We’re heading into the dark, lonely and depraved depths of Winter. It makes me grimace at the sheer thought of it, but I keep reminding myself that it needn’t. Being well equipped and simply manning up should help you see your way into the icy waves. Here are a few things to keep in mind when the sets kick in and you’re heading out.
Get at least a five mm wetsuit and if you really want to be set up, get two suits (if you can afford it). That way, you always have one that’s dry and another ready to go. On those days when it’s going off and you surf more than once, you don’t want to put on a freezing cold suit when the air is little more than 5 degrees.
Another key is to have good boots and gloves. Find out which companies make the best ones geared toward the winter surfer. Either a five or seven mm round toe bootie. Split toes are good, but not in extreme conditions, your big toe will freeze off when it’s this cold. Some guys put Vaseline on their face to prevent windburn; others keep jugs of hot water in their car to dump down their suit or into their booties. Another good idea is to get a portable solar shower (you can get them at camping stores). Some folk even wear a neoprene ski mask under their hoods, so the only thing that’s directly exposed to the elements are the eyes.
As we all know Winter, particularly in the UK is long, a bit depressing and seems like it’s never going to end. I always think to myself ‘was it really this cold and dark last year?’. For some reason, the water feels so much harder and heavier at this time of year, you don’t penetrate it as easily when duckdiving with all that extra rubber. So plan on taking a little longer than usual to get out back. You also need to remain active in the water, don’t look at an icy paddle-out as a chore, think of it as an exercise to keep warm which will ultimately allow you the exhilaration of riding another wave. If you have to wait for the right wave, paddle around, just keep moving. We have an amazing ability to keep our bodies warm by burning our own energy source through exercise so you’ll be glad of all those peanut butter sandwiches and banana’s you ate in the van on the drive over to the beach.
Never hit the beach without a thermos or two of something hot, dehydration makes it easier for hypothermia to develop, so drink up. Another good tip at any time of the year when surfing is to carry a phone with you, keep a bag on the beach within sight that contains a mobile phone. I was surfing at Rhossili in the Gower, South Wales a while ago and I suddenly realised that my friend was in trouble. Her board had hit her straight in the head after she’d popped up after a particularly huge wave and she was bleeding and confused and crawling out of the water. Luckily there was one other person on the beach who had a phone and I called the heli-ambulance which landed on the beach and whisked my friend off to the hospital. I later remember seeing her sitting iin the hospital cubicle covered in blood but smiling and I realised that if that bystander hadn’t had that phone, it could have been a very different story.
Finally, if you start feeling your internal temperature drop you must stop surfing. Involuntary teeth chattering or shivering are signs that your body has already become too cold. Even when mild hypothermia starts to set in, we begin to perform below capacity and can do something stupid. The sea is not the place to be when you have poor judgement. Surfing in the Winter is definitely more intimidating and dangerous than any other time of the year. Know your limits and always surf with a buddy.
Images: Cornish winter waves on January 20, 2011 in Polzeath, England. Getty Images / Matt Cardy