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
Saturday 14 March 2009
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.
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.
Thrifty offer one week's car hire from Halifax starting at £200 (0808 234 2484; thrifty.co.uk).
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.
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.
Nova Scotia Tourism (001 902 425 5781; novascotia.com); Canada Tourism Commission (canada.travel).
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