Never too cold to be one with the sea
As a stiff, cold wind blew sand across the town beach in Narragansett, R.I., one morning last December, Glenn Gordinier pulled his Subaru into the parking lot and plucked a weathered surfboard from the roof rack.
With the rear gate open, Gordinier sat on the back of the car and stripped down to his underwear before pulling on a thick wetsuit with a hood, booties and gloves. Struggling to hold on to his longboard in the wind, he walked down to the edge of pounding surf and did something that most people would never consider - he plunged into the 49-degree water and paddled out for an hour of surfing.
Surfing cold water is nothing new for the 64-year-old Stonington resident, who is among a small tribe of wave riders who pride themselves on pursuing their passion year-round.
His new book, a collection of essays that chronicle a winter of surfing in southern New England, is titled "Surfing Cold Water: A New Englander's Off Season Obsession."
While Gordinier, who teaches in the Mystic Seaport's undergraduate program and co-directs its graduate program, has had his writings published in scholarly journals, he had never written about the thousands of waves he has ridden.
So during the winter of 2007-08 he decided to sit down after his days of surfing and write about his experience in 800 to 1,000 words. Some days when there were no waves he would write about a past surfing experience, such as his first wave, the time a rip tide in Oregon almost sucked him into 25-foot waves crashing on a reef, or when he surfed in Hawaii in honor of one of his students who died in the 9/11 terror attacks.
"I got a chance to revisit it all in detail. Not some vague notion of what a given day was like or what waves were like," Gordinier said. "This is very much my own take. I'm not speaking for anyone else. This is a personal journal."
It's also very different from what passes for surf journalism, in which writers often fawn over the professionals who compete on the ASP tour or publish painfully overwritten prose about exotic surf trips.
Instead, Gordinier's account is more of what he calls an "everyman's" take on surfing, written in a clear and concise fashion.
"For most of us, school, work, family, bills and daily routines are the parentheses that bracket our surfing lives," he writes. "We can afford neither the time nor the money to jet off to the famed surfing destinations that the magazines tell us are packed more every year. Like so many others who grab a session in the sea whenever possible, I count my blessings. I am, after all, lucky enough to slide waves throughout the year."
A 'crystalline moment'
Gordinier, who has worked at Mystic Seaport since 1979, began surfing as a 16-year-old on the Jersey Shore. His second session came one summer morning in Ocean City when he and a buddy paddled out into head-high, glassy sets. He dropped into a wave, made a bottom turn and looked up at a perfect wall of green water.
"It's the moment that really changed my life," he recalled earlier this month while sitting in his office, where book cases are stuffed with volumes of maritime history and the occasional photo reminds a visitor that Gordinier is a surfer.
After the ride ended, he said, he sat down on the red and white board and contemplated not only the ride but the power, energy and beauty of the sea.
"That's the moment that hooked me," he said.
Gordinier described that moment in an essay titled "Epiphany."
"I could feel the power of the sea, and before me I saw a wall of pure liquid glass. It is as frozen in my memory these 47 years later as if it were rendered by the hand of Rembrandt," he writes, adding a few sentences later, "In the privacy of my mind's eye I have stood on that red pop-out (a type of a cheaply manufactured surfboard) at that spot at the wave's foot 10,000 times. In time, I would in reality paddle out through thousands upon thousands of waves in search of reliving that crystalline moment."
But little did Gordinier know that 38 years would pass before he would see that vision again. Because of family and job responsibilities, he stopped surfing when he was 22 and didn't resume until he was in his late 40s. Then, about 15 years ago, he began surfing again with his son.
"That got me back into it," he said. "The whole connection resumed."
Now every time the swell is up and his schedule allows, Gordinier can be found chasing waves.
Often it's at what he calls his home break, the picturesque Fenway Beach in the Weekapaug section of Westerly. Other days he heads to other southern Rhode Island breaks in Watch Hill, Charlestown, Point Judith, Narragansett and Newport, some of which he likes to keep secret per the unwritten surfer code.
And while many less serious surfers put their boards away in the fall, Gordinier is one of the diehards who pulls on thick layers of neoprene and paddles out into water, where temperatures can dip into the 30s with air temperatures far colder.
Wind and spray sting their faces, the only part of their bodies not covered by the black rubber. Only heavy snow, which obscures the view of incoming waves, cancels a session.
"It's like skiing," Gordinier said. "If you have good equipment, you're warm. The only part that's cold is when the session is done and you're standing in the parking lot."
While summer surfing is often crowded with novice wave riders visiting from inland locations, that all changes when the weather and water turn cold.
"It's just a couple of friends or a few guys you don't know sharing the session. You have it all to yourself. You paddle out and say to each other, 'What a day. What a gift,'" he said.
Gordinier said that when people find out that he surfs all winter long, they ask him if he's crazy. But he sees it as being "warmed by your passion."
"I've got a joy and a passion for doing something people think is insane," he said. "It boils down to racing across the face of a wave and feeling the energy of the wave coming up from the board to my feet and into my core. I don't get that feeling doing anything else. It's that moment when you're locked in with the sea."
Gordinier describes that feeling in an essay called "Keeper Wave," which is the one wave in each session about which he tries to remember every detail. It may not be the best wave of the day, but it's the one he'll remember when he gets home to his wife or when he's talking to a surfing friend the next day.
"Every session needs a Keeper Wave. ... Every session," he writes.
Sitting in his office, Gordinier added, "That first wave I rode will be with me until I'm a dead man."
Closing the circle
Two of the essays that carry the most meaning for Gordinier are titled "I Am The Sea" and "Valentine's Day - A Birthday."
The first discusses a 1995 incident in which Gordinier and his students in the Williams-Mystic undergraduate program were aboard a 125-foot schooner that was making its way through a gale in Long Island Sound. Among the students on the boat was Maile Rachel Hale, who had been raised on Oahu. She stayed on deck during the howling storm to finish her watch even after Gordinier said she and the others could take shelter below deck.
Two months later, when Gordinier asked her why she stayed on deck that night, Hale told him, "You need to understand. I am from Hawaii. I grew up on the water. This ocean is part of my ocean. Long Island Sound is home to me. All of the world's oceans are in me. I am the sea."
Hale, 26, was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the World Trade Center. The chief operating officer and vice president of Boston Investor Services, she was attending a conference at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 106th floor.
Each Valentine's Day since 2001, Gordinier remembers Hale on her birthday as flowers decorate the bench that's dedicated in her memory at the Seaport. It's on that day that he remembers a day in the spring of 2002 when he finally got to live his dream of surfing in Hawaii while attending a conference. It was Hale's death that encouraged him to seize the dream he had put off for so long.
On his last day there, the morning after having dinner with Hale's family, Gordinier and a friend paddled out to a spot beneath Diamond Head. It would be the best session of his life. Two hours in, he paddled into a wave and raced down its face. As he made a hard right turn at the bottom of the wave, he looked up and saw a wall of water towering overhead.
"And there it was," he writes. "It had changed from the green of the Atlantic back in 1964 to the beautiful blue of the central Pacific, but it was my wave ... that same wall of liquid glass that had captured my soul all those years ago."
As he sat on his board, he said, his chest ached with emotion as he thought about how wonderful his life had been.
"Here too I thank the spirit of Maile Rachel Hale," he writes. "Sitting in the waters she loved, the waters that were of her, I raised my arms and gave thanks for the inspiration to make this journey that had helped me find peace. That peace was found in a wave I had been seeking for nearly four decades."
Now that the "circle has been closed," and with a round of golf considered strenuous exercise for many people approaching their 65th birthday, the question naturally rises for Gordinier: When will he stop paddling out?
"I'll keep doing it as long as my genes hold up," he said. "I'm thankful for my blood lines that at 64 I can still take on hurricane swell and my shoulder girdle had held up."
Gordinier said that, as he ages, he may surf smaller waves or eventually switch to a body board.
"As long as I'm in a wave," he said.
Surfing Cold Water: A New Englander's Off Season Obsession
Glenn S. Gordinier, PhD
Flat Hammock Press, Mystic
Release date: Winter 2012
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