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Be a Winter surfer

If you’ve ever paddled out and caught a wave in waters around the UK or Ireland, then congratulations. You’re already a cold water surfer.

A surfer in a winter wetsuit with hood surfing a big wave

Photo: Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons

The seas that surround our islands are cold enough all year to make wetsuits essential wear, and to earn you that gritty title. You can stand at the shoreline, wind-whipped and salt-stung, knowing you are one of the tribe ...

But hold up. Before you take this badge of honour and pitch hell-for-leather into the February waves, there are some things to bear in mind to help you make the transition from casual Summer surfer to seasoned year-rounder.

Meet our cold water board

Michael Winter is a lifeguard supervisor for RNLI beaches in Boscombe and Christchurch. He was one of the first full-time lifeguards when Boscombe started a 365-day service, and has patrolled through snow and biting cold. No stranger to the chillier break, Michael cut his (chattering) teeth surfing as a youngster on the north east coast of England, where Winter water temperatures are regularly 4⁰C. When not lifeguarding, he can be found chasing waves across the country, or in the workshop hand crafting surfboards.

Tom Kay is the founder of Finisterre, a company dedicated to creating innovative products for cold water surfers, based in St Agnes, Cornwall. A committed all-season surfer, Tom started his company in 2002 after realising that most competitors were producing ‘bikinis and flip flops that were useful for about 3 days a year in the UK’. Tom joined the St Agnes lifeboat crew in the same year, and is now a volunteer helm. Today, Finisterre design innovative, tried-and-tested, sustainable products for cold-water surfers worldwide.

What’s the draw of cold water surf?

Tom: 'As warm water spots got more crowded, it pushed people to go further, discover more and travel to new places. We’re not saying that people shouldn’t go off somewhere nice and hot and surf for a fortnight. But sometimes it’s about the reward of going through the hardship, knowing the conditions, reading the charts and studying the maps to find that next secret gem. The people you have with you, the camp, the adventure, getting off-grid – the whole experience feeds off that camaraderie.'

At the bolder end of the cold water spectrum, take Inge Wegge and Jørn Ranum – 20-somethings who spent 9 months of Norwegian Winter living on a beach within the Arctic circle, surfing in freezing waters, building shelter, making fire, snowboarding and no doubt generally worrying their mothers. Why? To their minds that deserted bay held some of the best surfing waves in the world. The film they made, North of the Sun, charts their joy of reaching, inhabiting and playing in the undiscovered.

Chris Nelson, surfer and author of the beautiful Cold Water Souls, has followed and photographed his passion from Iceland to Nova Scotia. He found that while some see the cold only as a challenge to be endured, there is a growing number who feel it differently: ‘It is an integral part of the surfing experience, something to be celebrated. The shocking jolt of that first icy duck dive that makes you feel alive, the stunning clear lip that feathers overhead or the feeling of snow falling ... ’

If you’re willing to put in the time and research, this is a taste of where cold water surf can lead you. But not tomorrow. And perhaps not even next year – but with the right experience and kit behind you, the saltwater world is your limit.

The kit

Tom: 'First off you have to get more serious about your equipment: boots, gloves, ear plugs, and a skull cap or hooded wetsuit or rash vest. They’re all a must. Also think about the products you need pre- and post-surf. Base layers, insulating jackets, waterproofs - these will make a big difference.'

Choose the right wetsuit

Michael: 'You might already have a Spring suit (one with long arms and short legs, like RNLI lifeguards wear), but a full-length wetsuit is essential. Most people head into Winter with a 4/3 wetsuit – the numbers refer to the thickness of neoprene (in mm), so the bigger number usually covers the torso and thighs, then the lower number refers to areas with more flexibility, like the arms and lower legs. Although the internet’s packed with information and offers, I’d really recommend going into a surf shop to get some proper advice.'

Tom: 'We’ve just launched our first cold water wetsuit, which will go through a whole season of testing by surfers before we refine it next year. It's designed around the conditions we experience over here - a bit different from the 300+ days of yearly sunshine they get in California, where a lot of wetsuits are designed! The process is a really interesting trade-off between warmth, flexibility and durability. You could go out surfing in a diver's wetsuit and be unbelievably warm ... and unable to move.'

Ear plugs

Repeatedly surround your ears in cold water and you’re likely to develop surfers’ ear, a nasty condition where the bones surrounding the ear canal start to grow over in self-defence. Hearing loss and regular ear infections are your dubious reward for exhilarating hours in the surf. You can stave off the condition by wearing ear plugs – the best ones are custom fitted, and some even come with a key-chain carrier so you’re never caught out without them.

Gloves and boots

Michael: 'Knowing when to start wearing these is a matter of personal preference. Some surfers choose not to wear gloves even in sub-zero temperatures, but boots are really important. If you get too cold and lose feeling in your feet, you’ve got no connection with your board.'

Conditions? Do your research

Michael: 'There’s so much information out there now on forecast sites like Magic Seaweed – with water temperature readings you don’t have to sit and guess your kit, based on what everyone else is sporting in the car park! Their help pages are great for understanding what all the stats really mean.'

You should also look at details like wind direction. When it’s onshore (where the wind is blowing towards the shore) there’s a lot of choppy water moving around. You’ll be paddling around more, which will keep you warmer. But if it’s a clean, offshore day, you’re sitting waiting around between sets and you can get quite cold if you’re not used to it.

Aside from the getting too cold, the most important thing to bear in mind is how much more powerful the Winter swells are. If you’re a Summer surfer, you’re used to going out in fairly friendly conditions. Then suddenly you’re faced with bigger, stronger, relentless waves. You just have to be aware of your ability in the face of the conditions ... and be prepared to sit it out if you don’t feel confident.

Keep a surf journal

Michael: 'If I have a good surf, I write down what the waves were at and maybe what the tide was doing. I also note when I started wearing gloves, the date and what the sea temperature was. It means that I’m not paddling out in the wrong kit – there’s nothing worse than heading out there and thinking: "I definitely should have worn gloves today."'

Get season fit

For most of us, Winter is a chance to kick back and slow down, but for year-round surfers it’s the opposite. While you might think a few extra waist inches will be a warm companion out in the cold, this is the time when fitness is most important.

Tom: 'In the Summer you can cross-train almost without thinking about it – swim in the sea, go paddleboarding, run along the beach ... In Winter it’s a lot harder to keep your fitness up, but you really have to make sure you do because you’re facing harsher conditions. So keep up the swimming in an indoor pool, and maintain some other exercise outside of surfing. Stretching before you go in the water applies all year round, but with colder winds and water, and bigger waves to face, you’ll need to be even fitter.

'Eating well all year round is obviously important, but maybe think about stocking up on some more slow-release carbohydrates if you’re going in for a big Winter session.'

Acclimatise yourself

With water temperature, it really is a case of the day being darkest before the dawn. The sea’s a big old expanse of water that takes a while to cool down – and warm up again. So you might be pleasantly surprised by a golden October session in 16⁰C ... and then be in for the ice cream headache from hell when you don’t wear a hood in May. Going in year-round will help limit any nasty surprises.

Think about extending your surfing into the Autumn first, and see how you get on. Popular beaches are patrolled by RNLI lifeguards up until the half term holiday at the end of October.

Michael: 'The best way I can explain it is when I came back from 3 months’ surfing in Central America in board shorts. Getting back into UK waters I was really paddle-fit, but I didn’t realise how much extra weight you carry with a thicker wetsuit, boots, and gloves, and how much that hinders you in terms of your movement and performance.'

Where to go? Do your research

Surfing alone is not recommended. If things do go wrong, there’s no-one to spot you’re in trouble, help you out in the water or call for help. And as we’ve already seen, colder weather, stronger Winter winds and waves are more likely to catch you out.

If you’re looking for year-round lifeguard cover then your options are Boscombe in Dorset or Crosby in Merseyside. Beyond that, it’s best to start on beaches that you’re already familiar with, or go with an experienced friend who knows the profile of a new beach. Boost your confidence by learning first aid and basic techniques to recover a fellow surfer in difficulty.

Michael: 'Would you know what to do in an emergency? Do you have a means of calling for help? You’ve told someone where you’re going, but if you’re on a remote beach with no phone signal, can they contact you? Going to a beach without lifeguards is a reality for Winter surfing. The safety signage will still be there, and reading it can tell you so much about the profile of the beach you’re at.'

Tom: 'It’s all about balancing your experience and your hunger for new waves with a bit of common sense. You’re not going to learn to surf at Perranporth and then go off to Alaska the next day. But you might practise for a week, and then think about beaches that aren’t quite so busy. The conditions on the day – and your own experience and confidence – really set the bar. You can go to places in Scotland that are pretty remote, colder and certainly not lifeguarded. Yet they can have nice waist-high waves, perfect to continue your learning on. There are plenty of other world-class spots in the UK and Ireland to push you further.'

Be organised

Without turning a heart-stirring surf into military operation, a bit of preparation can save you time – and heat – in the long run.

Michael: 'I always try and find a place to get changed inside, or at least out of the wind, when it’s really chilly. Those towel robes with the hood make such a difference when changing outside!'

Tom: 'In Winter it’s all about being super-organised with your kit. It might seem obvious, but it’s the little things like getting into a drier wetsuit, rather than one that’s been sitting in a wet bucket in your car overnight. And have your dry clothes ready for when you get back in – your cold hands will thank you on the other side.'

Be prepared to slow down and know your limits

Michael: 'Sometimes you’ve just got to listen to that voice that says: ‘Hmm, I’m not too sure about this one.’ Maybe the day or the beach isn’t right for you, and that’s okay. When I hear that voice, I wait and watch the waves that little bit longer before deciding. And if I do go in on a reef break, I’ll wait in the channel for a bit before heading further out.

'You can also ask other surfers for advice. If you’re friendly and genuine there’s no harm in asking, and everyone I know would give a decent response. However long ago we started surfing we’ve all been there once, feeling a bit unsure.

'Also never say: "Just one more." Come in before you get too tired or cold. Whenever I’ve said that, something’s always gone wrong.'

Learn some final insider secrets

Michael: 'At this time of year I like a nice cup of warm coffee before I go surfing. I’m not sure how that would be taken by the sports world as a way of warming up, but it’s probably better than a can of energy drink! It’s nice to wrap your hands around as you sit holed up in the car, watching the waves and building up a bit of adrenalin and excitement before going in.'

Tom: 'My favourite product is our merino wool long johns. When you come out of the sea, putting a pair of those on is unbelievable. Merino is kind of a wonder fabric – even if your skin’s wet you can get a base layer straight on and you’ll soon be toasty.'

These chaps haven’t been doing this for 5 minutes. Golden as their advice is, reading a few articles is no substitute for experience, knowledge and understanding of the water. If you’d like to know more about getting started in surfing, visit our Respect the Water pages, read our In the Surf guide, and/or find a surf school through Surfing GB or the Irish Surfing Association.