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Braving the Elements

Catching up with North Carolina’s Brett Barley after the coldest, heaviest, and snowiest swell in recent memory

A few days ago, North Carolina filmmaker Jeffrey O'Neil dropped an edit called "Winter Storm Grayson," which you can re-watch here. In it, Brett Barley, Oliver Kurtz and Cam Richards, among others, score pumping waves on the Outer Banks in 39-degree water under a snow-filled sky. Grayson--a rare named winter storm--was historic in the sense that it was one of the strongest "bombogenesis" events in the history of the east coast, dropping 59 millibars in 24 hours and whipping up the biggest and most powerful swell the east coast has seen in quite some time. We called Brett up to chat about what it’s like surfing in those bone-chilling conditions, and to find out what it feels like to get flushed by a six-footer when the water is 39 degrees.

Grayson looked like a wild--and absolutely frigid--winter swell. When was the last time you surfed with that much snow on the ground in the Outer Banks?

The last time we had that much snow was in 2015. We get dustings and flurries every winter, but because we're surrounded by so much water, and we're so close to the Gulfstream, it takes special conditions for the snow to stick to the ground. But right now we're in the middle of a two-week stint of freezing temps. The sound actually froze over and it's stayed frozen for the last four or five days. I've never seen that before.

That's crazy. The sound is a massive body of salt water.

Oh yeah. And it's frozen solid. I actually went and jumped up and down on it yesterday and couldn't break through it [laughs].

It's pretty crazy to think two short months ago you were hunting waves near your house in boardshorts.

I think the temperature here fluctuates more than anywhere in the world. Right now, the water temperature off Oregon Inlet is 39 degrees, and during the summer the same spot was 83 degrees. So it's like a 45-degree change in a few months time. But, comparing it to the fall when we were surfing in trunks, it's a completely different experience.

Freezing and firing. Photo: Pullen

How many sessions in a day can you handle when it's that cold?

It just depends. I can handle two three-hour sessions if the waves are good and I'm moving around a lot. During that Grayson swell, on the big day, the current was so strong that I actually got hot. But as soon as you stop moving you're done. That's when your core body temp just drops.

How does it feel to get flushed in 39-degree water?

It completely takes your breath away. It's a total shock. And the footage really doesn't do justice to how heavy it really was. There was a couple times when Oliver [Kurtz], Cam [Richards], Fisher [Heverly], and I were sitting on the beach talking about how guys in a lot of places in the world would be towing in. Not because it was too big, but because it was so square and so bottomed up. There were a ton of waves that just weren't physically possible to paddle into.

When you take those on the head, you get flushed [laughs]. And it's definitely hard to stay relaxed and hold your breath when that happens. But you get used to how to react in that situation after you've experienced it a bunch. It’s more of a mental thing, where it's hard to wrap your head around how warm you can actually be in water that cold until you've actually done it.

Aside from wearing the thickest possible gear, do you have any other tricks to stay warm?

Yeah, I bought a brand new tub of Vaseline the other day. Oliver and I vaselined our faces before we paddled out because it helps keep the wind off you and makes the water bead off your face. It totally works. Cam and Fisher were complaining about ice cream headaches the whole time and I didn't get one until the end of the session, after I'd rubbed most of the Vaseline off. I'll also wear a ski mask sometimes, but your breathing is restricted in the ski mask, so I don't wear it on days when it's heavy. But the Vaseline is plenty. It makes a huge difference.

After a day like that, do you feel like you've had your fill of frigid winter tubes, or is that something you love doing so much you can't wait for the next big swell?

I love being home in the middle of winter. Someone commented the other day something like, "How much have you thought about the North Shore these past couple weeks?" Honestly, none, and not because I don't like the North Shore, but because I like surfing at home that much. There's just something special about getting waves in the cold. It’s really rewarding. That Grayson swell was really special. I've surfed in the snow, and I've gotten barreled in the snow, but I've never seen a day of pumping barrels like that with snow whiting out the beach. That was a unique event for us, and I already can't wait for the next one.

[Top image: Brett Barley, about to brave the sub-freezing elements of Storm Grayson. Photo by Pullen]