The first wave gives her an instant ice cream headache, said Aimee Vlachos. The ocean, just above freezing, is a salty slap in the face.
“The water feels thicker [in the winter],” said Vlachos, 36, who surfs year-round off the southern coast of Maine. “You’re paddling through quicksand, pushing this weight out of your way.”
But once out there, past the surf, she’s typically greeted by a friendly group she describes as diehard locals, the people who simply can’t stow away their board and wait for the summer months.
“On a normal day, it’s the same 10 people, and you go out and talk with them, almost like a bonding experience,” she said.
Vlachos has been surfing since she was a teenager. When she was 15 years old, she walked into a Maine surf shop with the money she’d saved to buy her first surfboard. The man working there looked at her and said, “Girls don’t surf.”
Determined to prove him wrong, she bought a board and men’s wetsuit (they didn’t sell wetsuits for women), and years later, his words became the title of her master’s thesis for recreation management.
“It took me two months to stand up on that surfboard,” said Vlachos, who practiced alone near her home in Cape Neddick. “But I kept going. The first day I stood up, there was this thrill in my body — just this rush. It altered my life.”
Now 36, Vlachos also has surfed off California, Florida, Mexico and Hawaii, and in Maine, she helps expand the surfing community at Wahine Kai Maine Surf School, an all-women school she founded in 2006 in Kennebunkport. “Wahine Kai” is Hawaiian for “Women of the Sea.”
Vlachos and her six instructors keep the classes small and offer instruction to women ages “7-107.” In addition to skills and techniques, they teach how surfing can create confidence and build self esteem.
“I think I was hooked before I caught the first wave, when I was just paddling out,” said Nicole Chouinard, 39, who traveled from her home in Massachusetts to attend a Wahine Kai surf camp three years ago.
Soon after the camp, Chouinard purchased her first surfboard and began riding the waves off Jenness State Beach in New Hampshire.
“I couldn’t imagine my life without surfing at this point,” Chouinard said.
Last winter, she decided to try surfing right through the year.
“The winter is more of a challenge, but it also brings bigger waves — and the equipment is there now, so it makes it feasible, makes it doable,” Chouinard said.
Chouinard and Vlachos, along with few other Wahine Kai instructors, have kept in touch over the past few years and when their busy lives allow it, they meet up to surf off Biddeford Pool Beach or Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunkport.
In the winter, both women dress in a thick, hooded wetsuit, neoprene gloves and booties. The wetsuit is 6/5 mm, the “6” referring to the thickness of neoprene around the torso, and the “5” referring to the thickness on the arms and legs. As far as wetsuits go, it doesn’t really get much warmer than that. Though some people may use a 7 mm wetsuit or simply switch to a drysuit during the Maine winter.
Generally, winter surfing in Maine is for surfers who have some experience, mostly because time in the water is limited by the cold.
“People call me in the winter and want to learn winter surfing,” said Vlachos, who typically offers Wahine Kai lessons during the six warmest months of the year. “I ask them their skill level. And I just haven’t had anyone who is really ready for it, that I’d be comfortable taking out … depending on what [winter] month it is, you could only have 45 [minutes] to an hour to surf. That’s not enough time for someone to get used to surfing. They’re going to be miserable.”
The water temperature off the coast of Portland hovered around 33 degrees last February, according to the National Oceanographic Data Center.
“Once you get in the water, it’s OK,” Chouinard said. “It’s a little bit chilly. You start heating up, too, when you’re paddling around. The water that time of year is warmer than the air. The worst part is standing by the car, getting ready to go out … I put a thick moisturizer on my face to keep the water from sticking on my skin too long.”
“You know what sketches me out the most is wearing rubber wetsuit booties and walking over ice-covered rocks and down those little cliffs,” said Vlachos.
Vlachos is usually so cold after winter surfing that she drives to her home in Kennebunk still wearing her wetsuit and beelines it to the shower.
“I stand in the hot shower with the full hood and full wetsuit on until I feel like I can make a fist and my hands can move,” she said.
She still feels a chill for hours, even when she’s dressed in warm clothes and sitting at a local cafe nursing a hot drink.
Yet it worth it to just surf for an hour or two, free of the summer crowd, she said. A former lifeguard, Vlachos is always scanning the water during the summer for novice surfers that might get in over their heads (literally). But in the winter, she usually knows who she’s sharing the waves with, if anyone.
“There is definitely a special feeling being out there in the water in the winter time, braving the elements and away from the crowd, doing what you love to do,” said Chouinard, who paused and then added. “It also makes you appreciate the tropics.”