How to survive a winter surf

We’ve just come back from a long-weekend in Newquay where we braved cold winds, chilly water temperatures and storm Ciara (!) to spend some time among the waves.

Most people thought us crazy for surfing in England in February but the surfers out there will know that this is arguably one of the best times in the year to be surfing – consistent sets and nice waves perfect for developing and practicing those skills.

The one thing you have to contend with, is the temperature.

Now, I’m someone who feels the cold. I wear gloves to work on a slightly cold day, and I arrive in the office desperate for a mug of tea to warm my hands back up again. My circulation is so poor. So how on earth did I deal with cold water surfing?

Before I went, I asked the lovely ladies at Women and Waves for some top tips, and I was also lucky to have the expertise of an amazing surf school for the entire weekend.

Here’s what worked for me:

  • I covered up everything apart from my face. Seriously. Forget trying to look ‘cool’ as a female surfer with mermaid hair streaming down your back. I went for gloves, booties and a hood with a warm winter wetsuit. And guess what? On the first day, I still got cold. I’d probably been in the water too long to be fair, but I ended up borrowing warmer layers for the rest of the weekend to give my core more of a boost.
  • Get a hood that’s either attached to a wetsuit or an inner layer. One guy came up to me in the waves and asked me to keep an eye out for his hood which had come off when he bailed. He never found it meaning he left rubbish in the ocean and was freezing for the rest of the session.
  • A practical note too for the ladies opting for a hood... There is no ladylike or glamorous way to pull this on. When I first yanked mine over my head, I had hair sticking out the front in all directions. I tried a ponytail on the the first day and it was awful – plus it really hurt by the end of the session. French braids are your friends – they keep your hair tied back, leave you with no awkward bumps underneath the hood and your hair will be nice and wavy post-surf.
  • Keep moving. When the tide was turning and the waves were fewer and far between, we all started shivering while waiting for the next set to roll in. I realised that I had to keep moving to keep my body warm. Whether that’s just having a paddle to reposition yourself out back, kicking your feet while you sit on your surfboard or tapping your fingers on the waves, it all helps. The minute you’re waiting for a set – and that wait isn’t a short one – the minute you start to feel the cold. The same goes for if you head into shore. I may have lost my nerve battling to get back out past big waves and opted to have a quick breather back on dry land. Big mistake.
  • Keep the sessions short and pay attention to the shivers. On our first day, we had a two hour surf lesson and about an hour and a half of that was spent in the water. By the end of it, I was cold. Th next few days, we stuck to just under an hour sessions. The trick is to keep things short and sweet! And the minute you start to feel cold, and the shivers set in, it’s game over. You won’t warm back up so just head into shore and try again later!
  • Build your strength up. Winter swell is harder to paddle in. Far harder. I guess, physically, this might be obvious but I’m talking about both physical and mental strength. I have an inner demon who frequently tells me I can’t do things – even if I know I have all the skills. One afternoon, I struggled to get out back and I let the fear and negativity kick in, panicking about the wave sizes despite the fact I’d surfed bigger ones the previous day. Be confident and believe in yourself. But also know your physical limits. When storm Ciara hit, both myself and the surf coaches knew that I wasn’t strong enough physically to get out back so it was safer not to try.

And finally…

  • Have warm supplies waiting for you when you get out. Warm socks, cosy jumpers and a big coat will make you unbelievably happy when you come out. Hot chocolate also helps.

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