Surfing is a challenging and highly rewarding past time, and one which we are fortunate enough to be able enjoy in the UK. Whilst not necessarily thought of as a surf destination, the British surf culture is vibrant around our coastline. However surfing in the UK can require a bit more thought and planning compared to other countries. This is due to many different factors such as big tides and variable weather conditions, meaning the surf can change drastically throughout the day. So it’s not always a case of just grabbing your board and jumping in. Here are a few pointers to make sure you maximise the time you have in the ocean.
Learn how to read surf forecasts
A surf forecast can really help you choose the best surf spot and time to suit the conditions. There is a wealth of surf forecasting information available online. This is a massive jump forward from the pre internet days, when looking at isobar charts and forecasts led to lots of guess work! However understanding a surf forecast is more than just looking at a forecast website. Make sure you understand all the information available and what it means. For example:
It’s important to understand where in the ocean the swell is coming from because this can really impact the size and quality of the surf. For example in Cornwall there could be a computer generated forecast for the North coast for 5ft waves, with a swell direction coming from the South. With this forecast there would be no need to get too excited, because the swell may be much smaller than 5ft by the time it has made its way around to the North coast. To maximise this swell direction you would need to go to South facing beaches and corners, provided the wind direction is also suitable!
There is a big difference between a ground swell and a wind swell. Any forecast with a period under 10 seconds can generally be regarded as a wind swell, where the waves have been created by a local winds. Wind swells are much trickier to surf because the waves have a lot less power and there are small gaps between the waves and sets. This is really challenging at beach breaks in the UK because you could end up spending a lot of time paddling out and into position in comparison to the amount of waves you will take. Having said that, all the paddling makes it easier to keep warm!
Longer period swells are generated by storms far out in the ocean and travel over a greater distance, which allows them to clean up and organise themselves. These ground swells can be much more powerful with bigger gaps between the sets. It is worth bearing in mind that if the forecast reads 2-3 ft, the size and quality of wave with a 15 second period will be very different to that with an 8 second period.
You can use pressure, wind and swell charts to look at the swell building in the ocean. These charts are usually pretty accurate and can help you follow swells from their inception. Swells in Cornwall are normally created and sustained by low pressure systems that travel across the Atlantic Ocean. The interaction between wind and the surface of the ocean is where it all begins. The swell gains intensity from the windspeed, the movement of the storm and the fetch, or distance over which the wind blows. Interpreting charts takes a bit of practise but ultimately gives a better understanding of the characteristics of incoming swells. Of course there are many factors that can impact the surf, so forecasts are only a guide and can only really be used to look a few days ahead.
Know your spot
A tricky one if you are surfing somewhere new to you, however there are lots of factors that should always be considered when you are choosing a spot to surf. For example
Tides can really impact the conditions of the waves, especially with the big tides in the UK. Each surf spot will completely differ with the changing tides, so it’s important you know what tide the spot handles best. For example some of my local spots such as Watergate Bay are really sucky and close out at low tide, whilst low tide is generally best for North Fistral.
The phase of the moon will also impact the tides. Tides during new and full moons are so much bigger meaning that the surfing conditions at each break will vary more dramatically.
It’s worth understanding how the wind direction can impact various surfing breaks. Surf forecast websites will often tell you whether it is offshore or onshore and how strong the wind is, however really getting to know your local breaks will help you to understand which ones are best for a variety of conditions. Use a map to look at where the wind is coming from because it could be that the next break along is slightly better for the wind direction, meaning that you will get a more epic surf.
Sandbanks are always changing at beach breaks and can really effect the quality of the wave. This is why beach breaks vary so much and can be so unreliable. In the UK you could easily surf the same spot every single day, however the peaks could be completely different due to the big tides and swells moving the sand around. Before a surf it’s worth checking out the spot to not only identify where there are rips, but also to work out where the waves are breaking. There’s no point just jumping in blind at the same place each day because the surf could be completely different.
Stretch before heading in
Before heading into the water it is essential that you spend at least five minutes stretching… especially first thing in the morning! There seems to be a bit of joke about surfers warming up and running into the ocean, however its so important that you gently prepare your body for exercise. By slowly increasing your heart rate and loosening your joints before, you can protect yourself from injury.
Eat a decent breakfast
If you’re surfing in the morning it’s really important that you don’t skip breakfast. Even if it is just grabbing a banana on your way out of the door. Surfing requires a lot of energy and endurance, therefore you are much more likely to maximise your session if you have more energy to burn. Energy levels can also drop pretty quickly during a surf session, especially if you are staying in the water for a couple of hours. You don’t want to get yourself in a situation where you have run out if energy in the water and can’t surf properly.
Outside of the summer months it can be quite cold to surf in the UK. Don’t set yourself up to fail and make sure you are warm before heading into the surf. Before your pre-surf check make sure you warm-up your car or prepare a hot drink and layer-up in some decent outerwear. I’m currently wearing Finisterre’s Nimbus which is not only extremely toasty, but as an added bonus it’s also filled with recycled insulation meaning its environmentally friendly. You can read more about it here.
When you have chosen your spot and you are well stretched, try and jog down to the surf. Warming up before heading into the water gets your blood pumping meaning you can feel your fingers and toes for longer!