Words by Matt Clark -- Luex Travel. All photos courtesy of Red Bull.
Winter is well and truly here! And who cares if the water is a little chilly? Well, erm, everyone -- but this in itself is part of winter's appeal. The waves are pumping and the cold keeps the crowds away, which means you can often score achingly perfect waves with relatively little competition. Whether you’re going to Norway, Ireland, New England, surfing at home, or even heading down to Chile, embrace the cold: it’s your ticket to some of the best waves of your life.
Having spent several years living on the wild and windy cost of North East Scotland (and more recently surfing some glacial-melt river waves in the Alps), I like to think I know a little about cold water. Most of the world gets better surf in winter than summer, and Scotland is no exception. Sure, given the choice, most of us would opt for a surf destination warm enough to surf in board shorts, but there’s a actually lot to be said for the chillier oceans on this planet. When you walk down the beach at Aberdeen in a blizzard, with -13°C air temperatures and a distinctly slushy tinge to the shore break, you know you’re not going to have any crowds to compete with!
A little cold is no excuse to skip your dose of surf stoke, so here are 7 tips to help make cold water winter surfing more enjoyable.
Neoprene. There’s no way around it: if you want to actually enjoy those frigid waves, good rubber is absolutely essential. Buy the best 5mm suit you can afford. Liquid-sealed seams are key, and ideally go zipper-less or chest zip to minimise flushing. Likewise, repair any rips or tears – while a couple of holes aren’t a big deal in summer, you’ll really notice the cold water flooding in. Look for a suit with a good warm lining, and consider a quick dry lining – nothing puts a damper on a session liking struggling into a soaking wetsuit in a windy car park.
Pay attention to sizing and fit too: though wetsuits are getting more and more flexible, if your suit is too tight it will restrict blood flow, making you feel colder quicker. If you’re surfing really cold water, maybe even consider a heated suit or vest.
Forget the macho banter and get a good pair of boots, gloves and a hood too. You can’t surf if you can’t feel your feet, and stubbing clumsy toes on sharp rocks somehow hurts even more when your feet are useless lumps of frozen flesh. When it’s really cold, consider slipping a couple of reusable hand warmers into your boots (on top of the foot) and gloves as well. A good hood will help prevent both ice cream headaches on duck dives and the dreaded exostosis . . . No one wants a drill in the ear canal!
2. Set your session up for success
Don’t set yourself up for failure before you’ve even started. Fuel yourself properly before your imminent oceanic gladiatorial contest with a good dose of complex carbs, protein and water. Make sure you’re warm before getting changed – blast the heaters in the car on the way to the beach and layer up with a good down jacket for the pre-session surf check.
Stretch and warm up on the beach before getting in the water (although some would advise against static stretching when it's cold). When you immerse yourself in icy water, your body’s natural defence mechanism is to reduce blood flow to your skin and extremities; the aim is to reduce heat loss from the skin, and keep warm blood in your core to protect vital organs. Unfortunately this can also make your hands and feet near-unusable – which rather defeats the whole point of going surfing. Warming up before heading into the water gets your blood pumping strongly right from the start, extending the amount of time you can feel your toes. This is also one of the benefits of heated suits – when your core is warm, your body feels less need to shut off blood flow, so your feet stay warm and functioning for longer.
3. Moisturiser and vaseline
Spending a lot of time in cold water and strong winds can be disastrous for your skin and lips. No one likes dry cracked lips, so do yourself a favour and rub in a liberal amount of moisturiser – the thicker and denser the better – before your session. Put a layer of Vaseline over the top to lock the moisture in, and repeat after your post-surf shower. Your boy/girlfriend will be thankful.
Winter normally brings bigger and better waves – why else would you brave the hypothermia and ice-cream headaches? There’s also a theory that cold water is denser, heavier and more powerful than warm, which when combined with your heavier and less flexible wetsuit, means you’re going to need a little extra help to get into the waves. Pick something a little bigger and with more volume than your normal summer board, and your sessions will involve more successfully ridden waves and less beatdowns.
5. In the water
Keep moving. The more you move and paddle, the warmer you’ll stay, and the more warm blood your body will pump around to your hands and feet. Race to make it over the top of cleanup sets and try to avoid duck diving as much as possible . . . but when you do need to duck dive, commit!
When you’re sitting on your board, try tucking your hands into your armpits to keep the warm. Alternatively, hold your arms down at your sides with your hand turned out like you’re trying to emulate a penguin, and shrug your shoulders up and down -- you can really feel how this forces warm blood down into your hands. [You'll also look cool as fuck -- Ed.]
If all else fails, remember all that water you drank earlier to avoid dehydration can double up as your very own mobile heating device . . . Yep, there’s something weirdly satisfying about peeing in a wetsuit (just don’t forget to wash it after!).
Don’t stay out too long! Surfing in really cold water is very tiring, as your body expends a lot of energy trying to stay warm. Head in while you still have some energy left to navigate the shore break. Always surf with a buddy, and keep an eye on each other. Watch out for signs of hypothermia.
6. Getting changed
Getting changed after your session is probably the worst part of the whole experience, as the wind knifes into your exposed skin across some blustery car park… In a perfect world we’d all have a van to get changed in, but there are a few cheaper methods to make it less miserable.
Try filling a big water bottle with boiling water before you leave the house. By the time you’ve finished surfing the water will be a more manageable temperature, and you can use it rinse the sand and salt off in reasonable comfort, while warming your feet up again.
Use a neoprene mat or a bit of foam (camping mattresses work well and are cheap) to stand on – it’ll help keep your feet warm(er), and protect you from rock cuts.
Organise your towel and clothes before getting in the water, so everything is at hand in the right order to pull on quickly. Use the hot water bottle to warm up your underwear and t-shirt so they’re nice and toasty.
Plan your changing process. Some people prefer to rip off their suit quickly and jump straight into warm clothes, while others prefer to do it half by half: pull your suit off down to your hips and jam on a t-shirt, jumper and coat before attending to the lower half. Which works best for you?
7. The post-surf high
Getting warm and toasty after prolonged exposure to the cold is one of the most exquisite feelings in the world, so make the most of it! Wrap up warm in thick wool jumpers and a down jacket, build a fire on the beach, drink some whisky, head to the pub for a pie and pint… Everything feels better after a good surf, and you’ve earned some creature comforts!
Check out LUEX Surf Travel’s article for more tips, and their top picks for cold water surf trips.