It's really no secret that winter-time is when Europe comes alive. Those frosty swells peel into coastlines and early morning, pre-light surfs become the norm. But sometimes the epic surf in both northern and southern Europe can be like chalk and cheese.
Winter is the time of year when the difference between the amount of solar radiation reaching the pole, and that reaching the equator, is at its maximum. The resulting north-south temperature difference sets up circulation patterns in the atmosphere that lead to weather systems, storms and, of course, surf. Therefore, winter equals stronger atmospheric circulation, bigger storms and more surf.
In the North Atlantic, low pressures typically develop between Newfoundland and Greenland. They deepen as they move east-northeast, usually making landfall somewhere in the northwest of Europe. Here, on exposed coastlines such as western Ireland, the swells generated by these storms typically arrive at the same time as the storm itself.
But further south in the Bay of Biscay and beyond, the swells can arrive much cleaner, unaffected by the winds that generated them. At times, this difference can be very marked, with a distinct cut-off point. Sometimes you can get really stormy onshore conditions north of the English Channel; while not far south of here you can get clean, long-period swells with calm winds or light offshores.
In the most exposed areas of the northwest, such as western Ireland, (see charts HERE) swells are generated so close to the coast that they are given no opportunity to disperse and clean up as they track across the ocean. A lot of the time you might be surfing smaller waves at spots that face away from the main swell direction.
With the storms coming so close, local wind conditions in the exposed northwest are a big factor with gale-force winds often swinging from onshore to offshore and back again in the space of a couple of hours. This can make it very difficult to be in the right place at the right time, and even if the wind is offshore, it might be nightmarishly strong.
Having said all that, in the exposed north you can still score epic waves in winter. The trick is to have plenty of local knowledge and be constantly monitoring the conditions ready for that window of opportunity.
Further south in Cornwall, Wales and northern France, and right up there in northern Scotland and around into the North Sea, the coastline is less exposed. Here, winter is the time when spots that lay dormant for most of the year come alive – but often coinciding with strong winds and frigid conditions. Again, if you have local knowledge and a lot of patience, you can score world-class waves in some of these places in winter.
In southern areas, winter can be a different story altogether. If the North Atlantic is ‘behaving itself’ and low pressures are tracking across the north, there will likely be an anticyclone stretching across from the Azores to southern Europe.
While Britain and Ireland are being blasted with storm-force winds and ragged surf, Spain, Portugal and Morocco are getting clean, long-period swell with light offshore winds. The many reef and pointbreaks in these areas need larger, long-period swells of winter before they start to come into their own. And, of course, if you like big waves, Nazaré isn’t the only place. (bonus; bookmarks this page HERE to watch the behemoth's live webcam).
Areas such as the beachbreaks of southwest France, on the other hand, don’t do quite as well. With 300km of straight, west-facing beach, there is virtually nowhere to escape to when it gets big. And the world-class rivermouths in northern Spain, with their delicate sandbars, tend to become worn out by the constant hammering of mid-winter swells.
In summary, winter is generally a great time to find good surf in Europe. If you don’t want to complicate matters, head for southern areas like northern Spain, Portugal or Morocco where you’ll get consistent long-period swells hitting reefs, points and the odd big-wave beachbreak. Further north, in Ireland or Scotland, or even Iceland or Norway, things are very different in winter, but there are still epic waves to be found, if you know where and when to look.