As Jess McGreehan '08 and Madelyn Sullivan '09 drive back to campus on a cold January morning, the two surfers describe the experience of being caught under a wintry wave:
"It feels like someone has dumped 50 pounds of ice cubes into your wetsuit," says Sullivan. "It goes into every crevice."
The two also said that the cold water on their faces, which are not protected by their thick wetsuits, is brutal.
"Your face never recovers from the experience," says Sullivan.
Though the two women have just braved the icy Maine waters in order to surf the waves, they both laugh as they explain the intensity of the experience. These students are two of several Bowdoin students who take advantage of the surfing opportunities in coastal Maine, regardless of the season.
Most students who surf in the winter at Bowdoin learned to surf during warmer months.
"I learned [to surf] the summer before I got to high school and I was so addicted," says McGreehan.
Sullivan says that she started surfing last year, while she was traveling around South America.
"I want to do this in Maine when I come back," she says she remembers thinking.
Jim Bittl '08, another devoted winter surfer, learned to surf when he was 10. Though he is a Florida resident, he was not new to winter surfing when he arrived at Bowdoin.
"I started surfing in the winter when I went to boarding school in Rhode Island," he says. When he came to Bowdoin, he had heard that there was surf, so he brought his board and wetsuit along.
One benefit of living so near the coast is the opportunity to surf many different places. Bittl says that when he and his friends surf, they usually go to Reed State Park or Popham Beach. They have also gone to beaches in South Portland, but according to Bittl, "there are lots of Portland surfers." In contrast, there are not many crowds at the other locations.
"We've been kind of exploring, which is a great part of it, especially surfing in Maine," says Bittl. "There are so many points and islands to explore and look for new waves."
"Undeveloped coastal New England is kind of a big phenomenon," he adds.
Bittl says he and his friends go surfing at least once a month, and sometimes as many as five to eight times in one month.
"It really depends on the season," he says. "It's so inconsistent up here. You really have to pay attention to the weather."
According to Bittl, surf is best in the fall around hurricane season and just before and after Nor'easters.
Students who surf agree that the coldest part of the experience is not the surfing itself, but dealing with wetsuits.
"Changing is the worst part," says Sullivan, especially when changing out of wetsuits after surfing.
"You're trying to run to the car, your face is freezing as you go. You're trying to get [the mitts] off...it's a huge process. The second you take them off your hands start freezing, and your brain is not thinking right," she says. "You have to pull your hood off your head. Then, you have to pull the winter wetsuit over your shoulders so it becomes a straightjacket, and you have to do this shimmy dance to get out of your wetsuit."
"By the time you get out of the water, your hands and feet feel like blocks of concrete," said Bittl.
"It's pretty difficult trying to open the car with your key when you can't move your hands," he added.
Though Bittl agrees that dealing with the wetsuits is the worst part, "once you're into the water, it's fine."
Is it ever too cold to surf at all? Maybe, say students, but they get in the water anyway.
"If I'm going to go to the ocean I'm going to go surfing, even if it's ridiculously cold, unless it's flat and there's no surf at all," says McGreehan. "If I plan on going, it's because there are waves."
"It can get pretty epic," Bittl says. Though those epic swells might be "far and few between," Bittl says they are worth the cold.
"I just really love going out and hanging out on the ocean," says Sullivan.
"We've had a handful of really good days," says Bittl. "Yesterday was a good day. You drive up with a few of your friends, there's a beautiful sunset, the waves are just classic...You just surf for a few hours with no one around but your friends."