The reality of surfing in the UK is far removed from the glossy marketing images of Californian sunshine, Australian beaches and surfing in board shorts. However, the perception that surfing in British waters, especially in winter, is cold, is no longer necessarily true.
We caught up with George Stoy, Founder of George’s Surf School, recently rated as one of the top 10 surf schools in the world, to get his top tips for surfing in the winter months.
Wetsuits do keep you warm
As the old saying goes, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, just unsuitable clothes’. Cold-water surfers know that getting a good-fitting wetsuit and the right kit is key. According to Stoy, development in wetsuit technology has been the single biggest game-changer in terms of year-round surfing.
‘The lining on winter wetsuits and their ability to reflect heat and insulate has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years. At the same time they are more flexible, making it easier for you to move and keep warm.
‘With the right thickness wetsuit, surfing really is accessible all year round. Opt for a 5:3 suit with fleece lining and liquid sealed seams if possible. It is also really key to insulate your head and your extremities – so definitely wear a hood, gloves and boots for winter surfing sessions.’
Don’t get cold before you start
‘It seems pretty obvious, but it’s essential that you’re not cold before you get in the sea – heating up when you're already chilled is difficult. Do your surf checks before you start getting changed and then aim to change quickly and efficiently.
‘I stand on a mat to keep my feet dry and warm, and keep a hat and coat on for as long as possible. Wind-proofing is important, so pull on everything under your coat or changing robe – wetsuit to waist, boots on and then at the last minute pull up your suit and put your hood on. Get the blood in your hands and if surfing with friends then help each other to pull your gloves on quickly. It's worth remembering that you should avoid surfing alone, especially in winter. It's not just safer, but more fun sharing a session with a buddy!
‘If you can get changed inside then that’s great – but don’t stay in the warm for too long or it will be a bigger shock when you go out. Once changed, get out quick!’
When water temperature is low, preparation is everything
One of Stoy's golden rules is to be prepared.
‘Preparation, for both before and after a surf in winter months, is key. I have a changing bucket ready for my wetsuit and have my clothes piled on the passenger side of the car, in the order I will be putting them on. That means no scrambling around in the cold looking for socks and pants!
‘I tend to choose a spot where I can park fairly close to the surf, to avoid a long walk back when I finish. Wind chill factor means you will lose heat quickly, so you want to keep the time between getting out of the water and getting changed to a minimum.'
How to stay warm in cold water
Listen to your body. ‘Paddling and being active will keep you warm in the sea, but once you get tired and run out of energy then the cold will start to set in. It’s really important to listen to your body, especially in the colder months.
‘Be disciplined – it’s better to have a shorter session and get out before you feel the cold. By the time you’re chilled, it’s too late to do anything about it. Don’t get to the point when your hands or feet are numb as this makes everything difficult, from walking back to the car to trying to get the car keys in the lock.’
Get changed quickly and have a hot drink waiting
‘Once you’re out of the water then speed is of the essence. If you've done your prep in advance then getting changed should be quick. Take the top half of your wetsuit off and get a towelling robe on, with a coat over the top. Then boots off, wetsuit off and socks on as quickly as possible. I use ski socks in the winter, which are great for keeping toes toasty. If your hood isn't integrated in your wetsuit, then keep it on until you’re completely changed.
‘Finally I always bring a flask of a hot drink with me in the winter. Great for warming you up and also makes for a sociable post-surf moment with fellow surfers.’
Cold water surfing is well worth the effort
Follow these tips and surfing is possible - and enjoyable - all year round in the UK, and, says Stoy, it is well worth it.
‘There’s definitely a bit of a badge of honour about surfing in the winter. I get a real thrill from my winter sessions – plus there are less people in the water and quieter line-ups mean more waves! It’s exhilarating to be out there doing something that many people wouldn’t even consider – even if, the truth be told, it really isn’t cold or uncomfortable any more!’