- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

WESTPORT, Wash. Surfing the frigid wintertime waters off Washington state's coast isn't so tough, Brad Yaeger insists.
Once he's zipped inside a maximum-thickness, hooded wetsuit, paddling out and beginning to ride the waves, he barely notices the 40-degree water and icy surface winds.
But then he remembers the ice-cream headaches.
"You dive under a wave, and your head just goes yeewww," he said, bringing his hands together and squeezing. "It just whistles. It's like you just ate a bunch of ice cream. It's really, really cold."
Mr. Yaeger is one of the hardy dozens who each winter weekend strap their boards to the tops of battered vans, station wagons and SUVs and drive 100 miles and more to Westport, a coastal fishing town that's become a mecca for cold-water surfing.
"It's growing fast," said Rob Brown, a surfboard maker and coffee-shop owner who staged Westport's First Annual Clean Water Classic, a competition that attracted men and women from as far as southern Oregon and British Columbia.
"What it is," he said, "is all the snowboarders and skaters from Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, are crossing over to the mother of all those sports."
And they are finding popular spots, even as far north as the west coast of Vancouver Island and Yakutat in southeast Alaska.
The Westport contest was staged one weekend in mid-February when the temperature was in the low 40s, though the wind and rain made it feel colder. The competition, with a $500 top prize, captured the essence of the Pacific Northwest surfing scene.
Parkas, ponchos and thick knit caps were the gear of choice for 50 or so spectators who scrambled up piles of treacherous, slime-covered boulders and shivered for hours in drizzle broken only occasionally by sunshine.
"This is a sunny day for us. But the waves are best in winter, when it's like this," said Mike McCann, a 27-year-old Seattle schoolteacher and avid Westport surfer who drove down to watch.
Dana Monson, 32, an attorney, drove out from Sun Valley, Idaho, to catch the action and connect with friends from her days as a Westport surfer.
"I started when I was 26," she said. "I moved out here and lived in my van for three months and learned to surf."
Miss Monson, who had moved to the coast from Tacoma, said she had known Westport winters would be wet and cold, but she hadn't known what real cold was until she took up surfing.
Getting out of a wetsuit after an hour or so in the water is so cold, she said, "sometimes you feel as if your thumb is going to break off because it's completely numb, and you can't get your booties off."
Miss Monson, like most other Westport surfers, has ridden waves in such warm-water locales as Southern California, Hawaii and Costa Rica. But she continues to take a week's vacation every fall and spring to surf at Westport.
And she is not alone.
Nine-year-old Alexandra Papac of Seattle shivered in her wetsuit as she clambered over the barrier boulders after completing her run as the only entrant in the Menahune, or kids, division.
"It's not bad until you get hit by your first wave, and then it's really, really cold," she said.
LeBaron Esty, 49, manager of the Surf Shop in Westport, said, "There was just a handful of people when I came up here 20 years ago, and it seemed like heaven to me coming from a crowded surf spot like Santa Cruz, Calif.
"You had beautiful waves, beautiful people. There was a real pioneer spirit of surfing where everybody helped each other and everybody was excited to see each other," he said. "It grew exponentially over the years."
In recent years, the few dozen surfers who might be seen testing the waves in February have become a few hundred during the summer weekends.
Of course, they still have to wear wetsuits.
In winter, that means full-body, hooded neoprene suits that can be up to 5 millimeters thick. Manufacturers may use different materials to seal seams, or they may use Velcro instead of zippers.
"In California, they're just into fashion, where the surfers in the Northwest are more practical," Mr. Brown said. "It's a bit of the Northwest grunge. They don't care what they look like. They just want the best equipment they can get and the best wetsuit. You definitely have to have a good wetsuit."
Surfers in Westport consider themselves more serious about their sport than California surfers.
"People up here are surfing for surfing's sake, as opposed to scamming-the-chick-on-the-beach sake," said Frank Crippen, who owns NxNW Surf Co. in Port Angeles, located farther up the coast and a right turn into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
In that area, the best surfing spots are a tightly guarded secret, as many of them are on private land or in remote, relatively fragile areas.
"Somebody blabbed about a year-and-a-half ago, and he got blacklisted," Mr. Yaeger said.
In Westport, the three best surfing spots are within a couple of miles of town. Far from being secret, they've become a local industry.


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