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Radio Field Trips: Rick Ganley tries surfing for the first time, in the dead of winter

Winter surfing in Hampton is more accessible than you might think. NHPR Morning Edition host Rick Ganley learned how to catch some waves.

Morning Edition is kicking off our Radio Field Trips Series for 2022, and we’re excited to get out and explore. It might be winter and a pandemic, but we can still find some joy and maybe even some adventure in our small state.

We’re starting with a somewhat untraditional activity for the dead of winter: surfing on Hampton Beach.

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I visit Cinnamon Rainbows Surf Shop in Hampton on a particularly frigid day. The shop is right by the seawall on North Beach, and even though it’s 17 degrees outside, there are surfboards and wetsuits advertised on the sidewalk.

When I stepped inside, the store looked like a cathedral of surf boards and wetsuits. Customers are milling around the store despite the freezing temperature outside.

Cinnamon Rainbows’ owner, Dave Cropper is setting me up for a surf lesson today. He said surfing is a year-round sport for a small but dedicated community of Granite Staters.

“There's plenty of people that surf in the summer,” Cropper said. “It's great, but it's beautiful out, seeing all the snow and just seeing that perspective of winter from the water.”

Cropper’s family has been in New Hampshire for generations. His great-grandfather was a lifeguard right in Hampton. He’s grown up surfing here.

“We don't have the most consistent waves, but when it gets good, it gets really good,” Cropper says.

“There's nothing better than surfing at home,” he said.

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I have zero surfing experience, not to mention zero experience surfing in the freezing cold. But Cropper told me winter surfing is more accessible than I might think. Technology advancements in wetsuits and gear allows people to enjoy the water without getting uncomfortably cold.

“I surfed my first winter when I was 15 years old, and you can just be so much more comfortable now and flexible,” Cropper said. He said a better ability to stay warm and dry has helped grow the area’s winter surfing scene.

But don’t think that just because you bought some fancy gear, it’s time to jump in the water if you’ve never ridden a wave before. Dave recommends beginner surfers should start learning in summer and gradually progress to going out in the off-season.

But he’s making an exception today for me.

I wriggled into a winter wetsuit with a fleece lining and a hood to keep my head warm. The material is so thick that it’s hard to move.

We walked to the beach, where we’re joined by Ralph Fatello. He runs a local surfing blog and production company called Surf Free or Die. He’s a local pro in the surfing community, so I’ve asked him to join me on my first time out in the water.

“I've been surfing since 1964. I can't tell you how many times I've been humbled by the ocean,” Fatello said.

There’s no one else swimming or walking on the beach in the cold, so we had the place to ourselves. We picked our way over the rocks and Fatello warned me and my producer Jackie that the sand might look wet, but it’s frozen in certain places.

Fatello helped me put on a pair of rubber gloves that look like oven mitts to protect my hands in the water. I felt like a seal or an astronaut.

Dave Cropper got a surfboard for me and started demonstrating the correct technique on the beach. He’s going to be in the water with me, pushing my board in the direction of the beach when a good wave comes. He explained that the water is actually warmer than the air. That’s good because the air is definitely cold.

We waded into the water, and for about twenty minutes I fell off just before I could stand up. On the last attempt I managed to just get up to my feet, and then I faceplanted into the water.

Cropper then showed me how it’s done. He smoothly found a wave, popped up onto the board and coasted up to the sand. He made it look easy.

I certainly felt awake and alive as we made our way out of the water, and I know I want to go back and try this again sometime.

Ralph Fatello pointed out that the water on my wetsuit (and even my beard) was starting to freeze. Icicles on my beard is where I draw the line, so it was definitely time to head back inside.

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