INDIAN RIVER INLET, Del. - It was just after sunrise yesterday when Harry Wilson hit the beach here at Delaware Seashore State Park. With barely a cloud in the sky, the air temperature was a teeth-chattering 22 degrees, the ocean temperature was practically balmy at almost 50 and the incoming tide was pushing long, slow, perfectly spaced 4- to 5-foot waves.
Obviously, it was an ideal day for surfing.
Even record-breaking low temperatures didn't discourage Wilson from going ahead with the 20th annual Ho Ho Surf Off.
"This is a celebration of local surfers who surf all year 'round," said Wilson, the Delaware chief of the Eastern Surfing Association, which sanctioned the four-hour competition. "You've got to be pretty hard-core to not miss the good waves at Ocean City or Rehoboth because our best are always in the fall and winter. This is really all about the waves."
Over two decades, the locals have never hesitated to brave the elements, and weather has never canceled an event. But a few times, the waves just wouldn't cooperate. Two years ago, postponements three weeks in a row in December meant the Ho Ho was put off until May.
Competitive surfers in 12 categories can't afford to miss an event and still remain in the running for regional and East Coast awards that are based on cumulative totals. Top surfers also need to keep their rankings in order to maintain sponsorships for free boards and other equipment from manufacturers and surf shops.
For those who aren't in the top ranks, the Ho Ho and similar events still have appeal, said 49-year-old Joe Jelks, who rarely misses an opportunity to surf.
"I'm not much into competition. I do it for the exercise," says Jelks, a Lewes, Del., resident. "We're all just people who drop everything if the waves are good."
Over the years, the Ho Ho tournament has been blessed with monster surf, surprised by unseasonably warm weather, and blasted with snow, sleet and 50-mph winds. But it's waves that matter, not the weather.
Surfers are protected head to toe by wet suits as thick as 6 millimeters, including shoes, gloves and hoods. Yesterday, surfers were warmer in the water than on the beach.
Their gear has improved greatly over the years, say longtime winter surfers like Bill Helmuth, a real estate broker from Ocean Pines.
"The wet suits are dramatically different, with incredible flexibility," said Helmuth, 54, a former surf shop owner who's still surfing after 40 years. "The first suit I had was an old clumsy diving suit."
As with so many others in the close-knit Maryland and Delaware surfing community - which included competitors ages 11 to 55 yesterday - the sport is a family obsession for Helmuth, who surfs all year with his 13-year-old son, Logan.
"If it weren't for Logan, I might have stayed home today," said Helmuth. "One thing I'll tell you is that you're a lot more selective about which wave you ride when the air temperature is this cold. Maybe we'll take off [from surfing] in January and February."
Even some nonsurfing parents turned out yesterday, huddling near a meager fire in a barbecue pit on the beach.
"I have three boys, two of them surfers, and all three are lacrosse players," said Debbie
Dyer of Ocean View, Del. "I've never surfed, but I've been out in much worse than this - rain, sleet, wind, you name it. As long as they have the right equipment, I don't have a problem with them surfing in the cold."
The sport is popular enough that two high schools near Ocean City, Stephen Decatur High and Worcester Preparatory, have surf clubs. The Worcester teens even have a Web site.
One frequent spectator is Worcester Prep's computer teacher and surf club sponsor, Nancy Raskauskas, a former surfer who has been lured back into the sport by her students.
"I'm usually out here with a video camera, getting stuff for the Web page or for videos the kids can use to evaluate themselves," Raskauskas said. "It's all about camaraderie, respect for the beaches. It's an intergenerational thing around here."