Surf Safety During British Winters
Braving the water in winter certainly isn’t for the fainthearted, but the hardy souls that can’t resist the pull of the sea definitely reap the rewards. Pumping waves, beautiful sunrises and sets, quiet lineups and decent ground swells. Whilst strong onshores and hammering rain is commonplace during British winters, the bad weather makes those blue sky, crisp and clean days feel practically tropical.
Whether you’re a seasoned cold water surfer or eager to learn and progress, it’s worth remembering that surfing in the colder months is drastically different from the mellow September slides of a summer gone-by. Check out our tips for surfing during British winters to make sure you stay snug and safe.
It’s definitely not August anymore, and you’ll need more than just your spring suit and a towel slung in your backpack. Whilst meticulously packing your car for a 1.5 hour session at your local may feel like overkill, future you will thank you when they find a steaming flask of tea, a hot water bottle and an extra jumper stashed on the front seat.
When it comes to clothing it’s important to make sure you have plenty of cosy, baggy layers. Turn your clothes the right way round in preparation for getting changed with numb fingers to speed up the process. In the real depths of winter it can even be worth getting into your wetsuit at home and driving down in your changing robe. It’s also crucial to your mental wellbeing that after your surf you don’t leave your suit squashed in a stinking, freezing, soggy ball in the boot of your car. Trust us. There’s nothing worse.
You’ll need more kit than just a winter wetsuit if you’re planning to surf all year round; boots, a hood and gloves are more or less essential to keep the windchill off. It’s also important to protect your ears, so if you’re not the hood wearing kind it’s worth investing in a pair of ear plugs to ward off the dreaded ‘surfers ear’ (when the bone of the ear canal starts to grow to protect your ears from the cold, and can eventually lead to partial or complete blockage of your ear canal). If you’re worried this may already be happening to you it’s worth getting your ears checked out by a specialist.
A couple of simple ways to make sure you stay as warm as possible are to keep hydrated (warm tea or water is best, avoid coffee) and don’t eat just before entering the water as this draws blood away from your extremities and can also lead to cramp.
The water’s edge
Keep that heat up. Jog to the shoreline and do some stretching to warm up your muscles before plunging into the cold water.
Most beaches in Cornwall and Devon will have lifeguards on duty during the warmer months but are unguarded during the winter. Lifeguard Supervisor Leon Bennett advises, “If you’re learning or inexperienced it’s best to stick to beaches with lifeguard services. Lots of beaches in the south west are now running extended seasons which means we’ll be there from Easter until the end of October.”
If you’re still learning and set on surfing throughout the winter, it’s a good idea to always surf with friends or at beaches where there are others in the water. Let someone know where you are going and what time they can expect you back. More experienced surfers, keep an eye on the other people around you and check in with someone if they look like they’re getting into difficulty. You could save a life. Leon added, “If there are no lifeguards on duty and you see someone who looks like they’re in difficulty, call 999 and ask for the coastguard”.
Checking out a break you’re not familiar with? It’s worth consulting the tides, finding out what the entry and exit points are and asking around to see if there’s anything important you should know before paddling out. You’ll find that most locals will be extremely forthcoming and often relieved to explain the rips and hidden rocks, and can advise where and when is best and safest to jump in.
In there like swimwear
It’s vital to know your limits and respect the conditions. Don’t stay in so long that you’re shivering uncontrollably and if you lose feeling in your fingers and find yourself clawing through the water instead of paddling, it’s probably time to get out. To keep warm paddle around a lot, catch as many waves as you can and don’t sit still for too long.
In the event that you find yourself in trouble, the RNLI recommend “float to live”. Floating minimises your risk of gasping uncontrollably and breathing in water, which can quickly lead to downing. If you lose your board, are struggling against a rip or find yourself in a desperate situation, lean back, extending your arms and legs and tilting back your head to keep your mouth and nose out of the water and your airway clear. Gentle movements will keep you afloat and minimise using too much of your energy. The RNLI recommends floating for around 60-90 seconds until you’ve calmed down and controlled your breathing. Then consider what to do, whether that is swimming to safety or signalling using your arms if there is someone nearby.
Light is limited in the winter months and sometimes it’s a struggle to scrape in a surf between finishing work and dusk. When it’s pumping it’s tempting to stay in until dark, but if you can’t see the shore, you run the risk of hitting rocks on your way in or getting smashed by a rogue set wave that you didn’t see coming. Stay safe by getting out as the visibility drops and try to keep an eye on the last surfer in there if it isn’t you.
Time to get warm again! Get some feeling back into your feet by jogging back to your car and quickly getting a changing robe around you to keep the wind off.
Don’t hang around in your wetsuit. You may not feel that cold, but ‘after-drop’ (the return of cold blood from your extremities to your core) can keep cooling you down up to 15 minutes after being in the sea. Minimise bare skin exposure to avoid your body temperature dropping even further. Use your towel or Robie to block the wind and cold air whilst you pull on your dry layers, thick socks, a hat and some mittens, and get that flask in your hands! By warming up slowly and naturally, instead of heading straight home and jumping in a scorching shower, you’re less likely to experience chilblains. If you’re desperate to get back and can’t bear the thought of car park changing, you can protect your car seats and keep warm by wearing your Dry-Series home.
Once you’re home and can feel your fingers again, rinse out your suit and hang it up to dry. Future you will thank you next time the surf’s pumping and you’re rushing to catch the last hour of light!