Clad in a snug layer of neoprene, surfer Jody Lays paddles hard, duck-diving through smashing breakers to calmer water.
“After you go through about eight of them you have ice cream headache and your face is freezing,” he said.
“You’re just hoping that when you get through this one, it’s the last one and there isn’t another one because your head’s so cold.”
Although his face might sting from the frigid water, the rest of Lays’ body is relatively warm thanks to his exertions. He’ll surf up to three or four hours with brief warmups every hour.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are, you just want to run right back out, like a kid,” he said.
He learned to surf on boards he made himself, out of eps foam and epoxy resin. The materials have changed over the years, as has the length. Typically, learners start off on a big, long board and work their way down.
“I was on a big slab at Port Maitland one day and I found I couldn’t turn really good. So I started going on smaller boards,” he said. He now rides a five-foot, seven-inch board. The more experience you have, the shorter board you can surf on.
From where he lives in South Ohio, Lays can access several beaches, his favourites being Mavillette and False Harbour.
This is his fifth season surfing, something he’s wanted to do ever since he was a child. “The attitude in Nova Scotia at that time was you can’t surf in Nova Scotia, there are no waves here,” he said.
He says fishermen know about the waves. “They understand because they’re out there and they see what’s going on. People don’t even realize how many waves (surf sites) are between here and Lockeport.”
He adds that the Hawk on Cape Sable Island is a good place to go, with “double overhead tubes” there. Translated, that means a wave that is twice the height of a person, curling over to form a tube. Lays has even heard of a 20-foot wave in Shelburne several winters ago.
Weymouth resident Brian Carey says surfing potential in the region is one of the reasons he came to this area.
Carey owns Aeon Surfboards and has been surfing since 2011 – first on the Great Lakes, then Gloucester, Mass. and Costa Rica in 2013.
He likes Mavillette Beach for its southwest exposure. Storm systems that move up along the U.S. eastern seaboard swing around the southwest corner of Nova Scotia, pushing big swells.
“They can get nine to 10 feet, which can be pretty terrifying – especially if you paddle out into them,” he said.
It’s also a good “beginner” beach, where he’s introduced newbies to the sport in one-foot waves.
Like Lays, he’s drawn to the exhilaration of winter surfing, when the largest waves of the year happen.
“If you want to take advantage of the best waves, you have to bundle up and get out there in the cold,” he said.
He wears a 6-5-4 wetsuit, which translates to six mm thick for body, five mm for extremities and four mm for flex points. The variety of coverage helps to keep the core warm in North Atlantic waters that range from three degrees Celsius in March to 15 in August, while allowing unrestricted movement. He also wears at least five or seven-mm gloves, boots and a hood.
“When you come out, that’s when it really gets you. You have to be ready with towels and a warm place where you can change out of your wetsuit quickly,” he said.
Carey says if surfers in New England knew about the uncrowded beaches here they’d head north.
He plans on expanding his board-building business into a rental shop at Mavillette Beach this year.
Randall McQuade owns a cottage in Round Bay, Shelburne County, where he sometimes surfs. He started at the age of 45 and says he’s completely hooked on the sport.
He’s registered a business called Roll Tide and plans on setting up a surf/SUP (stand-up paddleboard) school and rental business in Round Bay, if not this summer then next.
He says the sport is very new to the area judging by the many times he’s been completely alone on a south shore surf break or with friends.
McQuade wants people also to be aware of safety in surfing and to learn proper surfing etiquette.
“This is an area of untapped potential for growth. My vision is to get new people into the sport and preferably younger people,” he said.
He added that surfers are generally very protective of their favourite spots, but he believes there are plenty to go around.
“The water is colder than most places but the waves are world class and you don’t have to worry about crowds, frustrated angry locals, or sharks.
“You and whoever is with you that day can enjoy a beautiful beach or point break all to yourselves and tourists can truly experience an area that is natural, remote and untapped.”
Learning to surf
Several surfers provided helpful information on learning how to surf.
Iaian Archibald from Halifax says there are some great surf schools in the province.
“They’re always the best entry point for people looking to try the sport.”
He added that they also teach surfing etiquette, which is important.
Mike Zwaagstra cautions that newcomers should not winter surf unless they can both swim and surf well.
“Do not surf a point if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he said.
Ton Kanisur, also from Halifax, says in terms of getting into it, finding friends to go with helps.
“Surfing fitness helps and most importantly, a day in the ocean, whatever time of year, is never wasted time.”
Sean Towner says surfing is for all ages.
“I started when I was 50 and now I’m hooked. I was out last week with some other ‘older’ guys. It’s our ocean therapy. I wish I had started when I was younger, but it’s never too late. My wife just learned at age 48 and we just did our first surf trip. There’s nothing like being in the ocean and riding a wave.”
Surf shops in Nova Scotia
White Point Beach Resort
Places to surf
This list is by no means complete. As one experienced surfer says: “Explore and discover.”
Lawrencetown, (East Lawrencetown) Eastern Shore
White Point, Queens Municipality
Point Michaud, Richmond County
Round Bay, Shelburne County
The Hawk, Cape Sable Island, Shelburne County
Overton, Yarmouth County
False Harbour, Yarmouth County
Mavillette, Digby County
Port Maitland, Yarmouth County