Scotland in autumn – time to go surfing

Winter surfer in Scotland. Photograph: Graham Robertson / Flickr

Winter surfer in Scotland. Photograph: Graham Robertson / Flickr

Summer might be warmer but it’s the chillier months that offer the best conditions for Scottish surfers.

Scotland’s coast is acclaimed for its dramatic beauty – and increasingly our shoreline is being hailed as a world-class haven for surfers.

But why would we be writing about surfing when the winter is approaching? Surely, this is the time when surfers retreat indoors and wait for the warm temperatures of spring?

Not so, according to those who know and love this sport. Autumn and winter are widely seen as the best seasons for surfing in Scotland and vastly improved wetsuits mean surfers can enjoy their sport even when there is snow on the ground.

A former champion Scottish surfer, Sam Christopherson, who is now an instructor at the Coast to Coast Surf School in East Lothian, reckons autumn and winter are “just swell” for surfers.

He says: “Sure, the summer is warmer, but there is less chance of good swell and powerful waves. In winter, when weather pressures drop, swells improve and the surf is clean and consistent. It’s so much easier to ride when waves are regular and consistent. Increasingly, Scotland is being recognised as a great place to surf all year round and particularly in the colder seasons.”

I’m not convinced. Despite my thick (5mm) wetsuit, neoprene gloves, boots and hood the conditions on Belhaven beach, Dunbar, are bitter. The sea looks cold and menacing. I grimace.

Sam is encouraging: “It’s not that bad once you’re in. While the air temperature is only three degrees, the water is eight degrees warmer. Also, modern wetsuits really do keep you warm.”

Smirking, he adds: “And with all the effort you’re about to put in you’re going to warm up pretty quickly.”

Top young surfer Phoebe Strachan.

Top young surfer Phoebe Strachan.

Warming up for autumn surfing

Just 15 minutes into the three-hour lesson and I begin to see what he means. Each “wave ride” requires a lot of hard work. First you have to wade out to sea through crashing waves while holding the surfboard steady under one arm.

Then, holding the board flat and steady, I am faced with the arduous task of climbing on top. Gripping either side of the board halfway along its length I launch myself up, belly first.

Hauling my bum over next and splashing my legs hard against the surface of the sea I achieve a prostrate position, face down on top of the wobbling board.

Now I wait for a wave. This requires neck flexibility and strength as I hold my board steady while looking over my shoulder.

When a promising wave approaches I get ready to swim with the wave. I do four hard and fast crawl-like strokes with both arms, as instructed, and then four smaller strokes. At this point, I hope I’m riding the wave. If not, the board sinks and I return out to sea to await another wave.

When I do catch the crest correctly I whoosh towards the beach. At this early stage in the learning process I’m still lying flat. Then the whole process is repeated again and again.

By the time our group of beginners are called back into the beach to learn the next step towards proper surfing we’re all looking weary – but we’re warm and still smiling.

Now comes the hard bit. Lying the boards down on the sand we are shown how to go from lying flat to the upright surfing stance – in one quick move. The process combines a full-blown push up with a squat thrust.

With the benefit of solid land beneath my board I can just about pull off the move. It’s not pretty but it’s reasonably effective. Back in the water and the whole thing feels hopeless.

If I’m lucky enough to catch a wave, and that only happens one in three times, I have barely enough time to launch myself into a semi-crouched position. Within seconds I capsize, diving headfirst into shallow waters.

The wading out, waiting for a wave, half standing, falling off process continues for at least an hour. Twice I achieve a kind of Neanderthal-style upright position and whoop in delight.

When I get it right it feels incredible. It’s very fast and I want more of it. But I’m hardly a cool surfing chick – and I’m completely exhausted.

Sam says: “Every part of surfing requires different sets of muscles. I guess that’s why you rarely see a flabby surfer. But for those who are learning it’s even harder on the body because you’re falling off and getting back on so often.”

This is exactly the incentive I need to get back on the board. I dream that by next summer I’ll be sporting a sculpted body and riding the waves just like a true Hawaiian surfer dude.

Scotland's fabulous coast.

Scotland’s fabulous coast.

Surfing experts in action

Watching the more experienced surfers is breathtaking. By now I’ve enjoyed a hot shower and I’m wearing full winter outdoors clothing, including two down jackets and gloves, as I stand on the wide expanse of East Lothian beach.

The men and women make surfing look effortless and beautiful. Phoebe Strachan is only 18 but has already mastered this tricky sport.

In only her first year of competing, Phoebe, from Edinburgh, won the Scottish Lowland Longboard Championships. She also came third in both the junior and ladies National Surfing Championships in Thurso aged just 18.

Now she’s has been selected to compete in the ISA World Surfing Games.

She is one of six surfers in a new Scottish Surfing Federation (SSF) team, which will make its international debut at the games in Peru, south America, later this month.

She said: “I had a lesson or two at Coast to Coast Surf School in East Lothian with my school when I was about 13 but didn’t focus on surfing properly until I was 15. During my school years I was also a competitive Highland dancer and swimmer. I think both of these sports gave me a good background for surfing.”

Sam says Phoebe was unusually fast to learn. He adds: “It was immediately clear that Phoebe had a real talent. She had a good eye for catching the waves and great balance. You could see in training and competitions that she could make the most of the waves and gave good performances at both the lowland and national competitions.”

Phoebe also loves the autumn and winter for surfing. She has recently started at university in Aberdeen and chose her place of study so as to be close to some great surfing spots.

She says: “The north and east coasts of Scotland are brilliant for surfing. I’ll be out as much as I can making the most of the great conditions between now and the world champs and also throughout the winter. The best surfers will tell you how much they love this time of year.”

Sam adds: “I’ve seen times when there is snow on the ground and there are still surfers out in the water. The contrasts of Scotland outdoors are incredible, aren’t they?”

Give surfing a try

Lessons are vital for safety and learning the skills of this tricky sport. Most surf schools hire wetsuits, kit and boards. See:

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