First published in Surf Girl magazine, issue 40, December 2012
The sun is low in the sky, the air temperature’s plummeted overnight to an icy -10 degrees and the sea has become a frosted gloopy soup – it’s so cold, slush has begun to form in the swirling salty water. The boulders that poke up out of the surf, which is bouncing up the sandy shoreline fringed at either end with evergreens, are glazed with ice making walking on them near-lethal. The surfers that are venturing into this freezing churning liquid are doing so because they “have to”. But for their front, they are recurrently rewarded with clean, double overhead waves and hardly anyone to share them with. This is the reality for surfers living on Canada’s most easterly limb that protrudes into the northern Atlantic harnessing its energy. It’s a case of deal with it, or don’t surf, don’t surf and die.
The long sub-zero winters, that are as characteristic of the maritime province as its lakes and forests, have bred a hardcore contingent of wave riders. Janine Strickland, Canada’s highest ranking female surfer ever, is one of them.
We’ve penciled in a time and date to meet for a surf at one of the province’s most popular breaks, Lawrencetown Beach, a sweeping curve of sand and rock frilled with an expanse of wild yellow-green grass, not far from Halifax where the 26-year-old lives and works as an IT consultant. But when I call her to confirm, she wants to reschedule because “the tide won’t be right” – plus thunder and lightning are threatening (a phenomenal spectacle part and parcel of the soaring temperatures and thick humidity that dominate the summer months here). So we arrange to meet the following day.
I feel like I’m on a blind date, we have no idea what the other looks like and we forget to carry roses. But when I see a pretty sunkissed girl pull up with her board shoved through her car and then spring out in her wetsuit dripping with salt water, bare foot, with a big smile squinting in the bright mid morning sun, I guess it’s her. But she’s kind of bummed. Even though she’s been on it since the crack of dawn, the waves are dying as the tide creeps up the shore and hides the sand. So she grabs me a longboard from the One Life Surf store room, the all-female run surf school she co-owns and coaches for, and tells me we better get in quick and do the interview later. We catch a few clean mellow waves off the beach, known locally as the reef because of the rocks that make the sea cough, and I watch Janine, a short boarder usually, carve her way gracefully through the cool clear blue. Afterwards, we sit in long grass fuzzying the cliff top overlooking another reef break, sipping coconut water and she laughs as she tells me what surfing is really like here as we smother in sun lotion.
“It’s hard to imagine right now just how cold it gets,” she says motioning to the pervasive heat. “The summers get so hot here.
“The seasons are dramatic. In summer it’s beautiful and gorgeous and you can wear barely anything, and in the winter it will snow, then rain, then freeze and the roads will be a glaze of ice.”
In winter the air temperature can drop to -20. The ocean meanwhile will stay at around one degree or hit freezing. But these frigid mist shrouded shores are not a deterrent for those that lay claim to the surf being entangled with their reason for living.
“The sea doesn’t freeze – being salt water and because there’s so much motion,” says Janine. “But sometimes if there are no waves, slush will form. Surfing in slush is crazy, it’s so cold. And the rocks will be giant ice boulders so you’re slip-sliding your way into the water.
“When you’re out in the water and it’s snowing, it’s hard to describe. It’s just silence, you just hear a schhhh…it’s an amazing sound.
“When I used to live at the beach and there was a huge snowstorm I was always stoked, the plows usually came out there last making it hard for people from the city to get out, so you could get surf sessions all to yourself. And there’s one break that you can access by sliding across a pond when it’s frozen – it’s a pretty fun short cut!
“I remember one time walking back out of the water from a session and it was super cold I could feel my wetsuit harden, I looked down at my arms and it was literally freezing on my body, I could see a film of frost creeping up my arms, it was so crazy.
“But because you’re moving around and your core takes in all the heat in your body, you’re okay.”
In the summer months Janine is at the beach all day, staying in the water for hours then moving on to a different spot. After our interview she was heading off a little way down the coast to Martinique with a few other local surfer girls, to surf some more maybe, or “just to chill”. In the winter time she pushes two hours max.
“Then your body starts to shut down,” Janine continues. “One time I went to a friend’s house who lives near the beach after a surf and was in the shower crying because my feet hurt so much, I was curled up in a ball trying to push the blood back into my feet, it took forever. I got out and my friend was like, are you okay?!”
Janine is sponsored by O’Neill, Chemistry Surfboards, Dragon Sunglasses and local surf shop, Entity Boardshop. In 2010 after winning a bunch of contests including the Nor’easter Surf Contest and September Storm Surf Classic, she solidified her place on Team Canada and took part in the ISA World Championships in Punta Hermosa, Peru, finishing 23 out of 54.
Having spent several months in Australia, Hawaii and Mexico “just to surf”, Janine’s confidence and experience saw her rocking her home breaks more than ever, but despite her blooming confidence stresses the importance of not venturing out alone in the Scotian waves in the cold months.
“In winter you can be out and see hardly anyone driving around,” she continues. “You can be the best surfer in the world but your board can still smash you in the face.
“This happened to me before and there was blood everywhere, and if I’d been on my own it would have been bad news.
“Obviously it’s good to surf with fewer people because you get more waves. But it’s good to have a safety net too.
“In the summer time it’s smaller and more playful. And there are more people about so it feels safer in the water, but in the winter the number cuts down dramatically, so when you’re out and there are only a couple of other people in the water, I’m just like, if something really bad did happen, I hope they like me!”
During the winter the waves off the Maritimes can swell to 10-12 feet, sometimes 15. Janine sticks to the point break to avoid having to duck dive these fluid icy shelves and the freeze of ice cream headaches and getting flushed-out over and over again.
“You still have to duck dive a bit,” she says. “But you can paddle round to the break and find you’re out of the water more than you’re in it, whereas you get flushed-out way more with the beach break.
“One time I’d pushed it so much, by the time I got back to my car I was almost hypothermic. My hands were so numb I couldn’t get my key out to unlock the door. Hyperthermia is definitely something you have to watch here, it happens a lot. You think you’re fine and then suddenly, it hits you.
“I know people who have problems with their feet and hands because they’ve had frostbite so many times and a friend has surfer’s ear, where the ear drum has started to harden over because of so much sand and wind. But the gear out there’s getting better and better so you don’t have to worry so much.”
Janine lives and breathes surfing. It’s her driving force, and nothing’s going to stop her, let alone Mother Nature.
“I would shrivel up and die if I didn’t surf,” she says staring out over the sea. “It becomes so much a part of your life you need that salt water and you need the freedom. Surfing takes it all away. It makes me feel free and alive. I couldn’t not surf, I’d rather be freezing cold and surfing than warm and not. It makes the winter bearable.”
It’s not just the frigid winters that make Nova Scotia one of the most challenging grid references on the planet to surf, it’s position hankering out into the deep blue void means the land spur nets the hurricanes whizzing up from the balmy central American tropics, their gusts just agitating Canada’s edge. Hurricane season hits NS late September, just as a deep crimson hue spreads across the province to mark the start of the Fall. This is the best time in the year to surf here, but it comes with a hefty warning tag – sometimes the waves can be so tempestuous the beaches are rendered off limits, entirely.
“The waves are really good just before and after a hurricane,” explains Janine. “But when it’s right on top, no one goes out. You get some crazy people who’ll run around the beach and try to put their feet in, they’re usually tourists, but this is really reckless. Police tape off the beach so you’re more or less not allowed there.
“The beach becomes completely closed out and just a big mess and super dangerous. You find breaks that normally don’t break, breaking, so it opens up and spreads people out. But I’ve seen it out of action for a week at times.
“So you get a span of about three – seven days when there’ll either be too much current or it’s just too big and messy, so you just have to chill out and wait for it to pass and that’s when you get the perfect head high set. Sometimes you get lucky.
“My favourite time to surf is September because the water’s still warm, you’re still in a 3.2 and the waves are awesome. In the winter time you get amazing waves and even though it’s so cold, you’re having fun.
“But when you get a really bad session, you definitely get bummed out, and that’s normally when I go home and start looking at flights because I’m like, get me out of here!
“Surfing in Nova Scotia has definitely made me picky, I really check the charts and it has to be epic to go out in the winter. It’s easy in the summer to be a soul surfer. But I love going in and getting absolutely pummeled and coming out with sand and seaweed in your hair and you just feel like a little kid. It’s great.”