As we slowly reach the depths of winter, frigid temperatures and dark mornings ensure that only the committed get into the water. We turn to woman of the sea, Emma Fraser-Bell to tell us about the realties of surfing in winter and how a female community of surfers inspire her to get in the water throughout winter.
Only moments ago I lay cocooned within a cloud of duvet, blankets and pillows. A hot water bottle tightly tucked under my arm, now tepid to the touch. Hiding underneath thermals, it takes all the strength I can muster to open my left eye, then the right to check the time blaring on my alarm; 5:55am. The left soon closes, with the right milliseconds behind. A loud “humph” follows as I roll my body into a ball under my cloud-like haven.
I must’ve dozed off again almost instantly, as the sound of my housemate boiling the kettle below in the kitchen has me stirring. Dozily, with every inch of my body detesting the early rise, I slide out the side of bed and pop a thick, woolly hat on lying listless on the floor in front of me. Switching the lamp on, my eyes squint at the intrusive brightness as my clumsy, fumbling fingers attempt to dress heavy limbs in a bikini on this cold morning, at this godforsaken hour. The grouchiness and struggle of the early rise for the dawn surf is an incredibly common occurrence in my morning ritual. I wish I could say I rose at 5am every morning, refreshed after a solid 8 hours kip. Bright eyed, bushy tailed and ready to seize the day with a broad smile swept across my face. This is certainly not the case; I am not a natural born early-riser. Never have been, probably never will be. It’s one of my greatest flaws. Yet it does make mornings such as these all the more remarkable.
Scouring the forecast the night before, the prominent brisk northerlies were due to change to a slight easterly in the early hours. Poking my puffy head out the window, a chill spikes the air but it feels calm in the dark, ink blue dawn. The anticipation of a cloudless, windless, clean morning surf the only reason for my success in leaving my beloved; my bed.
It’s November now. The clocks have turned and we’re in the midst of vastly declining temperatures. Autumn succumbing to winter. Grass tips laced with thick frost, thickening with every dawn. Morning sun beams flare on ice crystals detailed on windscreens; rainbows refracting in the shards.
Down in the kitchen we fill mugs with fresh lemon and hot water to liven our croaky souls. A house of likeminded girls, keen to wake early for a surf before the daily routine sets in. All addicted to the outdoors. Specifically, to the ocean. Interpreting the forecast the night prior we lazed by the fire, heat blazed through thick glass, warming cold fingertips and toes. We plotted our route, or rather plotting which break we’ll surf in the morning. Waking early to get our fix. Always yearning to share these unique moments with each other. There is something so special about sharing the line up with these girls. I can’t help but smile at the thought of us all out there, at first light all of us together bracing tired, heavy bodies against the bitter cold. Sitting out back, hooting each other into the next, pushing each other into bigger surf on differing boards; longboards, shortboards, mini-mals alike.
A quick check of the forecast and it is as we hoped; light offshore winds with a 4ft 11sec swell. Peering out the window into the back garden I see my towel draped over the washing line stiff with frost. I go grab another from the cupboard.
Hot tea, coffee and scrambled eggs. A thermos flask filled with more hot tea awaits within the wetsuit bucket. Out the corner of my eye the ink, cloudless sky speckled with stars forms shades of pale pink. Street lamps flicker on the quiet paths of our cul-de-sac as the sun rises from the valley behind. I grab the bucket and chuck it in the car boot alongside boards. My mind retraces distant yet fond comforting memories of the duvet as I scrape thick ice from my car’s windscreen with slow progress.
Down at the water’s edge, a cold breeze stings my fingers; numbing my skin as it cracks against the piercing dryness. Whistling passed my ears, the easterly bites as I hastily pull my hood over and reach stiff fingertips into thick neoprene gloves. As I look west, I catch sight of lines approaching as a left forms seamlessly, peeling its course to the shore without a single soul near. We paddle out as a team, brimming with excitement, a childish anticipation and a compulsion to catch a wave of that calibre.
On mornings like these, there is nothing better than that rush of frigid salt water as it pricks bare skin with its first touch. The warmth from my wetsuit, gloves and boots envelops every inch of me. Only my face is left to fend for itself against the bitterness I hold such conflicting emotions towards on mornings as these. My cheeks flush blood-red at the pinch of the Atlantic. My lips deaden with each duckdive.
Once the set we paddled out in passes, we sit waiting for the next. The thought of the first wave makes my heart tap. I smile at my own nerves but try and embrace them, use them. The sun slides through the sky behind us as we gaze out over the horizon. Its eventual warmth rests at my side. I spy lines approaching and look over to the others who have already spotted the set and begun their paddle to position. No one utters a word until the waves peak and form a solid 5ft, larger than anticipated. I feel small and insignificant but unashamedly proud of each one of us for paddling out here. The offshore whips spray back at my face, hastening me to return to reality. We exchange a cacophony of shouts and calls at each drop, every peeling wave with the arrival of the set. A camaraderie so uncommon in the line-up; a sisterhood of the sea.
Not every wave goes according to plan; a few overhead lefts that have my heart pounding and eyes sparked with fear, then a crushing wipeout knocking the air clean out of my lungs. Tumbling in the white horses, they envelope my body under water refusing to release me. I resurface, immediately inhaling a gulp of air and quickly paddle out to join the others before the set pummels me to shore. A huge grin spreads across my face once safely out back. My core is warm, my arms light. I wiggle my toes and fingertips, pleased to feel them still functioning despite the rawness of the morning.
I sit there for a moment between sets, checking the whereabouts of the others and spot them dotted around in the ever-growing line up. Our reason for doing this to our bodies I am quickly reminded, is for the health of our minds. Experiencing moments like these that shock the body and invigorate the mind, call us away from normality and even further away from the monotony of the simple every-day. Would I feel so profoundly happy without the girls out there too? Possibly, but it would be a completely different feeling of elation. I love a solo surf, yet there is something so special in sharing these moments with these women who force you to rise out of the cosy confines of your bed and into the cold arms of the sea. Of course, I hate that moment the alarm screeches in your ears having slept what felt like only two minutes, I doubt that will ever change. Yet once out in the water, any hard feelings towards the clock (and the overly-spritely morning person) are soon swept away with each passing wave.
Calling to each other along the line up, I catch my last wave suddenly realising the time. With the sun now higher, its warmth calms the wind chill brushing against my cheeks. At the shoreline, pulling the hood from over my head, I stand exposed to the frigid air. I pull it back over swiftly, sheltering my ears from the east blowing zephyr. Waving at the girls gracefully dancing down lines, I head up the beach to change out of my suit and into work clothes, filled with an excitement and inspiration for the new day, only ever felt after mornings such as these.
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