A New Documentary Shines a Light on New England’s Winter Surfing Devotees

“Winter Surfing: New England’s Best Kept Secret” is a film about unwavering commitment, gratitude... and freezing your ass off

March 11, 2022 7:44 am
The trailer image for "Winter Surfing: New England’s Best Kept Secret."
The trailer image for "Winter Surfing: New England’s Best Kept Secret."
Greg Shea

For many people across New England, Sunday mornings in the winter involve breaking out the snow shovel before a trip to church or a stop at Dunkin’ for some coffee before heading home to catch the Patriots pregame show.

For the Massachusetts neighbors of Greg Shea, a producer and director at GBH studios in Boston, Sunday mornings instead involve an early-morning trip to the ocean, with wet suits and surfboards in tow. Sometimes they’d invite Shea to come along, and he would consistently turn them down.

“Those guys go every single weekend. Doesn’t matter what the conditions are — waves or no waves — or what the temperature is,” Shea tells InsideHook. “They would routinely ask me to join them, and, like most people asked to get up at 5:00 or 6:00 AM on a Sunday morning in the winter, I said, ‘I’ll pass, but thank you.’ But I saw some photos of them with snow on their surfboards and ice in their beards. Being a video person and thinking of visuals, I tucked those away in the back of my head. I thought talking to these guys and showing what they were doing could be a cool idea for a video short.”

Luckily for Shea, the folks at GBH thought the same, and what started out as potentially just a five-minute film turned into the half-hour documentary Winter Surfing: New England’s Best Kept Secret.

Already available to stream for free (and posted below), Winter Surfing: New England’s Best Kept Secret dives into the stories, motivations and mindset of more than a half dozen cold-water surfers from Rhode Island to Maine. “I ended up finding some interesting characters, and the whole project kind of grew,” Shea says. “It was a super fun experience. I’ve never had more fun or worked harder on a project in my life. It just evolved to something that was bigger than what I thought it would be.”

Over the course of that evolution, Shea met vastly different members of a community that nonetheless share some traits — chief among them, an unwavering commitment to the activity.

“You could see it in all these people. None of them ever regret getting up and getting out there,” he says. “You’re in nature seeing the sunrise and you’re getting that therapeutic feeling of jumping in the water. The rest of your day is ahead of you. Everybody felt that you’re never going to regret having gone out and surfed. I think that was super clear with everybody.”

In fact, Shea believes everyone he featured in the film felt grateful for the privilege of being able to wake up and freeze their ass off.

“I didn’t include all of their thoughts in the film because you’re trying to not have redundancy, but I think everybody expressed it in some form or fashion,” he says. “In the film, Melinda [Ferreira] expressed it so beautifully. She works in a cancer ward and sees people who are near the twilight of their life. As she says, they would give anything to be out there on a surfboard at sunrise. It’s kind of like hiking or climbing a mountain, right? You sort of know intrinsically there are tons of people who would give anything to be on that mountain. I think all of them told me, ‘I hope I’m doing this when I’m 70. If I am, I know I’ve lived a good life.”‘

And if living that good life requires scraping ice off your body and board the same way you would your car, so be it.

“These people are not professional surfers. They’re doing it because they love it. Whether it’s two-foot waves or 10-foot waves, these people are heading out there,” Shea says. “It’s not all about the surfing. It’s a community thing and it’s a lifestyle. They wear a little badge of honor. There’s a reason these beaches are permit-only in the summertime, but you can park there in the winter. How many people are going to be out there in subzero temperatures? They’re doing something most people would do everything to avoid.”

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