How to Survive a Freezing Beachbreak
Words by Jed Smith The cold frontier is the last bastion of uncrowded surf. Plenty of us dream of the cold water surf adventure: Snow capped mountains, empty lineups, then, when the four weeks roll around, all romantic visions are cast into the ‘too hard’ pile, and ten days in Indo it is. Brett Barley’s […]
Words by Jed Smith
The cold frontier is the last bastion of uncrowded surf. Plenty of us dream of the cold water surf adventure: Snow capped mountains, empty lineups, then, when the four weeks roll around, all romantic visions are cast into the ‘too hard’ pile, and ten days in Indo it is. Brett Barley’s one of the foremost protagonists of the cold water beachbreak, and the Outer Banks local has a few hacks to survive some of the most taxing conditions imaginable. Here’s a day in the life of BB, when the beachbreaks are doing their thing:
Three days out: Five-to-seven days out you see the swell, but you can’t trust a swell here more than three days out. The wind forecast can change along with a lot of other things. Because of where we’re located we pick up anything from a south-south-west wind swell to a really north wind swell. That’s over 180 degrees of swell direction. Due to that range, the two main directions mean it’s either all lefts, or all rights running down the beach. The periods you need are between five-to-12 seconds, once it goes to 17 seconds the period is too slow. The continental shelf is close to us so it doesn’t have to travel across the shallow water and die down.
One day out: Usually the weather sets in a day or two before. That’s when I clean out my truck, take out my boards, have all my wetsuits, booties and gloves ready, two pairs of everything. I use a 5/4mm suit with built-in hood, 7mm boots if it’s barrels, 6/5/4 boots if it’s rippable, ’cause the soles are 4mm so I can feel my board better for airs, 5mm gloves, 5mm mittens are prime for the cold too, so much warmer than regular gloves. You end up weighing about 10-15 pounds more with all the gear on when wet, but I just ride the same boards I would anywhere. I’m used to it but in reality, more volume would probably be better. I charge up my phone, all my cameras, extra batteries freshly charged because when its cold they go flat twice as quick.
5:45 am: I wake an hour before sun up. I’m anal about wanting to be there in the dark because you know tide-wise which spot will be good with what winds and that way I’m already heading to a better spot if it’s not good before the sun is coming up. I get up, get a coffee, if I know it’s gonna be good I’ll eat some protein – cheesy eggs on toast – and look at all the buoys around here, check the winds, current wind path, whether the offshores have hit yet. I’m just OCD, I don’t wanna miss waves because I was lazy.
6:00 am: I’ll start my car while I’m getting everything ready, that way it’s already heated up when you get outside. Nothing worse than getting in a cold car when it’s 20 degrees and howling offshore. I double up on the layers, I’ll wear two pairs of socks, long-johns, jeans, boots, long sleeve t-shirt, sweatshirt, and a jacket. I bring long johns and a jacket in case my buddy forgets his. Main thing is staying warm. You can’t allow yourself to get cold because you can’t warm back up. Water temp in winter is in the low 40s F (4°C). Last winter there were a couple of weeks in the upper 30s (3°C). When we get a south swell, because of where we’re located next to this warm water current, it will go from 42 to 55 degrees (12°C) but it’s usually low 40s.
6:20 am: At the beach ten minutes before daylight. Walk out and try to see what’s going on. Get a visual, snow on the ground, yeah it’s cold. I can check it for 15 minutes before I get cold but I keep my truck running so whenever I get in its hot. When the waves are pumping you go from your car straight to the surf. I turn the heat up so hot in the car you sit in the car with all those layers on literally dying. You’re literally so hot you can’t wait to get out of the car.
6:30 am: You’re frothing watching the waves changing into your suit. It’s so perfect. It’s not Indo with a perfect reef but as far as beachbreaks go I haven’t been to a beachbreak anywhere in the world – Mex, Central America, California, or anywhere – where you get that many waves in that short a time.
7am: When it’s that good you get so amped up. When it’s short period you get waves every five minutes. There’s times where there’s been five of us out and literally people getting barrelled one after another with tonnes of waves going unridden. It’s not hard to get motivated.
7:30 am: It’s all beachbreaks, no channels, so it doesn’t matter whether the periods are short or long, you’re doing a lot of duck diving. The colder it gets, the longer it hurts. You’ll get out the back and your forehead is just on fire, so cold it feels hot. The pain sets in when you come up and it doesn’t go away. The worst is when you get stuck inside for a long set. It definitely hurts but when the waves are good it doesn’t matter, you come up and see a good wave and freak out and push through it.
8:30 am: Westuits are so good these days. The last five years they’ve gotten so good that you gotta be out there a long time to get cold enough for hypothermia. It’s totally different to when I was 14 to 17. You got cold after 25 minutes and surfed for another hour or two and you’d be cold the whole time. I remember when I was 19-or-20 the (O’Neill) Psychofreak came out and had air bubbles in it. I’ve never had issues with being cold since then, and it’s only being getting better and better.
11 am: If it’s good I won’t leave the parking lot all day. I got two pairs of boots, gloves, wetsuits. A dry wetsuit is the most valuable thing. But even if you’ve got dry booties and a dry suit, if you’re gloves are wet your fingers will be cold by the time you get to the water and the wind just cuts through ’em. You wanna start your session warm because you can stay warm if you keep moving, but if you get cold it’s pretty hard to get back.
12 pm: I was lagging on ordering a new suit so I only had one during the Jonas swell. During the low-tide downtime in the middle of the day I didn’t wanna change out of my suit ’cause I only had one. So I changed out of my suit and left my suit stuck to my floorboards in the car with the heat on and when I came out from lunch it was dry. I burned a lot of gas keeping my truck warm, but when the waves are good it’s only for a day or two and being warm is the most valuable thing, so I do everything to make sure I’m comfortable.
4 pm: It’s not hard to get motivated for a second surf when it’s good but a little harder on the days you’re shooting for airs and turns. Good air wind doesn’t make the waves look pretty. I’ll watch airs on my phone to get amped and paddle out.
5:45 pm: I’ll surf till dark which is at 5:15 to 5:45, later in winter. As soon as it’s dark I drive home in my wetsuit. I call my wife on the way home and usually when she sees me pull up in the driveway she turns the shower on and I run in and jump straight in the hot shower. When it’s that cold you get so frozen changing in the parking lot. Better just to go straight into shower with your gear, which is good ‘cos I rinse it out and it lasts longer.
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