The compact region of New England sits nestled up against the Canadian border, in the northernmost corner of The USA’s Eastern Seaboard. Comprising six different states, it boasts hundreds of miles of coastline and a plethora of spots, pointing towards every point of the compass.
For the unfamiliar, surfing in New England evokes visions of hardy souls navigating hurricane swells and tempestuous weather among jagged inlets. And while it’s true the region does benefit from heavy, freezing winter swells, they’re only one part of the vastly varied overall mix, with summer, spring and fall welcoming a whole array of wave conditions for the blossoming community of locals.
Recently, we caught up with New England surfers Abby Boone, founder of local collective Cold Water Women, and water photographer Cate Brown to give us the lowdown on the unique experience of surfing in New England and the vibrant women of her waters.
ABBY: My name is Abby Boone. I grew up in York Maine, a small coastal town in southern Maine. It was there that I developed a deep love for surfing. Surfing was never something that was intended for me. I am one of 6 kids with a single mom and the only one in my family who surfs. When I was 19, I moved to Southern RI for nursing school at the University of Rhode Island and have been here ever since. I have worked as a Pediatric ER Nurse in a trauma centre in Providence since I graduated nursing school and surf any chance I can when I’m not working.
CATE: My name is Cate Brown, I’m a photographer living in southern Rhode Island here in New England, and I’m from here too. My family has been living in North Kingstown since the 70s when my grandfather was stationed here with the Navy. So I grew up in a very maritime sailing family here on Narragansett Bay.
ABBY: I learned to surf in Maine when I was in middle school. I think it’s harder for those who take a surf lesson on tropical vacations to come back to New England and make it stick. New England is not for the faint of heart. You have to deal with inconsistent waves, frigid temperatures, thick wetsuits, and sometimes aggressive crowds. Not saying that you can’t learn to surf in another country. I guess I just knew what I was getting into when I learned to surf in Maine as a kid- shivering with blue lips…
Northeast surf culture is gritty, scrappy, raw, and beautiful. There are a lot of hard-working people that just love to surf. When I think of a New Englander, it is the guy or gal who works as a landscaper, contractor, fisherman, nurse, teacher, bartender etc who works really hard when it’s flat so they will be able to make time to surf when there are waves. When the waves do get good, the crowds get pretty heavy and vibes can be tense at times. You have to learn proper surf etiquette or you will have problems. You also have to put your time in and give respect to get respect.
CATE: Ocean culture in general is very embedded in southern RI. We are the second-most densely populated state in the country (behind New Jersey), with 14% of our overall area connected to the ocean (about 400 miles of coastline). We have a big summer tourist season with lots of beach towns, so it can get quite busy and hectic in the summer months.
Our coastline has a lot of curves and bends, so we have a lot of variety packed into such a small state. There are beaches and sandbars, rocky reefs, long point breaks, heavy barrels in the right conditions…And if you don’t find something you like you can drive about 20-30 mins in any direction and usually find something a bit different! If you know where to look, there’s almost always something to be found. There are places that barrel, especially in the big hurricane swells!
ABBY: New England is unique because of its extreme seasons and its rocky jagged coastline. The waves in the Northeast aren’t as consistent as other places, but I think that is what keeps people so hooked and hungry for surf all the time. We never really get our fill and we patiently wait weeks for 2 days of waves. Also, the seasons are so extreme in New England. The summer gets pretty hot and the winter gets unbelievably cold. If you don’t have the proper winter gear in New England, there is no way you can surf. Sometimes the air and wind chill is so frigid that you try to seek shelter in the 2°C water until your feet eventually go numb through your 7 mm booties. With all that said, some of my most magical surf experiences are from wintertime in New England. Most New Englanders prefer the fall though. The cool crisp mornings, the changing of the leaves, the hurricane swells, and the water is still mild enough to get by in a 3/2 or a 4/3 wetsuit. Nothing beats the fall in New England.
Abby by (1) Michael Greco & (2) @andrewkfisher
There was this one time a few winters ago that I was longboarding with a few of my good friends. We were the only ones out and the waves were soo fun. I remember the sky looked so amazing and all of a sudden an unexpected snow squall broke out. I love surfing in the snow! We were all so stoked, and laughing, and just had a blast. It was so special.
CATE: I think what makes it the most special is the dedication it takes to do it year-round. We have some crazy temperature fluctuations throughout the year, the water can get to 21°C in the summer and 3°C in the winter, with air temps even dipping below -17°C in the coldest months. One season recently during an ‘arctic blast’ we even had wind chills down to -26°C. It takes a lot of gear to get us through the cold, and a lot of effort to get yourself motivated to jump in the ocean in the winter. But it makes it that much more worthwhile, the community is tighter in the winter, and the waves are even better from the seasonal storms! In the winter, especially February, I honestly have to time my sessions to make sure I don’t get frostbite.If the sun is shining and the wind is low, it can really make all the difference, but I’m usually sporting a 6/5mm from December–May when the water is 7°C or lower. We like to tease the Californian’s when they post things about their “cold winter” when they’re still in 4/3mm without hoods, boots or gloves hahaha. Sometimes I think we’re all just crazy up here.
ABBY: I started Cold Water Women (an IG account) a few years ago as a platform to celebrate and connect the cold water women surfers of the Northeast. Growing up, I didn’t really see realistic representations of what surfing looked like for me in surf magazines, surf movies, and social media. There was always more of an emphasis on women in bikinis and in warm climates. I support women in all forms, sizes, and outfits, but it just was not the reality for me in New England. Us women surfing in 6 mil hooded wetsuits may not be the most glamorous looking thing for the mainstream, but I find something so uniquely beautiful and special about it. It is also pretty badass. I wanted to highlight these strong women and also set an example for younger girls to see that it is possible. There are a lot of girls who surf in my community and most of us are friends or acquaintances that met through surfing. We do not organise meetups. There are enough of us that love to surf that when the waves are good, you are bound to see some of your lady friends when you paddle out. I think organising meetups can be good for beginners or women that might lack the confidence in the beginning of their surf journey as long as you go to a beginner break that is not too crowded. But it would be pretty faux pas to paddle out a crowded good break with a large group of people.
CATE: Rhode Island has so much to offer. There’s a new coffee truck in Matunuck I get breakfast or a snack at almost every morning session now. Bol in Wakefield has terrific smoothie bowls. A lot of the other ladies live around Wakefield, so we all spend a lot of time down there. Otherwise, Narragansett Beach makes a wonderful beach day, or going for a paddle and in my home harbour in Wickford is a great way to spend a summer day! Our friend Pat Murphy runs the gallery The Kings Lens and Friends which regularly hosts art openings and is a great place to see the young creative community come together.
ABBY: My boyfriend and I like to bike to Whalers – the local brewery down the street to play pool and drink beer. I’ve been really into IPAs and double IPAs this past year. My favourite restaurant is The Grange, a vegetarian/vegan restaurant in Providence RI. I don’t go shopping much these days. I am trying to simplify rather than buy more stuff. There is so much unnecessary crap mass-produced on this planet. If I do buy stuff, I try to get it second hand at thrift stores or Poshmark to be more environmentally mindful. When I do shop, it is usually at Matunuck Surf Shop to buy surf gear.