Preparing to Surf in Frigid Waters

Tips on how to surf 'enjoyably' in Sub 55 Degree water temperatures

As long as I can remember when it comes to surfing and in-water photography, for me, it's mostly spent in frigid waters. The latter is thanks to my affinity of empty lineups, adventurous treks and scenic backdrops. I've always been the person who scoffs at pulling into a parking lot where a wave of mild to warm temp is a 3 minute walk away where 87 people are already in the water. Not saying that I haven't spend a decent amount of time doing this, but it's not my go-to situation. Insofar, I've had my fair share of experiences that've made me want to chop all ten fingers off because they feel frostbitten and times when having a brain freeze every duck dive makes you want to quit surfing and in-water photography all together. Anyhow, below are a few things I've discovered that've made cold-water surfing and in-water photography not as miserable for the times when you're not charging down the face  or capturing your friend getting into a massive pit. 

 1. Get your wetsuit, booties and gloves on in the car  

This may seem pretty ridiculous, but I promise it can give you an extra 30+ minutes of warmth in the ocean. Most environments that have water temperatures sub-55 degrees are usually exposed to violent winds (whether offshore or onshore). While you're scrunched up in your car uncomfortably trying to squeeze into your absurd amount of neoprene you're actually generating internal heat from all that work you're doing. So, while you generate that internal heat your extremities are less likely to stop losing blood quicker. The reason for frozen toes and fingers is because when your chest begins to get a tiny bit cold it begins to extract blood from our toes and fingers. Plus, when it's blowing 22 mph offshore on some rugged Atlantic coastline your fingers won't be red and numb while you're putting your gloves on outside.

2. Move around  

When it's offshore and the water temps are sub-55 it's going to be cold. It will honestly feel like 45 degree waters. While surfing in South Island New Zealand in the dead of winter this was daily. Once you find the channel (or however you make it to the lineup) you need to keep paddling. Avoid sitting on your board and relaxing, no matter how tempting that may be. Paddle a few strokes every 30 seconds. It will, as mentioned before, heat your body up. When you sit and aren't moving, your toes begin to lose feeling within minutes, and if you let your hands sit in the water, you're going to be one uncomfortable cold water frother. As far as it goes from a photographer's perspective make sure you are swimming. If you're bold enough to shoot in these temps you need to make sure your toes and especially your shooting hand is feeling good to go. Move around on the outside a ton if that's where you are set up. Paddle a little behind the wave and then back to your spot. Basically, get creative with it and try to keep your hands above the water as much as you can. If you're looking for that bottom-up shot you'll be taking it on the head a lot, so swimming around and moving won't be much of a concern.  

3. Go thicker than thinner   

A lot of cold water surfing is discovery and adventure into the unknown. Thus, if you end up trekking 45 minutes through unmaintained forest and chilly air you aren't going to have the luxury of changing in your car, or at the minimum getting into the car quickly after your session. So if you are on the fence between a 4/3mm and 5/4mm. 5/4. Deciding between 3mm booties and 5mm? 5mm. Yeah getting overheated is a slight possibility, but nothing will end your session quicker than when your body feels like ice and you start to having delusional thoughts from the cold (i've had this, I swear). From the photographer perspective; ALWAYS go thicker. It's not even a debate. You're constantly submerged, and you're more likely to be taking it on the head two times as much as the people surfing.  


4. Preparation (Physically and Mentally)   

This one sounds like it's taken right out of the book of cliche's but, it's the truth cut and dry. The night before your surf make sure your wetsuit is inside if your sleeping in a house or hut. Sleeping in a tent? Well, get a good night sleep because the frost on the inside of your cold damp 5/4 is going to make you want to cry a little in the morning. Furthermore, make sure when you go to bed you have high stoke (literally mind surf to get psyched) and you have all your gear ready to go. Nothing is worse than waking up dreading going into cold water; because once you start paddling the fun is instantly gone. Coming from the photographer perspective theres three vital things you must do. First, have your housing equipment packed and ready to go. Know what lenses you want to use. Is it going to barrel? 16mm. Is it walled and mushy? 50mm. Second, as you are driving to where you are going to put your car, think about what shots you are looking to get out of the day. One of the worst things to do in these frigid temps is trying to figure out where to position yourself relative to the wave and getting a brain freeze every set in the process. Lastly, have stoke! It's hard enough to get in the water and surf these cold temps, but treading and holding a camera is a whole other level of frigid. So be more excited to shoot than the surfers are to surf. 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Mitchell Milbauer

Sea, Snow and Rock || Photographer and Writer