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Surfing zealots don't wait for warm weather to catch a wave

Surfer Gordon Hempton dons a thick wet suit to ride the bigger waves that come with winter storms. He's among a small group of surfing zealots who practice their sport no matter the season.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Video | Gordon Hempton braves the winter water

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ALONG THE STRAIT OF JUAN DE FUCA — The surf gently rocks Gordon Hempton as he courts hypothermic bliss.

Surfers guard their secret spots. Hempton's is a jade-green jewel with a long fetch of open water that catches whatever raucous weather blasts in from the Pacific.

He lives in the tiny town of Joyce, Clallam County, and records the sounds of nature for a living. At least once a week he cleanses his soul with a good scrubbing of wind, sand and saltwater.

Even with the arrival of spring last Friday, it's still too soon for most people to play in the water. But surfing zealots like Hempton don't wait for warmer weather.

He body surfs year round, and savors the bigger waves that come with winter storms, and having the beach largely to himself. A thick wet suit, with hood, bootees and socks, helps him bear the cold.

He started surfing in college, beginning with a big rental board, 9 feet long and weighing about 100 pounds. "It was basically a raft," Hempton says. Then he discovered body surfing — and was hooked, loving the freedom of playing in the waves. At 55, he's still at it.

He's careful, usually going with a buddy, and strapping a strobe light to one leg to make it easier for the Coast Guard to find him if he's swept out on a riptide.

The glassy, wet surface of the beach reflects his stride as Hempton walks into the water on a recent snowy day. There's no hesitation, no sampling the temperature, no shriek as the 44-degree seawater surges around him.

Over the years he's honed his technique, adding wooden paddles for his hands, and swim fins. A marine-mammal wannabe, sea creatures don't quite know what to make of him, as he sings to the migrating gray whales and makes himself at home in their realm. One seal in particular, Hempton says, often gives him a "stay away from my fish" whack with a flipper.

Snow starts sifting down from gray clouds as Hempton lolls on his back, enjoying a nice float between waves. The flakes tickle his face and pile up like tattered lace on the beach.

Surfing is a Zen sport, all timing and presence. Paddling and swimming in the swell, Hempton senses a wave's building momentum. And suddenly he catches it: Arms stretched out front, legs back, head up, and he's cruising the cold crush of surf.

The comber breaks around his head and shoulders, the wave a tumble of gray-green water and white foam. Hempton's beet-faced with cold.

Lather, rinse, repeat. An hour goes by, more. Still Hempton stays out there, all alone but for the seabirds shooting him "What are you doing here?" looks.

Eventually, he walks from the sea and heads for his 1964 VW bus, with 146,442 miles on it and gearshift knob in the shape of a sea-urchin shell. It's tricked out as the ultimate camping and surfing road machine, and Hempton has a fire all ready to go in a woodstove just behind the passenger seat, its chimney sticking out the roof.

A flick of a lighter, and the fire is soon crackling. He cuddles up to the heat, exhilarated and cleansed. He says — once his face warms up enough to talk — he feels a sense of peace that will last for days.

"The cold is actually a good thing, it makes life simpler," Hempton says. "It's a blissful feeling."

A surfer since he was a teenager, Hempton can't imagine living without it.

"Some people call it an addiction. I call it a religion."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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