UK Surfing and Escaping the Crowds

With top tips from professional big wave surfer Al Mennie

The summer is on its way, your winter wetsuit is ready to be cleaned off and patched up and your summer suit is impatiently waiting in the wings. You’re looking forward to warmer water, longer days and evening surf sessions – but as we know, the benefits of summer surf come at a price; crowded lineups. So here are our top tips for escaping the crowds this summer..

Avoid surfing at peak times

Most people work 9-5 Monday to Friday so needless to say, evenings and weekends are the busiest times to get in the water. If you can, go surfing on your lunch break or if you’re not lucky enough to work close to the beach, try going out early in the morning, late in the evening or even at night at the weekend.

Night time surfing should obviously be reserved for more experienced surfers, and only at a familiar break where you can confidently avoid any dangers like rocks hiding beneath the surface. If you wear a Gecko surf helmet, you can mount flashlights or glow sticks to it so you can be seen easily.

While school and public holidays certainly add to the surf crowds, seek out times like Christmas Day and New Year’s Day when you can almost guarantee that the waves will be quiet while everyone else follows tradition by having a family meal or a vicious hangover.

Get out and explore

The most crowded surfing beaches are unsurprising, the ones that are listed on all your surf reports that have lovely beachside facilities. When it comes to surfing, fortune favours the brave! Get out of your comfort zone and find a more out-of-the-way break, the harder it is to get to, the more rewarded you’ll be.

Take someone else with you when you go exploring and scout the area before you get in the water; you’ll want to know the high and low tide lines and be aware of any obstacles in the water. And don’t forget your head protection when you’re trying out new spots!

Speaking of surf reports..

Whatever surf forecast you follow, you can be sure that lots of other people are subscribing to it. When your local spot is getting five stars, you’ll know that everyone else is heading there – so learn to read the forecast without relying on the ratings and you’ll soon be surfing against the crowds!

Choose your location carefully

It’s August bank holiday weekend and half the UK’s surf population are on their way to Devon and Cornwall to catch some waves – regardless of the conditions, you know the water is going to be super crowded. So why not think outside the box and discover some new breaks?

The north east of England picks up Arctic swells which make their way down the North Sea, it might be cold here in the winter but the summer months offer comparable water temperatures to the south west without having to compete with hundreds of surf schools for waves.

Similarly, the Outer Hebrides that lie thirty miles off the north west of Scotland provides guaranteed quiet line-ups and plenty of swell.

Pembrokeshire provides reliable and consistent year-round surf with beaches that face in a multitude of directions and sheltered spots for windy days. Freshwater West is the main beach in the area so expect crowds – think Abereiddy instead.

If you’re keen for some Cornish waves but want to escape the mayhem, head to Whitsand Bay on the south coast, home to five miles of unspoilt golden sand beach. It doesn’t pick up as much swell as the north coast but this only helps to keep the crowds at bay!

Finally, don’t overlook Northern Ireland; renowned these days for its big wave surf spots, Northern Ireland picks up big swells from the Atlantic. Gecko sponsored big wave surfer Al Mennie, grew up in Northern Ireland and has the following advice to offer…

Q: What is the best time of year to surf in Northern Ireland?

A: Winter, there are no board shorts, bronzed bodies and palm trees here. Just 6mm wetsuits, helmets, boots and gloves. We have prevailing offshore winds here which gives us more good days than bad. Sometimes we can even get some good-sized waves up here too.

Q: Northern Ireland is known for its big wave spots, is it a destination purely for pros or are there spots suitable for beginner and intermediate surfers too?

A: Most of the surf spots here are suitable for every surfer. There are very few days of the year that are for experts only, 99% of our waves are gentle beach breaks.

Q: Which surf spots would you recommend for beginner and intermediate surfers who wish to avoid the crowds?

A: The only crowds we get here are tourists, not so much surfing tourists so nearly every day of the year it’s possible to surf on your own.

Q: And which are your favorite spots?

A: Because we have predominantly beach breaks, no one spot is always better than another. You need to know where and when depending on the weather and current sandbanks. Some winters the beaches get stripped of sand but great banks develop in places they don’t normally and other winters the sand is all on the beach and there isn’t a good sandbank to be found!  Thankfully I am most interested in surfing on my own and usually at spots that are bigger than others so it means I rarely surf with another person.

A: We know you’re a fan of Gecko Head Gear, can you tell us what you like about our helmets?

Q: I have worn Gecko head gear for a long time. In fact, it is fairly uncommon for surfers to wear a helmet until they have an accident but I was always hunting waves that hadn’t been surfed before so I didn’t know what was on the bottom and so I had one as a precautionary measure rather than reactionary. Thing is, after an accident the chances of another accident are much less likely but it’s too late. I have had several instances where a board has hit me in the head. I have scars on both sides of my face and down the middle of my nose from it and under my hairline on top of my head. I have also hit the reef after falling from a pretty big wave and hit my helmet on the bottom.  I’ve been hit by a 9kg lead weighted tow board too under a 40-foot wave.  There are so many times as surfers if we are truly trying to push the limits that we take knocks. It is part of trying to improve. I don’t always wear a helmet even though I know I should and I have the scars to prove it but I do on the huge days as I feel the elements on those occasions have the potential to do damage beyond what a human can survive. A helmet, a gecko glass fibre one is not a big deal to wear. It’s a small addition to kit which at some stage you may think was a few quid well spent when you consider the life-changing impact a surfing accident can have on your life and that of those around you.

Q: Would you advise all surfers to wear helmets or just big wave surfers?

A: I think there is a lot of water safety that beginner surfers don’t realise they need to know. There is far more to surfing than just getting a lesson or standing on a foam board.  I think helmets add confidence for people who are ocean goers in kayaks, canoes etc who are probably much less likely to be in a situation where they could bang their head than a surfer is, so why it isn’t more common for surfers confuses me. So, I think it’s a personal choice but when it comes to big waves in shallow waters I personally think it is stupid and irresponsible to not wear one.