Niton on the Isle of Wight offered a feast of cross-shore wavesailing to gorge on just before Christmas. John Carter reports..
(Originally published in the March edition of Windsurf)
Words & Photos John Carter
Much as I like travelling, it feels right to be back home amongst family and friends during winter. It wasn’t all feet up though, I was staying busy chasing down the best forecasts that hit UK shores and boy was there plenty to chase! After the scorching heat wave of summer 2018, the high pressure finally gave way to multiple low pressure systems and we were rewarded with some of the best windsurfing conditions for decades. During my time at home, I was lucky enough to score amazing sessions at Gwithian and Bigbury, but nothing had lined up for my home spots on the Isle of Wight.
I woke up on the morning of Friday 21st December with little expectation of any sessions at home until after the new year. It just felt like everybody had moved into Christmas mode and were not into travelling too far afield. The day before I had been into Offshore Sports in Shanklin, the local surf shop, to buy my dear wife an extra Christmas present on top of the one she had bought for herself and I had to pay for. I assumed Ross Williams had headed to Argentina to be with his wife, but Aaran Williams, (Ross’s brother) informed me that Ross had delayed his flight at the last minute and was home for a few more days. Anyways, peering out of the window at 7:15 a.m. I could see the trees lit by the full moon and waving around in the wind; BBC weather was calling for sunny skies and west winds all day. A quick check on xcweather.co.uk showed 12 feet on the channel buoy, pretty much the perfect forecast for Niton on the southern tip of the Isle of Wight. So I randomly sent a text to Ross with the simple message ‘Niton?’ Weirdly enough the next message on my phone was a WhatsApp from Timo Mullen with the exact same message – ‘Niton?’, quite a coincidence! Finally my phone bleeped one more time with a message from Jamie Hancock who had already made up his mind, the island looked promising and he was on his way. A few calls were exchanged, ferries booked and a ‘Wight Christmas’ rendezvous was all set up for
mid-morning at Niton.
By 10:30 a.m. I had a message from Ross to say that Niton was firing but the water was still too high and as soon as the tide would turn it would be game on. The only thing we had not checked was what type of tide it was and my brain had not registered the impact of the full moon I had woken up to earlier.
Obviously a massive factor on tides in the English Channel is the state of the moon. During full or new moons, which occur when the Earth, sun, and moon are nearly in alignment, we have spring tides where average tidal ranges are slightly larger and high water times are around noon on the south coast. Spring tides mean a much higher tide as well as a lower than normal outgoing tide, thus a bigger drain on all the water flooding out of the channel. I headed to Niton quite excited to be receiving this early ‘gift’ just a few days before Christmas but knowing the tides could yet spoil the party.
“ It was easily logo to mast high and with the forecast west winds, a perfect Niton combo. ”
Located right at the southern tip of the island, this magical bay off the beaten track is easily one of the best surfing and windsurfing spots on the island or the whole south coast for that matter. With a treacherous launch, rocky coastline and strong currents, it is not a place for the faint-hearted and most local windsurfers steer well clear. The access is down a narrow unmade track which winds its way down the hill into a small car park which only accommodates about ten vehicles at a squeeze. The bright white St Catherine’s light house built in 1838 sits ominously on the headland upwind of the break, while a small grassy area known as Castlehaven is host to six caravans which are available to rent most of the year round. There are several benches and a small cafe on the grass overlooking the break and it is kind of the Isle of Wight’s answer to Ho’okipa’s hill in terms of a viewing platform. Personally it is one of my favourite spots in many ways, due to its rugged beauty, relaxing atmosphere and of course for the awesome waves. When you travel all year round it is one of those places where you can always rock up to and the same old familiar faces will be out on the water. Once the boys have finished their surf or windsurf sessions it is the norm to hang out for a while up by the benches to talk story and keep an eye on the action.
Jamie and Ross were already rigging when I arrived, plus Timo had messaged he was on the boat over and would be on the water by midday; all the stars were lining up perfectly! Coming down the winding track down to the car park I had already clocked the solid swell lines working their way down the headland from the lighthouse. Through my past experience I knew it was easily logo to mast high and with the forecast west winds, a perfect Niton combo. So from waking up with absolutely no plan of action we were now on for a solid session at my favourite spot on the island just a few days before Christmas. In the car park Ross was busy screwing straps into three different Tabou boards and also had three GA sail bags under his arms so he would be rigged and ready for every eventuality. I’ve noticed over the years that preparation is his style. He kind of likes to take his time prior to sailing and thus have plenty of combos ready to go on the beach rather than have to scrabble around if the wind drops and possibly miss the best of the session.
Meanwhile before we had hit the water Jamie had managed to lose his dog Fergus, my nemesis from a previous trip to Cornwall! One minute the mutt was happily wandering around the car park and the next he had bolted out into the fields and totally disappeared. Normally this situation would not be too much of a worry, but with the spring high tide crashing right over the rocks and a very strong current, if the dog somehow ended in the water, the potential consequences were dire. A very nervy 40 minutes passed while we searched the vicinity high and low before that darn dog suddenly appeared out of the undergrowth and gave me his best canine Christmas snarl as a greeting. With the dog now safely locked in Jamie’s van and Jamie looking extremely relieved, we were now all clear for action.
It never feels very windy from the shore at Niton, but once Ross, who was first out, hit the water he looked plenty powered on his 4.4m, flying straight out from the rocks into a perfect push loop off a downwind ramp. On an incoming tide Niton has a shed load of current and can be quite choppy but once the tide turns and all the water is racing out of the channel the break can be really clean within a matter of minutes. The waves may not look too heavy at Niton, but they do pack a punch – be prepared for lots of swimming if you ever come to visit! Within an hour, Timo had made the mad dash across the island from Cowes and wasted no time rigging to join both Ross and Jamie on the water for the festive activities. With the sun blazing and solid sets the first hour was pretty epic Niton. Santa had certainly come early for the Motley Crew and the boys were unwrapping their salt water presents like excited children, grabbing every wave possible. Big wave 360’s were on the menu as well as vertical hits and some lofty jumps.
The only fly in the ointment, if any, was the effect of a spring tide on the size of the swell, especially where we were located at the tip of the island. The conditions were still firing as the tide raced out, but you could tell the swell was fighting against it. The waves were still at least half-mast and nice and clean, but without ‘springs’ pulling the water out of the channel we would have had mast high all day. Either way the boys had still scored, especially for an impromptu last minute session. 4.4m sails and mild temperatures all gift wrapped with wall to wall sunshine – nobody was complaining.
For once I wasn’t the one dealing with ferries and all that travel malarkey and could enjoy the day without the stress of travelling. As soon as the session was over, word soon spread that the local surfers and windsurfers had organized a Christmas drinks gathering in Shanklin en-route home. Timo had two hours to spare before his ferry so we thought it would be rude not to show our faces for one quick pint. Funnily enough the special ale on tap was called ‘Wight Christmas’, which was exactly the possible article title I had been thinking of when this plan started to unfold. A pint of ‘Wight Christmas’ was the perfect way to end the day for me and although I was tempted to drive home, drop the car off and join the lads for the rest of the evening’s shenanigans, I decided I was happy enough as it was and steered clear of the evening mayhem! It’s true what they say, there’s no place like home!