Winter blasts

Catching the waves: Weather forecasts just as important as boards, wax and wet suits.

Published March 3, 2006

For Florida surfers, summer is a swell time.

Hurricanes often veer toward the coastline, sending a moving mountain of water that converges onto the shore. While most people are boarding up windows, surfers are waxing boards, salivating at the prospect of good-size waves in the Gulf of Mexicos normally tame waters.

The summer, though, is not always the best time.

Peak season for surfing here usually occurs in the winter, when there are more consistent waves. Cold fronts start sending waves around the first of November and continue through March.

The past two summers were particularly unusual because of the amount of hurricanes, said Charlie Paxton, forecaster with the National Weather Service in Ruskin. In the winter, we usually get more surf.

The key to catching a winter swell is keeping an eye on the weather report. A strong low-pressure system creates wind, and wind creates waves. Surfers can expect the average winter to produce 10 to 20 wind-driven cold fronts, and each one may kick up two to three days of rideable waves.

Theres strong north-to-northwest winds from cold fronts that usually produce a choppy wave, Paxton said. The next day theres an easterly component to the wind, which will smooth the wave. After that, they start to dissipate.

In the winter, the water temperature usually ranges from 55 to 65 degrees, and during a cold front, the air temperature often is colder.

Still, the thrill of surfing offsets Mother Natures chill, especially with the introduction of warmer, thinner wet suits that have allowed the die-hard to persevere in the bone-chilling months. Nowadays, there are as many as 40 regulars on the beach on a winter morning.

One day I counted about 250 surfers out at Sunset Beach, said Lenny Stamos of Lennys Surf Shop at St. Pete Beach. Its kind of the in thing to do right now and more people are catching on to the lifestyle. I think its great.