Think surfing. What comes to mind? White beaches and tropical blue waters, perhaps. Laidback beach bums with long, sun-bleached hair. California, Hawaii, the South Pacific. 

You probably do not think of snowbanks and dark, churning, sub-forty-degree water. Pale, shivering guys in head-to-toe neoprene and with accents harsh as the weather. You almost certainly do not think of New Jersey.

“We get some really good waves here,” says Dave Werner, Long Beach Island (LBI) local and semi-professional surfer. He has chased surf to Australia, New Zealand, and the North Shore of Oahu. Indonesia, Mexico, and the Caribbean. New Jersey’s waves, when good, are right up there.

But the Jersey Shore makes you earn it. For one thing, its best and most consistent surf comes during the winter, when air and water temperatures are coldest. Even then, the ocean is fickle. Three, four weeks can pass without sizeable waves. And since the Atlantic Ocean is small and shallow relative to the Pacific, swells that do materialize tend not to linger. Swells are wave energy generated by offshore weather systems, and their size alone is not enough. Swell direction and period dictate which surf breaks, if any, will convert the energy into shapely waves. Keeping tabs on the best spots takes significant effort, as each large swell or beach replenishment project alters the bathymetry of Jersey’s predominantly sand-bottomed breaks. None of this even matters if tides and local weather are not in line—and they often aren’t. Wind, which varies dramatically up and down the Jersey Shore, presents a particularly confounding factor. “The second it comes Southeast—that’s our devil wind,” says Werner, shaking his head. 

Last March, Winter Storm Stella produced some of the best surf the Garden State had seen in decades—but only for about six hours. (Werner calls these brief swells “quick-hitters.”) Good surf in Jersey is so fleeting and difficult to predict that figuring out where to be, and when, can feel like a part-time job. For Werner, who teaches a class called “The Science of Forecasting Waves” at New Jersey’s Stockton University, it is. And forecasting is not enough—you have to be ready to drop everything to get there. Between transportation costs, family obligations (Werner has a wife and two young daughters), and real jobs, this is not always so simple. “Everyone has their own ways of getting there,” says Werner. Some go during lunch break. Some go before or after work. Some go during work. Some use personal days. Whatever your strategy, the further in advance you know, the more gracefully you can slip commitments.

“We’re all amateur forecasters,” says Rick Huegi, another LBI surfing veteran who also has a wife and two young daughters. “We have to be.” Every day for the past twenty-four years, except in the weeks immediately following hurricane Sandy, Rick has recorded local surf conditions. He has filled eleven composition journals with hand-written observations. This level of patience and persistence is almost required of Garden State surfers—unlike their counterparts elsewhere. “You’re from California,” he says to me, with a hint of derision. “You guys have waves all the time.” When a swell comes to my hometown of Los Angeles, which is relatively often, it stays for several days. Even the least attentive surfers will catch its tail end, and they can count on warm weather and sunny skies.

If surfing is a charmed lifestyle in LA, here it looks more like a dirty addiction. It is about weeks of waiting, days of scheming, and hours of numb, wind-whipped paddling—all for a taste of the sublime.

Last week, the surfers of New Jersey got their fix.

When Dave Werner picked me up one Tuesday afternoon last March, he wore a collared shirt and sport coat. He had come straight from his primary teaching job at the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science (MATES).

“Sunday afternoon was probably one of the top five days I’ve ever seen in New Jersey,” he recalled. “Not a drop of water out of place.”

While Winter Storm Riley was ravaging the upper East Coast and keeping most folks indoors, hardy surfers up and down the Eastern seaboard were reveling in some of the best and most consistent surf in decades. New Jersey, and one LBI break in particular, stole the show. The break was the site of a just-finished $18.4 million sand restoration project which, intended to slow coastal erosion, incidentally perfected the break’s bathymetry, producing long, thick, barreling waves. (Getting “barreled”—also called getting “tubed,” “pitted,” “kegged,” “shacked,” “slotted,” and about a hundred other things, so pick your favorite—refers to surfing under the folding lip of a hollow wave. If the number of names for the move is any indication, it is the holy grail of surfing.) The online surfing world dubbed the spot “Newmibia,” in reference to a Namibian break known to offer some of the longest, thickest sand-bottomed barrels in the world. The web lit up with photos from “Newmibia”—and, beneath these photos, with inquiries about its location. Werner was taking me there now. (Tip: if you want to learn the local tricks of the surfing trade, just try posing as a journalist.)

As we crossed Manahawkin Bay on our way to the barrier island, Werner pointed out evidence of flooding. I asked if he had seen it this bad before. “Maybe during Sandy.”

Winter Storm Riley was not your typical “hit and run” nor’easter. It hovered offshore for days, producing powerful swell from Friday through Tuesday. Werner compared it to a wave pool. Over the phone later, Huegi compared it to the Perfect Storm of 1991—a nor’easter that absorbed a hurricane and proceeded to batter the East Coast with huge surf for days on end.  

When we arrived at the spot, I watched a surfer pull into a barrel as Werner chatted to parking-lot buddies. “Put your other suit on,” an older man exiting the water hooted playfully in our direction. Still in work clothes, Werner turned back to his car. “It’s cool in the winter,” he said. “We’ve got a great crew. Everyone knows everyone.” But as Werner donned his wetsuit, he reminded me not to reveal the spot’s location to others. Unknown though New Jersey’s surf scene remains to the general public, word is out in the surfing community. A-list pro Brett Barley, a North Carolina native whose sponsors regularly pay him to surf the best waves around the globe, made the trek up here the previous Sunday. He posted an Instagram picture from the spot with a caption saying he had scored the longest barrel of his life here. He didn’t reveal the spot’s location, but one commenter—a proud young surfer from the area—did. “Welcome to [BLANK],” the kid wrote. “I was just shaking my head,” said LJ, an LBI surfer and photographer. “Like, you gotta be kidding me.”

The arrival of superior wetsuit technology, online surf-forecasting services, and social media has brought crowds to lineups that, two decades ago, were empty. The previous Sunday, there were thirty to forty guys at the spot. “We were always saying, ‘the East Coast doesn’t suck,’ and people from the West Coast always made fun of us,” said Huegi, who surfed at a spot a few jetties north that Sunday to avoid traffic. “I think we proved ourselves too much.”

Werner grabbed his board and walked four minutes up the beach. It took him less time, once he had paddled out, to drift back to where he had started. He caught a small wave, rode it in, and jogged back up the beach.

When we arrived, the surf had been pretty good. Within fifteen minutes, onshore wind picked up, and the waves became nearly unsurfable. Soon Werner came in. “The drift is just hellacious,” he said, referring to the longshore current. Two weeks later, when Winter Storm Toby would hit, this spot would disappoint. The sand that comprised this break—and the millions of dollars spent moving it here—would be long gone, swept away by Riley and Quinn. The best waves would be found up the coast.

While perhaps lower than twenty years ago, the barriers to scoring great winter waves in New Jersey remain high. Surfing here will always be an uncertain and humbling affair. It will always take skill, persistence, and grit. Even for those who do it best, the pain-to-pleasure ratio will remain utterly lopsided.

As strong as the current was when I met Werner that Tuesday last March, it did not compare with the previous Saturday, when the swell had peaked, and Werner had fought the drift for two hours without catching a single decent wave. A couple of hours later and fifty miles north, I had fared even worse. When I arrived, the gray ocean roiled devilishly. Onshore winds had already rendered the large surf nearly unrideable. Not a soul was out. The friend I had come with wisely decided not to surf, but I, having shirked schoolwork and driven for an hour in a borrowed car to get here, could not bear the thought of returning with dry ears. After a cursory safety analysis, I suited up and paddled out.

The longshore current proved far stronger than I had expected. No sooner had I made my way through the waves and out to the lineup than I found myself unnervingly close to a concrete-block jetty against which the surf beat violently. Recognizing that I could not break the current flowing parallel to the beach, I started paddling in, but soon realized that the current was forcing water against the jetty and out into the open ocean. I was stuck in a narrow riptide no swimmer could break, being sucked further and further out. My arms were tiring, and my 4-millimeter wetsuit started to feel like a sarcophagus. With no good options, I paddled across the rip towards the jetty in hopes of escaping by landing and clambering up it. Just as I made contact, a large mutant wave materialized, ripping me from my hold and scraping me and my board across the concrete blocks. Several more waves followed before, in a moment of relative calm, I scrambled up the mossy blocks to safety.

I had banged my leg against the jetty and would walk with a slight limp for the next few days. The board had lost a fin and was badly dinged. I wanted to bury myself in the sand. What I felt was not relief at being back on solid land, but deep shame at having left it.

As I crossed the sand, I encountered an older man who looked as if he spent a great deal of time on this beach. He had watched the whole thing—my ill-advised venture and the ocean’s rebuff. He looked at me gravely and muttered a question to which he knew the answer. “You’re not from around here, are you?”