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“It’s wet. And it will always be wet.” 

Though locals might say this of the region in general, Washington surfer and UW student Kennan Straatman was talking specifically about his wetsuit. He said the sticky, salty process of squeezing into the black rubber thumb is one of the most miserable necessities of surfing in the frosty Pacific Northwest waters. 

“You wake up at 6 or 7 in the morning, get on your wetsuit, and you kind of rethink your life at this point like, ‘Why am I doing this?’” he said. “And then you get in the water and you warm up, and next thing you know, you’re having a great time.” 

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The beaches of the Pacific Northwest are hardly what you picture when listening to the Beach Boys. Water temperatures average 49 degrees, according to Surf-forecast.com. And on average, about 100 inches of rain are accumulated during the winter, according to the National Parks Service. 

Many of the known surf spots are several hours drive away from big cities. And yet, those with the right equipment, attitude and opportunity go anyways. The question is, “Why?”

To start, winter in the Pacific Northwest can provide excellent waves for the lucky surfer. Keaton Browning, a forecaster for Surfline, said large storms from the Gulf of Alaska push flow into the region during the winter months. These are “peak months for swell height and consistency,” he said. At the same time, surfers want to avoid the wave-killing wind that arrives with storms that bump into the coast.

“Although cold, the consistent, bigger swells provide options up-and-down the coast for surfers in the winter,” Browning said. “The Oregon and Washington coast is diverse in types of surf spots. There’s a good mixture of beaches, quality point and reef breaks which can shelter the stronger swells with more manageable-sized surf.”

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Another draw of Pacific Northwest beaches is the scenery. Chloe Boeker grew up on Bainbridge Island, but now lives in southern California for college. She said the atmosphere at beaches in the two regions are totally different.  

“On the Washington coast, you’re just so surrounded by nature. Surfing here [in California] is so different just because of how busy it is, and they’re just very built up, the beaches are,” she said. “Whereas in Washington you’re just so immersed in nature and there’s just no one else around.”

Straatman described a kind of serenity that he associates with quiet, cold beaches up north. He’s been surfing in dense fog, pouring rain, hail and even snow. 

“They call it quicksilver, I think,” Straatman said. “I’ve gone out with friends, and it’s completely white out. You’ll go out there for four or five hours, you’ll have no idea what time of day it is, no sense of direction or time.”

Boeker and Straatman began surfing thanks to the help of Kris Van Gieson, who works at their former middle school. Van Gieson has been surfing for over twenty years. For the last nineteen, he has been orchestrating trips for students and their families to the coast as an introduction to surfing. He provides transport, knowledge, surfboards, and perhaps most importantly, wetsuits.

“The wetsuits they make now are really, really good,” Van Gieson said. “With a new wetsuit that’s still in good condition, I can be in the water three hours and my toes are just starting to get numb.”

Nice wetsuits can cost from $80 to hundreds of dollars when new, while surf boards can cost thousands. These materials were included in a fee for school trips with Van Gieson.

As he and his friends got into the sport, Straatman said, they sourced used boards from craigslist and found deals on wetsuits. In order to access the sport in the region, he said, it really helps to know someone who will guide you. 

“In Oregon, learning the right places to go without ending up needing a Coast Guard rescue is a big thing,” says Gabe Smith, who works for the organization Adaptive Surfing. 

Adaptive Surfing helps disabled people get into surfing, and it is one of few organizations doing this work in the Pacific Northwest. Smith said there are unique challenges associated with adaptive surfing in the region, beyond just the cold weather. 

“The beaches in Oregon are typically much harder to access,” he said. “Trying to access a surf spot when you are in a wheelchair is next to impossible right now without somebody carrying you.”

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Whether you have the help of an organization or friend, the crux of surfing is not unique to the Pacific Northwest at all. No amount of equipment, skill or forecast-checking can guarantee you catch a single quality wave. And when everything besides the ride is cold, laborious and expensive, a love for the sport becomes a lesson in patience and resilience. 

“You have to enjoy the whole thing, right,” Van Gieson says. “You have to enjoy the paddle out, sitting outside, waiting for the right wave, watching the birds and watching the weather. Each ride might be 4 seconds or 10 seconds, and those might be 5 minutes apart or 15 minutes apart. But if you enjoy all of it, it’s great. You can enjoy the being out.”

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