Connection, community and braving the cold

UP students connect while surfing tough Oregon winter conditions

By Charlie Rogers | November 30, 2022 11:30am

Photo courtesy of Louli Ziels

The exhilarating rush of the foamy cascades of salt water create the perfect concoction of joy for surfers on the Oregon coast — even in the cold. Students at the University of Portland brave the harsh conditions of winter surfing to shred the gnar and chase that feeling.

“I just get super psyched and I just love it,” nursing major, Sam Pettinato ‘23, said “I like being able to be in unison with something as scary and unpredictable as the ocean. I feel the energy between me and the water when I’m catching a good wave.”

Connecting with the ocean isn’t the only reason Pettinato loves to surf, he values the community that is fostered alongside it. His favorite part of the sport is being able to introduce it to new people and has been doing so since he was 14. 

“I love taking friends who have never surfed before,” Pettinato said. “I’ll set them up on a huge board that’s hard to fall off and they just start popping up on a couple of waves. I’ll be paddling next to them and when they stand up and look back, the look on their face is so satisfying.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, surfing provided an outlet for community. Pettinato bonded with Outdoor Pursuits (OPP) Instructor, Louli Ziels, over their love for surfing, going consistently with each other while the world hit pause. 

Photo courtesy of Louli Ziels

Many are hesitant to try surfing in Oregon because the conditions are so cold. While the water temperature only changes a few degrees throughout the year — about 48 to 55 degrees — the conditions are what make it daunting. The cold water combined with the winter weather make it an intimidating sport.

There are some individuals who persist, regardless of conditions, to practice the sport they love. 

“Even though the water is cold, it feels so refreshing,” finance major, Matt Ching ‘23, said. “The cold doesn’t take away from the experience. The wetsuit makes you buoyant so you can kinda float and keeps you really warm.”

Ching, from Hawaii says that even though the water is very different from his home state it doesn’t detract from any of the enjoyment of surfing itself. 

While back home, he tried surfing but had fallen in love with surfing on the coast during the first Outdoor Pursuits (OPP) surfing trip last fall. 

“OPP makes it really accessible to go on surf trips,” Ching said “They drive you out there, provide all the gear, and you can bring friends along and it’s just super fun and really easy. OPP offers some awesome trips and I didn’t really realize that until my junior year.”

His trip leader, Ziels, played a role in  why Ching wanted to continue his surfing journey. 

“I really liked talking through the learning process with [Ziels],” Ching said. 

Photo courtesy of Louli Ziels

Compared to recreational sports like skiing or snowboarding, surfing only requires the gear and place to go, eliminating the expense of having to buy a seasonal pass. 

Ziels recalls the exact OPP trip Ching had gone on and has loved seeing the growth and promise he showed. 

“He went on the very first OPP surf trip last year and he’s now been on every single one,” Ziels said. “It’s been so fun because I’ve just watched him improve so much, he even just bought his own board.”

The success of Ching’s most recent surf trip is what prompted him to buy his own gear.

“I progressed so much in the last session,” Ching said. “I actually dropped in on a wave and was amazed. I started going so fast and just screamed. Some dude in the lineup was talking to me saying ‘what happened there?,’ I said to him, ‘I’ve never gone that fast on a board before!’”

For beginning surfers, starting out on a large, soft-top board is important to get basic positioning and balance down before progressing to a more maneuverable, smaller board. It is important to go into surfing with a mindset for safety. Apps like Surfline, Windy and Magic Seaweed all give info on wave height, temperature, weather, and general surfing conditions.

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“Number one most important thing is knowing the conditions,” Ziels said. “Do your research and be observant of your environment and the conditions around you.” 

When doing any sport, safety should be your number one priority. Going with a group can help ensure that you will be taken care of in case you get injured. 

“Go with someone who knows what’s going on,” Pettinato said. “I’ve seen a couple people who’ve gotten pretty badly injured or just put in scary spots in the water.” 

As far as safety during OPP surf trips goes, Ziels says that the group is committed to giving students a great experience on the coast while also making sure that everyone is safe in the process. 

“Last trip we had a water safety person who sat on the beach and was there the whole time watching everyone,” Ziels said. “[Outdoor leaders] taught communicative signals, ‘do this [two-arm overhand waving] if you need help, for example.”

Currently, surf trips are in a development phase at OPP. Trips are capped at five student participants.

“It’s difficult because we don’t want to increase the amount of people per trip … because it's an intimate thing and you want to keep everyone safe,” Ziels said. OPP is working on offering more trips to reach out to more of the UP community.

OPP is considering purchasing beginner-level boards and increasing the number of trips throughout the year in order to help more students experience the wonders of surfing. Currently, OPP leads two trips per semester. Surf trips through OPP are the fastest ones to fill, prompting the organization to eagerly expand. 

Photo courtesy of Louli Ziels

Short Sands Beach is the chosen destination for all OPP surf trips and is popular among the Oregon surfing community as a whole. Short Sands not only provides a scenic example of Oregon coastal beauty, but the currents and water conditions are great for beginning surfers. The cool gray cliffs meet the foamy chaos of the ocean and make a beautiful surfing scene. Other popular surfing destinations include Rockaway Beach, Manzanita and Oceanside. 

OPP doesn’t have any more surfing trips planned for the fall semester but they hope to introduce the sport to more people in the spring. More information will be posted on their instagram.

“Talk to people while you’re out there,” Pettinato said. “The surfing culture and community is such a loving group of people.” 

If you plan on going surfing this winter do your research. Whether you’re going with OPP or a group of friends, always be aware of your surroundings. The power of the ocean can be an intimidating environment for new surfers so make sure you don’t go in blindly. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and try something new. Talk to people you’ve never talked to before. 

Enjoy riding the wave and shred the gnar.

Charlie Rogers is a news/ sports reporter at the Beacon. He can be reached at