How To Enjoy Winter Surfing in Cornwall
“You need to do it in stages!” my friend laughed as he saw me struggling to peel the thick winter wetsuit off my legs, shivering in the cold easterly wind as it hammered against the propped-up boot of my car. I was in a knotty mess of wet neoprene and was struggling to rid myself of it so I could wrap myself up in the layers of wool and duck-down clothing that were piled neatly on top of the parcel shelf at the back of the car. My friend, a seasoned winter surfer, had clearly refined a better method of stripping out of his wetsuit and into dry attire – his top half fully dressed, warm and dry – his bottom half still sporting the wet wetsuit that had kept him relatively cosy during our three-hour winter surfing session.
This particular afternoon sticks in my mind like few others. I wasn’t planning on getting in that day, having only been surfing for a couple of years I’d remained a ‘fair weather surfer’, only going out when the sun was shining and the sea warm. October was usually when I dewaxed my board, fully washed out my summer suit and hung it in the loft ready for the following year. This was February, when UK waters are pretty much at their coldest and the elements unforgiving! But a January sale purchase of a 6mm hooded wetsuit and an invitation from my competent surfer-friend had coaxed me out from the comfort of my log-burner heated living room and down to the beach to watch the 5ft swells roll in, as the offshore winds hollowed out the waves into beautiful curves and crests and blew a fine spray of seawater backwards off the top of each one. At mid-tide the freshly carved sandbanks were forcing waves to break and peel both left and right whilst tiny silhouetted figures on all manner of boards slid gracefully ahead of the breaking water.
It felt almost criminal to pass up this opportunity, so I nervously wriggled into my new winter wetsuit, grabbed my board and jogged down to the water’s edge. The paddle out to behind the breaking lines tested my determination like never before as relentless towering walls of water broke over the top of me, hindering my progress.
After twenty-or-so minutes I’d managed to join the line of silhouetted figures bobbing around on the swell lines straddling their boards. There was an air of excitement hanging around the group and the occasional barely audible squeal of delight as another wave was caught and expertly ridden by a member of this exclusive club of hardy winter surfers.
I took my time choosing the right wave to initiate myself into the club, I’m not ashamed to admit that I was nervous. I needn’t have been though, the first wave I committed to catapulted me down it’s glassy face providing the most intensely exhilarating sensation I’d ever experienced! The speed, the wave formation, the cold stinging spray in my face and eyes really set this surfing experience apart from any other that I’d had. So it’s true, I thought to myself as I paddled back out, winter surfing in Cornwall might just be the understated secret of the surfing world!
Three hours and dozens of incredible waves later, my friend and I laboured back up the beach towards the car with tired limbs and wide smiles. I wasn’t cold, it hadn’t even occurred to me to think about my body temperature as I’d been so engrossed in the task in-hand, but the effort of walking back up the beach had made beads of sweat form on my partially neoprene-cladded forehead. Feeling pleased with my new wetsuit purchase I arrived at the car and glanced back towards the sea that we’d just vacated. It was still early, around 4pm, but the sun had already started to set over the bay splashing rich warm colours across the cloudless sky, pefectly reflected by the sea – it was almost impossible to determine the point at which the sea ended and the sky begun. An almost full moon lingered in the sky directly above us, as the sun dropped ever closer to the indecipherable horizon.
I’d managed well, I thought, not to look like a winter-surfing novice out in the waves but this is the point at which my true colours began to show! I battled with the remaining stubborn rolls of wetsuit that were attached to my ankles and with one final pull they finally gave way. “There you go!” my friend exclaimed as my wetsuit fell to the ground with an audible ‘thump’, “Now get yourself into some dry clothes!”
It would be fair to say that I’ve since rebranded myself as a winter surfer, by that I don’t mean someone who sometimes surfs in winter but rather, someone who looks forward to the summer coming to an end and the winter drawing in because this means fewer crowds, bigger swells and offshore winds! Newquay is one of my go-to spots in the winter because it provides a unique variety of beaches that face a multitude of directions – perfect for when the wind changes. Newquay’s most sheltered beach is Towan, where the harbour and Headland act as a windbreak for the prevailing westerly winds and the north facing alignment of the beach only allows the biggest of swells to roll in. Moving northwards towards Great Western and Tolcarne beaches you get more swell with a slight westerly angle on the beach direction – and if none of these are beaches are working there’s due-westerly-facing Fistral, the most exposed beach in Newquay that arguably picks up the most swell and delivers the most dramatic scenery.
My top tip for winter surfing is to buy the right wetsuit – this really can make or break your winter surf session. I get cold easily so I wear a hooded 6’4 wetsuit giving me 6mm of protection across my body and head with 4mm protection for the arms and legs. However, this isn’t the only thing you can do to stay warm in the winter. As my friend taught me, remember to get changed in stages to keep one half of your body warm and dry as you strip off your suit then proceed to the other half. Better still, book a surf-friendly hotel like The Headland and get changed in a hot shower! No, I’m not kidding, The Headland Hotel is a truly surf-friendly establishment where in under five minutes you can be from wave to shower, enabling you to peel off your suit in a warm, comfortable and private environment (Kat’s top tip – book a Fistral room and benefit from a spacious walk-in shower!). If you’re still feeling cold after that, head to The Headland’s leisure area for a Cornish salt steam room or sauna. A surfer-specific massage in the spa will help to soothe your aching shoulders then the jewel in the winter surfing crown has to be a long hot drink in the bar watching the sun set over the waves you just accomplished!
Happiness is… surfing on a cold winter’s day when you’re staying at The Headland Hotel.
For more information on surfing in Cornwall and staying at The Headland, click here.
The Headland Hotel