Come on in - the water's icy!
Posted: Feb 23 2015
What sort of person goes surfing in February? Alex Wade does and it's not just because he wants to avoid the hordes on boards
The sea is crystal clear, the sun is shining and lines of head-high swell, groomed by a gentle offshore wind, are sweeping irresistibly to the beach.
A little way beyond the billowing waves a grey seal breaks water. He fixes me with that peculiarly human look: his big, black, sad eyes seem to invite intimacy but he's probably just wondering what on earth I'm doing bobbing about on a surfboard. It's February, and even the blue skies and bright sun can't disguise the fact that it's not just cold - it's freezing.
GA few more surfers arrive and their expertise is swiftly evident. Spray flies off the backs of the waves as they execute off-the-lips, snaps and floaters, the textbook repertoire of the serious, hardcore surfer.
In winter, in the UK, these are the sort of people who go surfing. They paddle out even in the coldest months of the year for two reasons. One is that the swell throughout the winter is relentless. Low-pressure systems build up in the Atlantic or Arctic to drive surf on to the west coast of Britain or Scotland's north shore and the east coast from Aberdeen all the way down to Lowestoft. With the wind in the right direction - not something that can be guaranteed - winter surfing here can be as good as it gets.
The other motivation for the committed winter surfer is the crowds - or rather, the lack of them. Anyone doubting that surfing in the UK is big business need only witness the hordes taking to the water throughout summer (or, indeed, check out how many surfing companies have floated on the world's stock exchanges). From Devon and Cornwall to Wales to Yorkshire, come July everyone wants to learn to surf. But I can't wait for summer to end.
September brings the first serious swells, and most breaks are still crowded. But by the end of the October half-term the crowds have gone. There is a brief resurgence over Christmas but for a few months of the year it becomes possible to go surfing alone or with just a few other surfers for company.
The camaraderie of winter surfing is part of its appeal. I recall, 23 years ago, surfing a break in Devon on a January afternoon when it was snowing. I didn't have any wetsuit gloves back then - I couldn't afford them - and when I came out of the sea my hands were so numb that I could barely turn the key in my car door.
It was all my friends and I could do to get changed and tie the boards on to the roof rack, as our teeth chattered and we wondered if we would ever, by some miracle, feel warm again. But the pleasure of the apres-surf cup of tea and Mars bar - in the ramshackle beach hut that passed for a cafe back then - lingers to this day. So, too, do the memories of drinks in the pub in the evening, our youthful exuberance amplified by our sense of being (almost) the only idiots mad enough to go surfing on a day when it was snowing.
These days most of my surfing is done with my two sons, especially Harry, 12. His brother Elliot, nine, is talented but, understandably, a bit young for the embrace of the cold that comes with being a UK winter surfer. Harry, though, can't get enough. He surfed for seven-and-a-half hours one recent Saturday. I was in the water for most of that time with him. It wasn't cold - in late October, the sea off north Cornwall can be a balmy 11-12C - but I know that I'm in for some much colder sessions over the next few months.
And I can't wait. There'll be me, Harry and maybe Elliot and the usual crew. We'll be mixing it with the winter swells, the granite cliffs, the pristine sea, the wind, the rain and the occasional seal or dolphin. And you know what? The pleasure of surfing uncrowded waves is the best insulation against the cold going. That, and the cup of tea and Mars bar afterwards.
· Alex Wade is the author of Surf Nation: In Search of the Fast Lefts and Hollow Rights of Britain and Ireland (Simon and Schuster)