Travel: Not Just For Penguins

Peter Mel was visiting Alaska's Aleutian Islands last winter when he spotted the perfect wave. So he pulled on his wet suit, waxed his board and went surfing. "It was awesome. Frigid but awesome," says the professional surfer from Santa Cruz, Calif.

Mel is part of a growing subculture of coldwater surfers who hit the waves when most people dare not leave the house. "There are definitely a lot more people doing it now," says Peter (Pan) Panagiotis, a Rhode Islander who regularly braves New England's 32-degree winter waters. They're drawn by bigger waves, sparser crowds and improved wet-suit technology that makes off-season boarding less bone-chilling.

Coldwater hot spots include New England, Alaska, British Columbia and Nova Scotia--all places known for consistently huge waves. "Surfing is a greedy, selfish sport, and the ultimate is to have the waves all to yourself," says Panagiotis, who once surfed off Rhode Island in subzero temperatures with a wind-chill factor of minus 20 degrees. "The colder and nastier it gets, the fewer people you'll see in the water."

On the East Coast, waves are bigger in the winter. That's why Atlantic City, N.J., surfer Frankie Walsh regularly hits the waves at Long Island's Rockaway Beach, a favorite spot of New York City surfers. "People think we're crazy," Walsh says. "Honestly, it's tough to beat pristine beaches in warm locations, but if you live in the Northeast and want to surf year-round, you've got to endure some harsh conditions."

Facing those conditions has become a bit easier in recent years, thanks to high-tech wet suits. In the past, winter wet suits were thick, stiff and leaky, which made paddling difficult, not to mention freezing. Improved stretch neoprene fabrics and modern welding techniques that seal the seams better make the suits more comfortable and less bulky. "People are surprised by how warm they get," says Raph Bruhwiler, who surfs year-round near his home in Vancouver, British Columbia. "Sometimes when you're paddling hard to catch waves you're actually sweating." Coldwater suits have hoods that cover everything but the face, and winter surfers also wear neoprene booties and gloves to protect the extremities. Even so, plunging into frigid water can be a major wakeup call. If you go in face-first, "You get an ice-cream headache," says Mel.

Where should a beginner start? The 39th annual New England Mid-Winter Surfing Championship, Feb. 17 at Rhode Island's Narragansett Town Beach ( nesurfari.com ), is a good opportunity to check out the East Coast's premier coldwater surfers. Feel like taking the plunge? Panagiotis teaches all winter ($50, wet suit and board provided; peterpansurf.com ). "I'll take people out for as long as they can last," he says. Bruhwiler teaches winter lessons on Long Beach and Chesterman's Beach on Vancouver Island ($75 for 2i hours, all equipment included; bruhwilersurf.com ).

Before buying a wet suit, try on a few to find one that fits properly. For winter conditions, look for a suit that's five millimeters thick around the body and four millimeters on the arms and legs, such as the Ignite Hyperstretch 5-4, made for water temperatures of 36 to 46 degrees ($279.95; quiksilver.com ). Or suit up in the Ultra Hot Combo ($359; hotlineonline.com ).

Warm-water summer surfing will always be more popular, but as surfing continues to grow, more aficionados will seek out far-flung destinations in search of novel experiences and virgin waves. "Who's to say there aren't good waves in Antarctica?" says Mel.