In the Thaw

| posted on September 04, 2012

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

With a certain arrogance, out it came:

“Why would anyone go on a trip to surf in cold water?”

I held my tongue. I wanted to respond to this comment badly, but decided that in the end it would be better to just keep quiet. This major surf industry leader had no idea—no clue—I thought to myself, and realized we’d all be better off if he just kept thinking that his annual Fiji trip was killing it beyond reproach, and leave it at that.

The hypocrisy in this thought process, of course, is that I had developed my own smugness in my opposing view. But you can’t really blame me—I was just coming off two epic cold-water surf trips, and was feeling pretty damn self-assured.

After having the opportunity to do both warm and cool water trips, I had recently come to the conclusion that for my own surfing, I preferred the coldwater version. On those particular trips I had discovered a longer lasting, deeper satisfaction. A more profound stoke.

And then I came up with a theory as to why: it’s harder to feel euphoric when you’re sweaty.

Under further analysis, I reckoned that my higher stoke level on cooler water surf trips had something to do with the thawing process after a session. That there’s nothing on earth like scoring epic uncrowded waves with friends, putting on warm clothes, cranking the car heater, and then sitting in a wind-protected backyard with the sun warming your face.


If you’re not convinced, here’s another scenario: You’re in Ireland, and just surfed a perfect, draining, overhead left slab/point for 5 hours with two friends and a handful of friendly locals. You give lobster mitten ‘high-twos’ all around, don the parka and the beanie, and get into a warm car. You then stop at a pub and the friendly bartender offers you a frothy beverage. As you sit by a roaring fire, you pour the sweet creaminess of a Guinness straight down your gullet into an empty stomach.

Case dismissed.

This prolonged, post-coldwater euphoria is good news because it gives all of us an opportunity to spread out a little. To not all go as single migrating sheep-herd to the Mentawais or Tavarua or Costa Rica.

To explore cooler horizons.

Ireland. Photo: Gilley

Joe Curren, South Island, New Zealand. Photo: Gilley

Canada. Photo: Gilley

Scotland. Photo: Gilley

North Island, New Zealand. Photo: Gilley

Colin Smith, Western Australia. Photo: Gilley

  • Brian Feulner

    I learned to surf in the cooler waters of Northern California and Oregon. Last year, I took a trip to Barbados to surf soup bowl and warm water for once! It was a great time with an amazing break but it just didn’t have the same fulfillment as surfing alone with a 6/5 and a warm fire waiting your return in the PNW forest.

  • Monika Mitchell

    Thanks for that excellent article! I’ve been to Ireland on a surf trip and loved every word u mentioned…..and loved to reminisce! Check out Portugal sometime 😀

  • dash

    Agreed! If onshore is the new offshore, are icy climates the new warm water? I think the cold water appeal also has to do with the lack of no-see-ums, diablito flies, jellyfish, sea lice, cockroaches and other scourges of the tropics.

  • Tim Gort

    As a Great Lakes surfer (Lake Superior) and having recently watched the epic short Fathoms Left to Fall (, I couldn’t agree more. While many still look at GL surfers as a bunch of freaks, the entire process of suiting up, surfing and then thawing out is one complete meditation. Nice piece!

  • John McGuirl

    It’s just ironic that “cold water” for you is guys in 3/2 with no boots or gloves. That would be a warm water trip for a lot of cold water surfers.

  • Shawn

    Great article. Cold water is the best and when you get out and get all warm and have a great meal, great beer everything feels good. Surfing in Northern Cali all i hear “it’s to cold” or “wetsuits are to restricting” I put mine on with my hood and rash guard and Party Board.

  • Andrew Mendez

    Having only surfed in cold water once and spending my other few trips in the beautiful water of Puerto Rico. I still treasure my one winter trip for the adventure I felt. The triumph of surviving the 50 degree water in 3/2’s. Not a triumph compared to the last issue surfing in as cold of water as physically possible. But the joy that I felt when I thought my ears might fall off was still one of the most memorable times of my life.

  • Ed Thomas

    The thing is, people in California and other so called ‘cold places’ call cold water anything you have to wear a 3/2 for. In South Island New Zealand, it’s 5mm gloves and boots, plus 5/4.

  • uncle frost

    Welcome to Lofoten,Norway cold water surfing at its purest.nothing beats jumping in the hottub,in your suit,watching the aurora borealis.

  • The Finn

    I agree. There is always a ritual involved before entering the cold breaks and a ritual that follows after. In cold waters you are more vulnerable and water just above freezing temperature makes you more humble.Those rituals and harsh conditions make cold water surfing a bit more spiritual. Surfed the european nordic and asian warm waters and found myself more stoked after a race against cold.

  • Eric Backhouse

    I’m from Victoria BC, and I’ll say it here and now: If you’re not wearing a hooded 6/5 with 5-7mm boots and gloves, it is not cold. You have pictures of people surfing without booties and gloves! That is WARM water.

    The waves here really suck and it rarely gets offshore, so don’t come to Canada to surf, please. Go to Whistler and Snowboard like Lopez did.

  • Woody

    There are other advantages to cold water as well:
    1.) No bruised sternum
    2.) No inner thigh rashes, leg rashes or chest rashes
    3.) No skinned or sunburned knee caps
    4.) Suit helps you float when you get wasted in big waves and lose your board

    I actually prefer surfing the semi-cold waters of SoCal to most other places.

  • grom

    Check out for more cold water exploration.

  • Jeff McFarland

    I live in the Bay Area and wear a 4/3 all year-most of the time with booties. There are several days a winter where I long for a 5/4 or 5/4/3, but the cold water is fine by me.

    That said, there is nothing like the freedom of surfing in boardshorts. Every trip I take to warm water destinations, I’m amazed at how much less dedication surfing requires there…you can get out of the car, surf for an hour, and be back to work in 10 minutes, no gearing up or down.

    Maybe if I lived in the tropics I would feel differently.

  • WaterWays Surf Travel

    Great photos! New Zealand and Ireland are great cold water surf destinations! People have referred to Ireland as the “cold water Indonesia”.

  • Dan

    Born and raised in cold water waves (i.e. 6mm hooded wetsuit, gloves and boots), I live the cold water dream day in day out.
    Yeah, if you’re lucky enough to show up and score a swell with offshores and maybe some sunshine then cold water surfing is all great, but sit through 2 months of strong icy onshores and rain and you’ll think again.
    Give me warm water anyday, like somewhere I can wear a 3/2 and 3mm boots!

  • anon

    North Island NZ rolling stones?

  • Bad boy bubby

    West oz aint a cold water spot or a warm water spot so you can take the nth point shot down.

  • Stan Chew

    Try this…surf the point breaks in New Hampshire for say…30 years straight. Then move to Bocas Del Toro and surf everyday. I’ll take the sweat with fond memories of the Granite State and Nova Scotia to cool me down.



  • Daniel Cerqueira

    I grew up in NE Brazil surfing warm waster year round and will second Rob Gilley’s opinion! There is nothing more soulful and satifying then getting up early on a winter morning when it’s foggy and 8ft, with the offshores blowing. Green barrels spinning down the uncrowded sandbar, not one tourist or surf school in sight.
    Brew a cup of Yerba Mate and make a fresh baggette with real butter. Go out for a 2 hr session in a flexible 4/3 with integrated hood, boots and gloves. Come in stoked and go to the pizza buffet with the boys…
    Those are my rituals now that I live on the East Coast of the U.S. Call me crazy but I love it..Did I adapt to my new environement or just see the light?

  • Eon Trengle

    Its spring where I live and I can actually see snow falling as i look out my window now – can’t wait to hit the dawny tomoro morning! Theres a certain serene calm that comes to me when its a solid swell, 30 knot offshore and the sleet stings my eyes. It’s all I could think about while i was crowd dodging in sweaty indonesia. Deepest stoke i’ve had is freezing cold surfs with just mates, all smiling ear to ear about how lucky we are.

  • jim widmer

    Glad I found this spot. I will recommend to my friends, and the next up-commer LD-50 (lethal dose 50 percent median hip hop) . If you have the thought, he has the rhyme.
    I don’t board, just swim and sail offshore. Atlantic and Med are places where funny things happen. Swim or kayak, sail or float, passion to those who can be serene in a tempest.

  • jeff browning

    Best surf trip in my life was in Ireland. Caught some great waves (solid brown barrels in Pullaheeny) and met a LOT of great people. No scabby nipples there! And that creamy Guinness, you nailed it. Truth is, any time you can get away and concentrate on surfing, friends and fun, it’s good. We are all lucky to love this amazing sport. It’s the best thing ever, but don’t tell anyone else…. let’s keep it between us.