Autumn in Europe can be the best time of year, especially if you like clean, medium-sized swells with offshore winds and good sandbars.
Autumn is the time when the northern hemisphere starts to tilt away from the Sun; the temperature at the North Pole starts to fall, and the atmospheric circulation patterns over the North Atlantic start to intensify.
Slowly but surely, slack pressure gradients and weak Atlantic storms give way to a strong jet stream and large, fast-moving low pressures. Typically, these storms develop off the northeast coast of North America and deepen as they cross the northern Atlantic and crash their way into Britain and Ireland. But autumn can also bring swells from ex-hurricanes that spin off from the Gulf of Mexico into the open Atlantic and become entrained in the jet stream.
Autumn, just like spring, is a transition period and is therefore less predictable than summer or winter. In fact you can get anything from big, winter-like swells to flat, summer-like conditions in November.
In northern and mid areas such as Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall, autumn can be when the best combination of surf and local conditions come together. Even though the waves are generally smaller than in winter, other factors make them more surfable. In really exposed places like western Ireland, the biggest surfable waves of the year can sometimes occur in autumn. So often in winter you get huge, long-period swells impossibly hampered by onshore winds or old swells hanging around from previous days which tend to interfere with a new swell.
In addition to ‘normal’ swells, autumn is the time when ex-hurricanes from the Gulf of Mexico arc their way back across the Atlantic and becoming reanimated into mid-latitude storms. The overlap between the water still being relatively warm and the jetstream starting to gain momentum means that hurricanes can drift out into the open Atlantic and be picked up by the westerly flow. These systems can produce some of the best surf of the year, particularly on southwest-facing coasts such as Cornwall and southern Ireland.
Autumn wind patterns in northern and mid areas are better than winter, but quickly deteriorate as the season wears on. Later in the season, the storms begin to pass closer and conditions change more rapidly; so you have to start carefully choosing your windows of opportunity, hoping that the swell, tide and light coincide with a slack period in the winds.
In southern areas, namely southwest France, Spain and Portugal, the swells that arrive in autumn can still be a bit too small to get the big-wave reefs firing. Nevertheless, it can be the best time of year for rivermouth spots such as Mundaka. They don’t quite need as much swell as the reefs to get going, plus the sandbar is usually in its best shape around this time of year. The extended period of small surf during summer allows the bar to gradually mould itself into a single, perfect mound, so the first swells are usually the best.
The beachbreaks of southwest France also thrive on autumn conditions. Small-to-medium swells are perfect for those epic sandbar set-ups, which are, like the rivermouths, often at their best shape during late summer and early autumn.
Autumn wind conditions are typically much better than summer in southern areas. While the lows themselves are not coming close enough yet to affect these areas, sea breezes are now much lighter than they were in summer because the land and sea temperatures are closer to each other. Also, with chilly night-time land temperatures, those morning offshores are lasting longer. In Portugal, the nortada – that continuously blows out the surf in summer – dies down as the Iberian Peninsula cools. Here glassy conditions or light offshores are now becoming more commonplace.
Autumn water temperatures in southern areas are quite similar to summer ones, with only a gradual, delayed cooling as the Sun’s input begins to decrease. In Galicia and Portugal, upwelling from those tradewinds kept the water pretty cold all summer. In fact, if the trades switch off for the first time in autumn, you might even notice the water warming up slightly.
Cover shot, Rodrigo Koxa at Nazare by Helio Antonio