Isle of Wight: Cold Water Surfing Haven

Surfing is not just great for your physical health, but your mental well-being as well

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Driving along Military Road — a 21 km stretch that traverses the south-west coast of the Isle of Wight — the view is like something out of a film. It’s breath-taking. Long lines of waves roll across the vast expanse of grey-blue ocean towards the chalk cliffs as soft pinks and oranges streak the powdery blue sky.

It’s February morning. The fields are frost-tipped and surfers, wrapped head to toe in neoprene, are clambering down the steep wooden steps at Compton Chine towards the crashing waves. They’re surrounded by grazing long-horn cattle and sheep scattered like a burst bag of popcorn across a plate — the only hint that this is an island off the south coast of England, instead of somewhere like Queensland or California.

We’re currently in the middle of England’s third lockdown and, like many others here, I’m making the most of island life by surfing as much as I can. Surf, work, sleep, repeat seems to be my new mantra. Being in the ocean is like a form of meditation for me, and many of my fellow surfers. Even the most experienced athletes like Kelly Slater and John-John Florence are still being challenged, and are constantly learning, and being immersed in such a powerful environment amidst the stress of daily life is humbling.

In fact, in 2020, Surf England published the results of a recent UK-wide survey involving over 5,000 people affirming that 75% of British surfers say that the mental health benefits of the sport are more important than the physical ones. And, at a time where mental health awareness is needed more than ever, I can see why so many are taking up surfing.

Once synonymous with coaches filled with retirees and young families on a “stay-cation,” the Isle of Wight is an adventurer’s haven, offering everything from kayaking in Seaview’s glassy bays to hiking, biking and sailing. And it doesn’t stop there. The island has something for the history buffs too. As a former archaeologist, I notice “fairy hills” in the fields — also known as cairns, a man-made stack of stones that have been used since prehistory for a range of purposes, from trail marking to massive Bronze Age tombs — and the coastlines are filled with a plethora of wrecks making the island a driver’s dream.

The winter months are by far the best time to surf in the UK and the Isle of Wight has many special spots that don’t feature on internet surf reports which brings yet another big advantage — no crowds! And, as the rest of the country is pounded by snow and rain, British surfers are making the most of the waves that consistently break against our shores this time of year.

Some tips for cold water surfing include:

  1. Invest in a good quality 5/3mm wetsuit, along with gloves, boots and a hood to keep in your body heat.

Not all wetsuits are created equal, and you get what you pay for, so it’s worth saving up to splash out a bit.

2. Dry your wetsuit.

This one is a no brainer. It’s no fun trying to wriggle into damp neoprene in heavy winds and rain, as the mercury reaches to 0.

3. Don’t eat directly before going into the water.

This one might not make sense at first, but because your blood gets drawn away from your extremities to aid digestion, if you do eat, you’ll end up feeling colder.

4. Warm up!

I’ve never been particularly good about this one, although now I’m getting older, it’s becoming a necessity regardless of the weather. Having a good, dynamic warm up before going in really gets the blood flowing and helps prevent you from getting cold.

5. Keep moving.

Sitting around is a recipe for disaster. You have to paddle hard and catch as many waves as you can to stay warm.

6. Prepare your clothes, towel, and shoes for when you finish.

Trust me when I say that spending 10+ minutes with your teeth chattering in an icy gale as you search for your socks can put a dampener on a fun session.

As I write, surfers around the UK are enjoying the waves. From the fun 5ft ones at my local break to the 20ft swells generated by a string of deep Atlantic depressions that test the resolve of Cornish surfers.

Anything in the double digits is a bit extreme for me, but searching around will almost almost result in finding something to suit whatever ability you’re at. And once that’s all sorted, all you then have to worry about how long it’ll take for your toes to thaw …

Lover of animals, travel and cheesy movies. Exploring the world one word at a time.

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