Liquid Lines

No Sugarcoating It. We’re in a Rough Winter

Where Does the Big Freeze Leave Us for Surf and Other Activities?
By JON COEN | Jan 17, 2018
Photo by: Jon Coen After a few mild winters, this one’s not playing around. Slush peelers last week in Beach Haven.

OK. Who walked through the house with snow on their feet?!

No, I’m serious. Who didn’t take off their shoes at the door? There are two mats and a towel by the front door to soak up this mess – who the hell got the floor all wet? Now we’re walking around the kitchen and our socks are damp. The moisture is robbing the heat from our feet after we worked so hard to get them warm. Look at the puddles on the tile! How hard is it to take your shoes off at the door?

This is my first Liquid Lines of 2018, and I ain’t gonna sugarcoat it. It’s going to feel like a rough winter from the tip of that beanie you’ve been sleeping in, down to your wet toes.

I’m not sure that I ever remember such a dramatic change around LBI. I’ve said this before – we’re outdoor folk. Many of us depend on weather for our livelihood as well as our sanity. Following possibly the most pleasant fall of all time, December was amazing. It wasn’t warm by any stretch, but folks had boats in the water and were still getting bass. The ocean was in the mid-40s. We had a moderate swell every week, usually with another day of small waves if you wanted to get on it. We had a couple of “cute” snowfalls with near 32 degree temps and light winds. Mix in the lights and holiday vibes and we were living a bit of a fantasy along the lines of “Hey, winter isn’t so bad ...”

Clearly that wasn’t going to last, but we weren’t ready at the end of the holidays for Old Man Winter to come at us like that – such vigor for a senior citizen! It was followed by a bitch of a blizzard and a historic stretch of cold and frigid feet.

Now I know we haven’t had a real winter in some time. Remember those beach days last February? It would be easy to say we’re just not acclimated to the frostiness, that we’ve just gotten soft about an average winter. But that’s not the case. This is cold, for real.

Normal cold is in the single digits. Early last week, we were below zero. Save your pennies because your heat bill is on the way. Baymen have been blasting through the ice to grab a few clams and oysters. Ice floes from Little Egg Inlet turned the surf to slush. Clothes by the fireplace have become part of our daily ritual. And I had a 30-minute conversation with Brian Strahle about wool socks. There’s nothing normal about this. If you’re working in the cold or trapped inside, fighting the flu with frozen pipes, tracking wetness through the house can put you over the edge.

THE BIG FREEZE: New Jersey surfers have a way of romanticizing winter. And in December, it all felt really good. And there’s no doubt that we get amazing bombing waves in the winter that are far more powerful than summertime. But the other side of winter is the harsh cold and quick hit swells, followed by northwest winds that leave the surf flat for weeks at a time. Then we’ll get another storm and be thrown right into big, critical surf. And as soon as you get somewhat used to the ice cream headaches and remember how to surf in all that rubber, it’s back to flat.

I’ve admittedly done my fair share of bagging on summer, but those occasional 3-foot days with little longboard morning and warm water sound a little better than the harsh wind blowing against the side of the house. Just the idea of that 5 a.m. sunrise is appealing. It’s the endless struggle and reward of living in New Jersey and trying to surf through the winter. And this winter has been a mountain of struggle with molehills of reward.

It’s been a month, but I’ll try to recap. We had some small waves around Christmas, nothing very good, but a bit of cheer. Then the surf went flat and a jog in the jet stream caused a huge mass of air from the Arctic Circle to settle into our mid-latitude living rooms. The cold air in place was all Winter Storm Grayson needed to move up the East Coast on Jan. 4, delivering a substantial blizzard. It certainly wasn’t the most snow we’ve ever seen, but the wind and cold made it one for the books. And yes, a few surfers did manage to get waves down on the South End of the Island. But simply getting out of the driveway made it impossible for most. It was flat by the next day.

That led to even colder weather, with the low point on Jan. 7 when we hit new daily record temps. Starting last week was when we saw the ocean get really weird. The modest warm-up caused the ice in the bay to break up and flow out Little Egg Inlet. The south winds on Monday, Jan. 6, pushed all that ice onto our beaches. This is the first time I’ve seen this myself, and locals who have been around far longer than I admit they’d never witnessed it.

For two days, the jetties were covered with ice, the shoreline was littered with frozen chunks, and the shorebreak had a full layer of frozen slush, exactly the same consistency as a Slurpee. Shawn Casey, Chris Huch and Jonathan Hoover’s shots and videos were featured on GrindTV.

What I can’t explain was the “sea snow” that was down by the shoreline. There was no other snow on the beach at this point (very hard for snow to accumulate in open areas with 35-knot winds), but there were deep piles by the shoreline, covering much of the ice floes. It was certainly salt water and seemed to be some kind of combination of the ice that had come out of the inlet and freezing sea water. But it accumulated like snow. Really interesting, and it could have been a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

We went out for a little longboard session on Jan. 9 in Beach Haven. The ice and slush were running along the shoreline and out a light rip next to the jetty. We were actually paddling through slush with giant ice chunks around us. The surf was nothing special, but the experience was amazing.

AND THE SWELL: I know we’re all tired of superlatives this season – “coldest,” “snowiest,” etc., so I won’t use another one. But last Friday was one of the foggiest days I can ever remember, especially around the bay and the Island with that warmish air hovering over all the ice and snow. That came with south winds and building surf. The buoys were reading nearly 10 feet on Saturday morning.

And with most having not surfed for a few weeks, everyone was looking to get in the water. That’s when the string of winter surf problems started. The swell looked OK in the morning, nice south angle, just still very raw. The wind was howling, but it was northwest and fairly clean. Problem was by 8 a.m., it was already looking too shallow. So we all waited out low, which was at 10:30. By the time it was starting to fill in, it was almost 1:30 p.m. And in that time, the wind had gone more north than northwest. And it hadn’t let up at all.

A lot of surfers took off to the South End of the Island, which was cleaner, but still not fantastic. South windswells are never ideal there, and Holgate got crowded pretty quickly. Everyone else looked for a wave mid-Island. It wasn’t epic anywhere, and even when the wind straightened out, the takeoff zone was tough, especially in all that rubber. There was still size, but to add insult to injury, the swell period had now jumped up and that favorable angle was gone, leaving us with mostly closeouts. It wasn’t terrible, but certainly not a great day considering the lack of swell this month so far and the expectations with good waves and wind.

And that doesn’t account for the water temperature. In the last few weeks, the ocean has dropped to the mid-30s. Barnegat Light’s Ryan Kelly went up to Monmouth County in the morning when the wind was more westerly and came back in the afternoon. He reported that the water might have been three or four degrees warmer up there, which makes sense. Those breaks aren’t barrier islands. Think about the frigid waters coming out of the frozen bay and into our lineup. It’s been years since the ocean has been anywhere near this cold. And a lot of surfers said they felt colder than back in 2015, when we had another record-setting winter.

The wind came up north again on Sunday, and even the south end was junk. It had been a one-and-done swell and never even got all that good.

We do seem to have a few smaller systems coming through this week, possibly an Alberta Clipper, which should keep surf in the water if you can find the periods of offshore winds.

THE OUTLOOK: Hope you’re ready. Like I said, I can’t sugarcoat this winter. The last few years, the ocean temp hasn’t dropped below 40. We’re already at 35 and it’s only mid-January.

Unfortunately, I don’t really see any way the water is going to warm up this winter. The last time we had these big drops in ocean temps, they came in February. So, we’re looking at the whole winter being about as cold as it gets. Figure on full winter conditions for the next 10 weeks. This also means the ocean will be colder than average in April and the Island will be even slower to warm up than usual.

The only thing we can hope for is to not have those extended periods of high pressure, brutal temps and no waves.

I don’t consider myself an optimist or a pessimist. I’m a realist. For those of us who surf or love outdoor activity, this is going to be a challenging winter. But I will offer this: persevere. Especially for folks who aren’t in their 20s, most of us gain a few pounds in the winter and lose a step. But keep that to a minimum.

It’s so important to push yourself to surf, even if conditions aren’t ideal. Get a beefier board. Invest in new boots. Find those small days to longboard or just hop in before the wind comes onshore. Just get out there so you don’t feel alien in your wetsuit when conditions do line up.

If you love running or biking, just layer up and find the windows when the wind is light. I know no one likes it, but when all else fails, hit the gym, get your sweat on. The St. Francis Center and Meridian Fitness and Wellness (the Ocean Club) both have pools where you can swim for a couple bucks. There are also yoga classes all day, every day on the Island and mainland. Being flexible and strong in your core helps prevent those back, shoulder, etc. injuries and can minimize the horrible tightness we feel in the cold water.

With these short, frosty days, it’s really easy to get into a pattern of wake, work, comfort food, Netflix, Entenmann’s, long sleep, repeat. It takes weeks to climb your body out of winter mode in April, May and June. If you work to not fall too deep into it, that spring recovery won’t feel as long.

COASTAL THREAT: It’s been a month since my last column with the holiday break. In that time, there’s been no lack of political news. And I can’t really address all of it. Apparently, if the economy is on the rise (although it has been for the last six years), some Americans are pretty happy to look past small things like lack of human decency and inciting unstable leaders with nuclear capabilities.

But there’s one issue we should all be keeping a very close eye on. In his continued disregard for the natural world, Orange 45 has decided to open up US waters – the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic – to offshore drilling.

Consider this first: On Dec. 28, he made a joke insinuating the cold was proof against global warming. Ten-year-olds know the difference between climate and weather. The president does not. Maybe he should monitor the local groups on Facebook for the anxiety a four-day nor’easter causes around LBI with sea level rise and stronger storms. Cold weather doesn’t discount climate change. Climate change is caused by the burning of fossil fuels and trapping of heat overall. And his response is to burn as many as we possibly can.

And then there’s the threat to both ecology and economy. I’d love to hear someone challenge the economic hardships the Deepwater Horizon and its 4.9 billion gallons of “misplaced” crude had on the Gulf Coast. It’s not like the LBI area is dependent on tourism or anything.

Elected officials in South Carolina, Massachusetts and Maryland have all challenged the plan … and those are just the Republicans. New Jersey’s leaders are dead against it, even Representative MacArthur, who would sell dolphin hunting licenses if the president Tweeted his support. There’s a huge opposition to it from environmentalists everywhere. And now, instead of fighting for progress, they have to spend time and money to keep us from going backward.

In an interesting turn of events, Trump’s secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, decided last week that Florida was off the table for drilling. Apparently Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who had the term “climate change” banned from any state dealings, gets off the hook.

And in what should be the quote of the month that doesn’t involve the word s--thole, Scott said announced, “I think it’s very important to continue our efforts to take care of our environment.”

Rick Scott cares about as much about the environment as Lex Luthor. He’s worried about the billions of dollars it will cost Florida to clean up an oil spill and the billions more his state will lose in revenue. He knows it’s a very real threat.

So is it not a threat to New Jersey? Maybe it’s time to try something new.

“WRAP IT UP, KID”: Frozen January weeks are not known for a whole lot of water/surf community events. South-End Surf ’N Paddle will host the second annual Polar Paddle on Feb. 3, a fundraiser for Alliance for a Living Ocean. I will keep you updated on this one as it gets closer, but with so much of the bay locked up in ice, that channel east of Mordecai Island might be a little tough to navigate.

The Eskimo Outreach is Feb. 24 at Mud City, which is always a fantastic chance to get out of the house.

So, in closing this week, I’m just going to keep it real. This could be a real rough winter. Book a trip if you have to. Just don’t hibernate.

And I’ll come clean … I am the one who walked through the house with wet shoes.

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