Novice Surf Wisdom in the Winter Swell Season

When I started to surf on the North Coast of Oregon in the mid 80’s, it was late fall and my husband had just bought me a new wetsuit, parts, Mike Steward bodyboard and Churchill swim fins. Having only been back to Oregon for our second winter, from having lived seven years along the North Shore of Oahu, the large fall & winter swell was quite intimidating here. Most “weekend warrior” trips we would make from Ptown to Seaside left me with only one smart “newbie”option, to observe some of the best surfers on the North Coast, “da’ boyz” of the Point, ripping up clean, double overhead waves and pulling into barrels with experience and ease and simply being in awe of them.

I learned so much over the first few winters observing them on days that were just too gnarly to even think about going out by myself. There were four of us local women surfing then, three of us on bodyboards and one on a surfboard. We were all friends, but rarely caught sessions together, so going solo surfing for me was always a well considered decision.

Winter Swells Up!

Light and Dark of winter.

Here is a summation of what I learned those first few winters. These personal insights will serve you well from October to April on the North Coast of Oregon. I hope in your learning them on your own, you will feel safer, more confident charging in the winter months and empowered with knowledge to further your passion for cold water surfing!

  1. Awareness of local forecast. This is a must! Winter swells are more typically ground swells than wind swells. They are coming from much further away; therefore they bring with them more power and might. Use the “Recipe for a Perfect Wave” which we’ve taught you in our camp, lesson and retreat events as your outliner. Winter swells come up much faster than summer wind swells, so keep track throughout the day of changing swell dynamics; feet size, interval lengthening, direction of swell effecting how it comes in to your favorite beach, wind speeds and direction.
  2. Know your local tides. Winter months have much bigger tide changes happening inside of every six hour window, than in the summer months. Expect numerous tides in the 8 to 12’ exchange. That’s a helluva lot of tide moving in or out, which then really effects the longshore and riptide currents. The speed and pull is much stronger and overwhelming many times than in the summer months. Remember that with the higher tides being much higher on the beach or rocks, you need to factor in your exit from surfing carefully as well.
  3. Have the right wetsuit gear to stay warm. Winter air temps are cold and when you add in the wind chill effect, be sure you have your warmest suit on, as well as gloves, boots and hoods. I highly recommend a 5/4 mm hooded wetsuit for these months. On really cold days, I also layer under it with a long sleeve polypro top and polypro shorts. Then if your suit flushes with cold ocean water, you stay comfortably warm inside. Note: if you have Raynaud’s Syndrome like I do, wearing 7 mm boots and 3 mm gloves are the only way to go!
  4. Keep in physical shape. With the additional demand on your body to surf in bigger swell, it is essential to establish an off season, out of summer, fitness routine to maintain shoulder, arms, back and overall cardio strength and endurance. Work with a trainer in your local gym to establish a surf oriented training. Look up online at You Tube for personal training methods for surfing. I personally use a combination of Crossfit workouts, daily yoga practice and Zumba to stay in shape, especially periods of time, when the surf size is out of my comfort zone.
  5. Always Trust your gut! After you’ve learned the forecast, you’ve made the drive to the beach, take time to watch the sets for a good while. Observe how the waves are breaking; clean and easy to judge, or sloppy and all over the place. Know what the size is in relationship to the surfers out. What levels of surfers are out? Are they at your level? How extreme are the riptides moving out? Then trust your gut feeling if the waves are calling you and you’re in your comfort zone or not. Patience is a virtue when it comes to judging winter swells.
  6. Know how local riptides and longshore currents work differently in the winter months. Talk to experienced local surfers about this, or surf shop staff. Observe these currents on big days as surfers use them to paddle out.
  7. Paddle out with a friend, preferably more experienced friend. There weren’t many women years ago for me to surf with, so many times I surfed with the men that were out, or soloed down the beach. Nowadays there are so many women who surf, make some surfer girlfriends and buddy up, especially in the winter months on the North Coast.
  8. Fuel up before you go. You burn through a lot more calories in cold ocean temps with cold air temps. Think ahead before you paddle out, have substantial nutrition to paddle and surf for a couple of hours.
  9. Prevent hypothermia. Have the right thickness of wetsuit and parts on, be nourished and hydrated before going surfing, and always leave some “gas in your tank”. Many of you have heard me share stories of how surfing until you’re on empty is not only foolish, but can be dangerous. You can be setting yourself up for dynamic changes in the winter surf session where the swell starts jacking, the riptide starts motoring out on steroids, and if you don’t have any reserve, you can easily find yourself getting hypothermic and now in a dangerous predicament. It’s easy to say ”just one last wave”…..but leaving some gas in your tank and not being on empty I guarantee will at some point be your saving grace when you’re surfing. Most surfers learn this wisdom the hard way.
  10. I highly recommend reading Tristan Gooley’s book, How to Read Water. I just started reading it and am so impressed in the vast knowledge he shares in it about water of all kind.                                                                                                Have a fabulous winter surf season! Always wishing you the best on your path of surfing, Lexie


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