In this article taken from our WGB Magazine, we track the rise of cold-water surfing and ask: what drives surfers to take the plunge?
All images ©Gul
Look across the empty beach car park on a crisp February morning and all seems eerily still. Look again and you’ll see a hooded, booted, wetsuited figure emerge from the back of a van. Running tiptoe on the frosted slipway, comically, crazed, the figure moves towards the sand. In the distance, a handful of surfers dot the water.
The air temperature is six degrees Celsius, the water is nine, and the surf is firing. Simple maths suggests you’re better off joining them in the water than standing on the shore watching. So who’s really mad? And what, ultimately, drives cold-water surfers to take the plunge?
Wetsuit manufacturer Gul was there at the dawn of British surfing. Founder Dennis Cross is rumoured to have made the first wetsuit purpose-built for UK surfers in the back of his split-screen campervan overlooking Fistral Beach in the late 60s.
Gul are still going strong today. They provide all the Extreme Academy’s wetsuits – suits that have made things a whole lot more comfortable in and out of the water. Knowing you can duck-dive through that first wave and avoid an ‘ice-cream’ headache – thanks to today’s cutting edge wetsuit technology – plays a big role in paddling out: in the right kit, you don’t get cold.
Moreover, winter waves have an allure that keeps surfers coming back for more. For Gul, it’s about better ocean swells, smaller crowds and the feeling you’re conquering the elements. On another level, you’re battling against your own mind-set. When it’s all over, you can have a laugh and a drink with your friends and talk about what a good session it has or hasn’t been.
At the hardcore end of the scale are pioneering wave-riders like West Penwith locals Matt Smith and filmmaker Mickey Smith, who are dedicating their lives to scouting out heavy slabs of water on Ireland’s west coast.
For Mark (pictured below), it’s about dedication, motivation and the feeling you get from cold-water surfing all rolled into one. “You always feel rejuvenated after a good surf,” he says. “In cold water, that’s even more the case.”
Down the road, located on the site of an old tin mine on the coast in St Agnes, is the workshop that’s home to cold-water surf brand, Finisterre.
Like Mark, Finisterre founder Tom Kay draws a connection between dedicated surfers and the environment that inspires them. His company is named after the area in the BBC’s shipping forecast that was renamed as Fitzroy in 2002. Tom remembers listening to the forecast as a youngster while gales raged outside.
“Come the winter, surfers on these shores get excited,” says Tom. Like the team at Gul, winter for Tom means bigger storms and better waves. It’s then that local knowledge kicks in, with surfers scouting out the best waves.
“There’s a real commitment needed by surfers here,” Tom says. “Each season comes with highs and lows. There are cold, pre-dawn starts, fickle winds and big, shifting tides. But it’s about the reward of discovering perfect, uncrowded waves, the adventure, the camaraderie and the solitude. It’s the depth of the experience that I love.”
Sometimes, it seems that cold-water surfing might not even be about catching waves at all, but simply about getting out there. The surfers who drag themselves out of the warmth and comfort of their homes into the frigid water share passion and drive.
But whatever makes you one of those hooded figures scurrying across the car park, desperate to get into the sea, one thing is for sure. From dawn starts and freezing bodies to steaming wetsuits, hot showers and flasks of tea: the good, the bad and the mad are all part of the cold-water surfing experience.
And that’s exactly why we like it.
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