True Grit: What It's Like to Surf During a -14C Snow Storm

Jason Lock

by on

Updated 23d ago

What's your defining factor to 'go' or 'not to go' surfing? We can categorically say that the first question will always be, 'are the waves good?' If yes, then there's no other follow ups. But what if the next thought was 'am I going to catch hypothermia?' For the surfers of Poland over the weekend, temperatures plummeted to -14C so freezing is less hyperbole and more of a real thing. But still, that hardy crew were frothing for playful surf on a usually wave-starved coast. Which begs the question; would you have gone?

A pulse of swell rippled across the Baltic on the weekend. And when there's a sniff of a wave, these legends are on it, come rain, sun or intense blizzard. Meanwhile, skirt your eyes a couple of countries over to Holland, which saw the remnants of that bout of snow hit the following day – right as a pulse of swell was brewing in the North Sea. Though the temperatures were not as cold as Poland (thermostats bottomed out around the -2C mark), the Dutch were all over this as it swung in, ploughing through 20cms of snow and a whiteout just to even get to the beach.

Our swell chart for the Baltic Sea. Poland is tucked into the bottom right of the corner. As you can see, being a surfer in Poland you really want to sniff you any size swell.

Our swell chart for the Baltic Sea. Poland is tucked into the bottom right of the corner. As you can see, being a surfer in Poland you really want to sniff you any size swell.

Krzystoff Jedrzejak (aka Baltic Surf Scapes) was on the mission with Kuba Kuzia in Poland. “I haven’t seen such a great winter in Northern Poland for a long time,” he said. “We've had two-to-three days a week with waves. But Saturday was pretty special.

“At first light we went to what we'd call our swell magnet, which offers the cleanest surf in the area when conditions are right. Usually it's pretty busy but Saturday morning we didn't see anyone and the waves were literally frozen. It was -14C and it looked like a slurpee.

Poland, in snow, and -14C conditions. Not for the feint hearted.

Poland, in snow, and -14C conditions. Not for the feint hearted.

© 2021 - Baltic Surf Scapes

Kuba, taking a shower.

Kuba, taking a shower.

© 2021 - Baltic Surf Scapes

“You could see swell arriving and the waves couldn’t break because of the heavy icy water. First time we’ve seen such crazy stuff.”

But that doesn't put off the Polish. “We were already in wetsuits,” said Krzystoff. “So we drove about an hour up to another spot, luckily it wasn’t frozen and it looked great. Water temp was around 2-4C. I would say It was like Hossegor in winter but you need to deduct few feet, power, more than 20°C and other surfers in the lineup. Every wave could be yours. But you just need to get psyched up for cold.”

And shooting from the water? “It was pure masochism,” he said. “Especially if you forget to take your fins with you. I had to swap the camera for board every 20 minutes to paddle a bit and warm up my body.”

The essentials to get the blood pumping again.

The essentials to get the blood pumping again.

© 2021 - Baltic Surf Scapes

The following day, the snow storm bore down on Holland as a pulse of North Sea goodness pipped into the coast. Lensman Jop Hermans was on it. “The last time we had a day of surf this cold and this clean, was in March 2018,” he said. “This weather pattern back then the was named the Siberian Bear, beast from the east' Well, this Sunday the bear was back. 

And here's our chart for the North Sea, that swell heading south down from the UK.

And here's our chart for the North Sea, that swell heading south down from the UK.

“I never had the opportunity to shoot surf combined with snow, until this winter. I guess it’s pretty rare to get this combination, as the days we get snow in The Netherlands get less and less.

How's that for a surf check in the morning in Holland?

How's that for a surf check in the morning in Holland?

© 2021 - Jop Hermans

“The hardest part was probably to get to the beach. Overnight a 20cm thick layer of fresh snow fell. Was pretty much wearing my complete snowboard outfit, except for the goggles and I wore thin gloves which made it possible to handle the camera with all its tiny wheels and buttons. I actually spent a good four hours on the beach, with a couple coffee breaks at a local take-away bar and a series of squats to keep the blood flowing, it was definitely manageable [laughs].”

Given the unique swell signatures from these two sessions, we tasked MSW forecaster Tony Butt to break this all down. “Unlike spots that face large, open oceans like the North Atlantic, places like Poland and the Netherlands don’t have the luxury of long-travelled swells generated by storms thousands of miles away. Instead, they rely on much more locally-generated swells from windfields in relatively confined seas such as the Baltic or the southern North Sea.

© 2021 - Jop Hermans

“First, the wind blows in the right direction over a large enough fetch for long enough to generate a swell. Then, good local conditions need to coincide while there are still waves on the coast. The best scenario is when the windfield itself stays away and never encroaches on the coast, similar to an open-ocean swell but on a smaller scale. However, it is more common to get onshore winds that die off or switch offshore to give a couple of hours of good surf.

© 2021 - Jop Hermans

The waves that were surfed in Poland on Saturday Feb 6 were generated by an area of northerly winds in the Baltic sea that blew over a large distance for around 24 hours. Local winds were onshore during Friday, but then became light and variable on Saturday.”

© 2021 - Jop Hermans

© 2021 - Jop Hermans

Jop, leaving for the beach on two-wheeled steed.

Jop, leaving for the beach on two-wheeled steed.

© 2021 - Jop Hermans