scoured the Equator looking for the ultimate ride; risked leaky ferries off Bali, malaria-riddled jungles in Java, shark-infested waters off Mozambique and civil wars from Nicaragua to Sri Lanka.

Just as in the original surf movie The Endless Summer, the wave-rider's dream became chasing the surf armed only with board shorts and warm-water wax. However, as the Tropics have become increasingly crowded, and as wetsuit technology has developed, surfers have started looking to new regions to explore.

They have been surfing in this Canadian province since Saturday 7 July 1962. "The amazing thing about our surf history is that we can trace it back to the very first day a Nova Scotian paddled out on a surfboard," says first-generation surfer Jim Leadbetter. "Rod Landymore and his brother had a father who was in charge of the Eastern Fleet. An American admiral came to visit and brought them two surfboards. They caught their first waves that very day."

While the surfers of the Sixties had to struggle with old dive suits, today, companies such as O'Neill and Rip Curl make space-age wetsuits that will keep a surfer warm in even the cold of Nova Scotia. "Now it's realistic to go surfing for two-and-a-half hours – even here where the water temperature can dip below 1C in the winter," says Lance Moore of Dacane, the area's main surf shop, in Halifax.

"Everyone's been to Indonesia, everyone's been to all those warm places. There are heaps of spots here that are just as good. All you need is a wetsuit and a bit of spirit."

Moore has represented Canada three times at the World Surfing Games. "First time in 1992, we were like the Jamaican Bobsleigh Team. I learnt a lot," he says. "Now I can hold my own with anyone if the waves are good."

When the sun breaks out, the bleached sand and clear waters of White Point beach have an almost tropical feel, yet they lie just 90 minutes south of Halifax, among the pines and the dark of the other points. It is watched over by White Point Beach Resort, a complex of dark wooden cabins.

The resort first opened in the late Twenties as a private hunting and fishing lodge; today the beach-front cottages are literally a stone's throw from the Atlantic, and the wood burners provide a warm welcome after a morning dip in the chilly ocean. In the summer it throngs with tourists, but off-season, it's an oasis of calm.

Among the cabins you'll find the hub of south-shore surfing. "It never used to cross my mind to surf outside the summer time. I used to look at the waves and think: 'No, too cold!'," says Jeff Norman, owner of Rossignol Surf Shop.

Inside this ochre-coloured refuge, the chill winter air is immediately forgotten. Classic old longboards hang from the rafters above the green baize of a pool table. The afternoon light angles through the picture windows.

"Although most of our business comes through in the summer, I'm happy to come down and open up the shop when surfers pass through," says Norman, who hires out warm wetsuits, boots, gloves as well as surfboards. "The beach break here is great, but nearby there are some amazing point breaks that the better surfers head for," he adds.

But why would anyone want to paddle out in the frigid Atlantic when temperatures drop below zero? Is this just an extreme way to escape the crowds?

Well, apart from the great waves, there's the epic scenery, the pines frosted with a dusting of fresh snow. There's the slab ice that drifts into the bays in the depths of February, azure blue mini-icebergs that bob in the line-up at your side and the ice crystals that hang in the lip of the wave. There are the eagles that circle overhead and the way the water steams like a hot spring when the air temperature drops to -20C.

This isn't just stoicism – ask anyone who's ever taken to a freezing Alpine slope on a snowboard or skis. As the old saying goes, there's no such thing as bad weather; only inappropriate dress.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting There

Air Canada (0871-220 1111; aircanada.com) flies year-round from Heathrow to Halifax; Canadian Affair (020-7616 9184; canadianaffair.com) has a seasonal service from Gatwick.

Getting Around

Thrifty offer one week's car hire from Halifax starting at £200 (0808 234 2484; thrifty.co.uk).

Staying There

White Point Beach Resort, White Point Beach, Nova Scotia (001 902 354 2711; whitepoint.com) offers ocean-front cottages from C$200 (£111) per night.

Surf Shops

Lance Moore is happy to offer advice to visiting surfers at Dacane Surf Shop, 5239 Blowers St, Halifax, Nova Scotia (001 902 431 7873; dacanesurfshop.com).

At White Point, Jeff Norman does wetsuit and board hire from Rossignol Surf Shop, White Point Resort, Nova Scotia (001 902 354 7100; surfnovascotia.com).

Having the right wetsuit is essential – the O'Neill Psycho 2 combines a built-in hood with thicker Neoprene (6mm) that maintains suppleness and stretchiness. Don't forget good wetsuit boots and gloves.

More information

Nova Scotia Tourism (001 902 425 5781; novascotia.com); Canada Tourism Commission (canada.travel).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: .NET Developers / Software Developers

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: our .NET Developers / Software Dev...

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

    £25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Ashdown Group: Project Accountant (Part-Qualified Accountant) - Manchester

    £23000 - £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Project Accountant (Part-...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat