Magazine Feature: Frigid breaks, tough tribe

Photo by Richie Hopson

Photo by Richie Hopson

The following is an excerpt of a feature article in the current issue of HUCK Magazine, a bi-monthly British lifestyle magazine. The feature was written by Chris Nelson.

Nova Scotia is a hard place with soft edges – if you count the texture of drifting fog or tumbling snowflakes as soft. The winter temperature here on the eastern seaboard of Canada can drop so low that the sea steams like a hot spring. Those are the days when the rounded boulders are glazed with a vicious frosting of frozen seawater, making the shoreline a treacherous place to tread. It is a place where Scots and Vikings and Bretons washed ashore and in this Celtic landscape they felt at home. The many points and reefs that litter this coastline are indiscriminate in the ships they claim, sending cartwheel-like waves spinning into the bays. It is here that one of the planet’s hardiest surf tribes watches and waits.

We climb the ladder into a large fourth-storey attic space. It’s one of those rooms loosely scattered with assorted bags, boxes and accumulated ‘stuff’. Jim swings open a giant hinged window in the roof apex and there, before us, the mist-fringed Atlantic is revealed, greying in the retreating afternoon light. The air outside is laden with moisture, and as it drifts into the room, fine droplets condense on my face. “There’s The Right over there,” says Jim, sweeping his arm towards the tree-covered headland to our south. “Probably one of the best waves around here,” he says lowering his voice in an almost conspiratorial way – even though there’s no one else to hear. “And that point to the north we called The Left, and in the middle of the bay sits The Cove. We weren’t very original when we named these spots,” he smiles, admiring the view.

Jim Leadbetter’s house sits back from the road, tucked in behind a screen of wind-weathered pine. Jim wasn’t the first surfer in Nova Scotia, but he’s certainly first-generation. He caught the bug in the mid-sixties, when surfing here was just two years old. “We never thought we were doing anything that ‘out there’. It was just fun,” explains Jim. “There’s times when you’re out in the middle of February and it’s minus-thirty-two windchill. Sometimes we get full-on ice flows. Not icebergs as such, but chunks of ice as big as this room. Then we get the slush ice, a whole field of slush – to watch a wave move through that is incredible. We used to get up on the ice pans and when a wave came you could run and dive in and catch the wave off it. Kind of like a little island out in the middle of the surf break. Back then a lot of us had long hair, and often we went in without hoods – you’d have chunks of ice frozen to your hair, like dreadlocks.” In the days before the Psycho2 or the H-Bomb, a second-hand, beavertail dive suit was the best a surfer could hope for. “I used to have to sit in the tub for an hour to warm up afterwards – I was borderline hypothermic. I wasn’t alone – everyone would. You’d get the woodstove cranked up so you knew you’d be nice and warm when you got out.”

Fifteen minutes south of Jim’s place lies the sandy arc of Lawrencetown Beach, hemmed in by two boulder-fringed points. The northern side is dense with pine and home to sheltered lefts, while on the southern edge a grass-carpeted bluff reveals winding right-hand walls. During the summer the shore front lake draws in the ‘June Gloom’. It can be thirty-five degrees in Halifax, while Lawrencetown is bathed in the miasma of a clawing fogbank. This is the heartland of Nova Scotia surfing. They are a relatively small crew who migrated out to the communities away from the crowds and the bustle, close to the beaches and the points. Guys like John Brennan, Paul Camillari, Jim Leadbetter and Surfer Joe. “Most of the surfers at that time had moved here to Lawrencetown or Seaforth or Chezzetcook,” says Lesley Choyce, a New Jersey-born surfer who transplanted into the embryonic community over thirty years ago. “The priority was, ‘Let’s get situated by the waves first and we’ll figure out the rest later.’”

Faded photos tell stories of wood-clad houses, flared trousers and BBQ’s on lawns strewn with candy-coloured single-fins – scenes that could have easily been played out on a lazy afternoon on the Gold Coast or any NorCal autumn Sunday. “People would come here and they would say it was like California in the 1950s,” says Lesley. “It had that feel to it, which it really held onto for quite a long while. I loved it. We were into the eighties and nineties and it was still like the fifties and sixties of surfing. People who travelled here, especially from California and other places, would fall in love with the fact that it felt like surfing before surfing became commercialised.”
Nova Scotia Surf image 4

The sea here was the domain of the local fishermen, tough men who made a living in tough conditions. They didn’t take kindly to the ‘hippies’ who were suddenly in their midst, parking in their spaces, weaving along the glassy breakers near their lobster pots. “Their job was cold and rough and dangerous and the sea was not a place where you played – the sea was a place where you earned your living at a great cost,” explains Lesley. “I think they were wondering, ‘What the hell?’ They had a hard time figuring out what the hell we were doing.” These weren’t the kind of guys you’d want to get on the wrong side of. Long-haired youths suddenly arriving by the Kombi load seemed like an intrusion to these quiet communities, and the fishermen responded with their own brand of localism. “We were from the outside and I can’t say that we were immediately accepted,” says Jim. “We used to be a few, now we’re probably the biggest group of folks here.”

To read the rest of the feature, you will need to order the magazine.


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