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Jonathan Nimerfroh and the island of Nantucket’s Slurpee Waves

Professional surf photographer Jonathan Nimerfroh does not own a TV.  Living on the island of Nantucket, a 14-mile long stretch of sand located off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with no fast food chains, traffic lights or shopping malls, you would think there would not be much else to do, but for Jonathan, he chooses to find his entertainment in the natural beauty of the place he calls home.  And so the morning of January 2nd, 2018 started like any other, with friends calling him and telling him there were waves.

Nantucket is a place of great contrast, its sunshine-filled, breezy summer days offering the classic backdrop to the American family’s summer vacation, the small island welcoming as many as 80,000 visitors a day.  Known as a playground for the country’s top 1% wealthiest individuals, over the years the island has evolved into a sort of red-carpet, complete with a yacht-lined harbor, multi-million dollar homes, and a plethora of restaurants where your standard meal starts at an upwards of $40.  Come winter though, this all changes.  The harbor goes barren as temperatures plummet and the fancy restaurants close for the season.  Those soft breezes become bone-chilling winds.  Because of its geographic location so far east, the island experiences extremely short days – in the month of December, the sun sets at just a little after 4 in the afternoon.  The 15,000 people who maintain the year round population, some generational locals who have lived there all their lives, fisherman or trades people, and those like Jonathan, artists who moved there willingly, make up this diverse amount of people who share one thing in common; a love for this beautiful land.  And so on the morning of January 2nd, with a skip in his step, Jonathan quickly gathered up his cameras, gulped down the last of his coffee, and drove off in his jeep for the beach.

Arriving on that sunny but frigid morning, his two friends Nick Hayden and Jamie Briard were just paddling out, ear-to-ear smiles on their faces.  The air was just 12° degrees Fahrenheit, the water 36°.  “As soon as I got out of my car and got closer to the beach, I could see the Slurpee Waves,” Jonathan says. 

What Jonathan is referring to, the term “Slurpee Waves” is actually a natural phenomenon he creatively named back in 2015 when he first saw the ocean become a slurpee-like consistency after record-breaking low temperatures battered the island for weeks on end.  The photographs he took that day gained worldwide attention, running the gamut on news channels around the globe.  Jonathan’s personal Instagram account grew virtually overnight, from approximately 1,500 followers to over 15,000 in just a matter of hours.  To say that people were fascinated with the “Slurpee Waves” would be an understatement.  However, up to this point, no one had yet seen video.  And so, on this sunny morning, beside his camera in his jeep was his Panasonic Camcorder, ready and waiting for Slurpee Wave footage. 

“Nick and I showed up and saw there was ice in the water,” surfer Jamie Briard says, who had brought to the beach a 5’7” custom board he shaped himself in his basement two years ago.  “I was pretty stoked about it because I had been wanting to surf when there was slush in the water since that first year they came through in 2015.  Nick and I both kind of hyped each other up on it, and then once we got in there it was super thick.  It was almost like paddling through quicksand, like it just wanted to suck you down and hold you there.”

Echoes Nick, “The slush is pretty dangerous – you really don’t want anything to do with it unless you’re riding on it pretty quick.  You want to get out of there as soon as possible.”  Although he wore his thickest wetsuit, a 6/4 mm and 7 mm booties and gloves, an unrepaired hole in his back thigh was steadily leaking in slushy water.  “It was pretty cold,” Nick laughs.

Jonathan stood at the shore break and alternated between his Canon EOS 5D Mark IV still camera and the Panasonic camcorder, the surfers hooting and hollering in the distance, holding balls of ice in neoprene-gloved hands like trophies above their heads. 

Nick, who chose to ride his 5’8” Lost RV that day says, “It was very difficult to catch a wave because it was so hard to paddle in the slush.  But if you could catch a wave outside the slush, then the energy would transfer you into that slushy section and you would still be surfing but on top of it.  You could feel the traction with your fin, slowing you down a bit.”

“It was like surfing in slow motion,” Jamie says.  “The first wave I took off on, I could feel my fin hit one of those big chunks of ice.  It was kind of scary at first, but it was definitely a unique feeling.”  For the next hour, the two surfers caught wave after wave on top of what seemed like an endless supply of emerald green, slurpee-like waves.  When asked if they got any barrels, Nick says, “I did end up getting one left that shaped up very beautifully, and I got in the right spot on it, and the curtain came over, and I just got a little view with the slush over my head.  It was easily one of the best waves I’ve ever gotten in my life because I’ve never done anything like it.  It was epic for sure.”

An hour later, with icicles frozen to their faces, the surfers high-fived by their cars, engines on and heaters at full blast.  “I couldn’t talk when I got out,” Nick says with a smile.

“To go surfing you have to have special conditions, just to ride regularly – without frozen waves,” Jonathan says.  “You need the right tide, the right weather, the right wind.  All these things need to be aligned to surf, so when there’s waves like this, it’s really unusual to have it happen.”

And again, just like in 2015, Jonathan’s photographs of the Slurpee Waves became a worldwide fascination.  This time, with the help of a few friends, Jonathan even made a video that earned over 100,000 views on his personal page alone.  News agencies around the world ran photos of the waves, and the term “Slurpee Waves” became a household name.

But for Jonathan, this doesn’t change much.  In fact, he’d probably prefer waves on the smaller scale, and warmer, sunnier days where he’d find himself on his board of choice, a Joel Tudor crescent tale model, the only thing cold being the beer waiting for him on the beach once he’s done.  Summer months for Jonathan can be very busy, with showings of his work in the downtown Nantucket Samuel Owen Gallery, where Slurpee Waves from both 2015 and now 2018 hang for sale.  But Jonathan always makes time to surf, and declines to specify exactly where.  “The sandbars are always changing, almost every day,” Jonathan says.  “We don’t have any jetties, piers or manmade objects to make better waves – it’s all just sand.  So we surf where ever the waves are good that day.”

For consistent swells, Jonathan will head to California for at least a month every year, enjoying the plethora of point breaks, beach breaks and reef breaks sunny San Diego has to offer, his favorite spots including San Onofre State Beach and Cardiff By the Sea.  Trips to California are also for work these days, shooting clothing for fly-fishing and surf apparel company Howler Brothers, while also working as their Brand Ambassador.

“One day I want to come surf Japan,” Jonathan says.  “From what I hear there’s really great waves and cool surfers.”  In fact, one company Jonathan works with, Matuse crafts their ichiban line of wetsuits in the spirit of the Japanese-based Kaizen philosophy of continual improvement, and is consequently known as an industry leader for their top quality.

Looking back on the whole experience, Jonathan says he’s most grateful for how stoked his friends were that he got photos of them surfing the Slurpee Waves.  “And I also love how it reached people that don’t surf, that are into cool weather or weird news.  I even got fan mail from people all over the world that think they are cool.  Some people think they’re fake.  Some people want to ride them.  Some people want to dip their french fries in them,” he says with a laugh.

Surfers Jamie and Nick are still thrilled about the occurrence.  “It’s cool to experience something I haven’t experienced before,” Nick says.  “Surfing during a hurricane, or surfing when it’s slushy, or surfing down where it’s tropical – it all produces a different feeling on the wave, which is so cool.”  He stops and smiles, thinking of the day.  “It was purely epic,” he says.  “The stoke was very high.”

To see Jonathan’s video of the Slurpee Waves, be sure to visit his website at www.jdnphotography.com.  To see his complete collection of Slurpee Wave prints for sale, be sure to visit www.samuelowen.com.  You can also follow Jonathan on Instagram at @jdnphotography