Spring is a tricky time of year in the North Atlantic, but you might still get some good, uncrowded surf, if you know where to look.
Spring is the transition between winter and summer, when the northern hemisphere starts to tilt towards the sun. The sun’s rays start hitting the surface at a less oblique angle than they did during the winter, so the temperature in the northern hemisphere increases.
The temperature increase is greatest at the pole and almost negligible at the equator. This means that the temperature differential between the equator and the pole decreases – in other words, the temperature becomes more uniform over the northern hemisphere.
The equator-to-pole temperature differential is basically what drives our weather and climate. So, as we transition from winter to summer, atmospheric circulation patterns weaken, storms become less frequent and less intense, and average wave heights get smaller.
The transition in springtime is not always smooth. It can be quite erratic, with the possibility of warm, summer-like conditions in March, or winter-like conditions in April or even May. Sometimes, just when you think it was all over, the North Atlantic coughs up one or two more large swells.
For example, some of the largest wave heights ever recorded in the Bay of Biscay occurred on March 10, 2008. This year, 2019, we also had a large storm on March 12, which generated some huge waves off northwest Ireland and pushed a large, long-period swell down into southern areas.
In the most exposed northern areas such as western Ireland and Scotland, wave heights in the springtime are generally more manageable than in winter. This opens up the possibility of surfing a larger range of spots on open coastlines instead of having to run to sheltered spots. With a bit of luck, those huge, out-of-control swells will quickly give way to smaller but cleaner ones generated further away.
Ideally, low pressures off the east coast of North America will hang around just south of Greenland, producing clean, long-period swells for Ireland and western Scotland. However, with the intermittent nature of spring, be prepared for anything.
In northern areas, the local wind is probably the factor that makes the most difference between winter and spring. In general, local wind conditions are lighter and more variable in springtime, in contrast to the strong westerlies that dominate most of the winter. However, just like the swells, the local winds can still be quite unpredictable.
The water temperature in northern areas is still pretty cold in spring. With seawater having such a slow thermal response, ocean temperatures lag behind behind air and land temperatures. It is only in May or early June that the water starts to get noticeably warmer.
In southern areas such as southwest France, Spain and Portugal, surf conditions in the springtime are, on average, not as good in winter. Wave heights are smaller, so the reefs and rivermouths in Northern Spain that thrive on the biggest swells in winter quickly become inconsistent, although they might have the odd big swell as I mentioned earlier.
The average quality of the swells hitting southern areas in springtime is cleaner than during winter, but this isn’t really an advantage if you are surfing beachbreaks, unless you can find one with sandbars in good condition. The winter storms tend to move the bars offshore, and the waves often close out, back off or have poor shape in general. Of course, if you are lucky and you know where to look, you might still find excellent surf in southwest France or Galicia. One thing is certain: it will be less crowded than in summer or autumn.
Local winds in southern areas can be tricky, particularly in late springtime. Afternoon sea breezes soon start to become a major factor, particularly since the sea is still relatively cold compared with the land. In addition to sea breezes, those northerly trades start to kick in along the Portuguese coast in April and May, which hampers the surf in many places. In Galicia, the trades tend to be more northeast than north, which is offshore at a few spots.
In southern areas, just like most places, there is a delay before sea temperatures catch up with land temperatures. In the far corner of the Bay of Biscay, where the sea is surrounded by the land masses of France and Spain, the sea warms up fairly quickly in springtime.
But on the more exposed coasts of Portugal and northwest Spain, where the sea temperature is influenced more by ocean currents and coastal upwelling (see my article HERE), the sea warms up more slowly.
Sometimes, episodic upwelling events from sudden blasts of north or north-easterlies tend to impede the seasonal warming of the water in Galicia and Portugal, making springtime temperatures unpredictable.
In summary, to find good surf in Europe in springtime is not as straightforward as, say, in the autumn. But that’s not to say you might not be lucky. If you don’t mind cold water, you might find some clean, long-period swells in Ireland and Scotland; and if do your homework and find out where the banks are good, you might score some epic beachbreak surf in France or Galicia.
Cover shot by Damian Davila