Surfing is taking Cornwall by storm - and it's big business, too

The Telegraph, 29 July 2005

Alex Wade travels to Newquay for 'Europe's largest lifestyle festival'

Next week (1 to 7 August) sees the return of the Rip Curl Boardmasters to Newquay’s Fistral beach.  The annual jamboree is the highlight of the UK surfing scene, showcasing some of the best surfers in the world.  They will be competing for a prize pool worth $125,000, as well as qualifying points for the Association of Surfing Professionals’ World Tour.  Last year’s event was attended by a total crowd of over 130,000, and, with Radio 1 present for this year’s competition, the organisers expect daily crowds of up to 20,000.   It is all a far cry from the early days of surfing in Cornwall, whose Atlantic swells were surfed only by a hardy few – usually ‘soul-surfers’ whose raison d’etre was the desire to escape the commercial grind.

Now, the surfing zeitgeist is worth a small fortune to Cornwall.  For many years a backwater with only an abandoned tin mining industry to claim as its own, Cornwall is now a hip, trendy place, with more and more people gravitating to surfing and its spin-off sports, such as windsurfing, kitesurfing and waveski riding.  Cool restaurants and bars are springing up, healthy tans predominate, roof-racks labour under the weight of boards, and all the while super-fit dudes and ultra-trim babes slink along the beaches in a most un-British manner.  True, some of them are Australians, who seem peculiarly fond of Cornwall, but there is no doubt that Britain’s most westerly county is different, not merely from its former self but from the rest of the country.

That difference is very clear at the Rip Curl Boardmasters, now 20 years old and heralded as ‘Europe’s largest free lifestyle festival.’  Newquay’s streets – festooned with amusement arcades, ice cream parlours and surf shops in equal measure – will be thronged with people heading for Fistral beach, where the surfing is not the only show in town.  Leading surfwear manufacturer Vans is sponsoring a $20,000 skateboarding competition, which will be attended by skaters from Brazil, America and Australia as well as the U.K.  There will be BMX demos for the duration of the contest, as well as a motocross event (last year lauded as one of the most breathtaking spectacles ever seen at Fistral) and, at the end of the week, there is the ‘Nokia Unleashed Music festival,’ featuring surfers’ favourites Donovan Frankenreiter, James Blunt and Razorlight.

British professional skateboarder Pete King sums up the vibe:  “The Boardmasters is my favourite event.  It’s got a great ramp in a great location, the atmosphere is really friendly and relaxed and the Foster’s Beer Tent is right there.  It’s the whole package, friends can come down and we can all hang out. From a rider’s point of view it’s the best and everyone leaves happy.”

Those not convinced by King’s skater-speak can turn to a more traditional form of entertainment - the ‘Boardmasters’ Bikini Babes’ contest.  The winning babe gets a modelling contract, and no one seems to have any qualms with this less politically correct element of the ‘free lifestyle.’  No wonder, because when all is said and done the Rip Curl is good business for Restormel Borough Council, it is good business for surfing’s corporate sponsors, and it is good business for Cornwall.  Here, then, is a guide to surfing – the UK’s fastest-growing sport – in Cornwall.

Board Business

Peter ‘Chops’ Lascelles has been shaping surfboards in Cornwall for 30 years.  A solid, tanned man, he was born in Australia and grew up surfing on the sunshine coast of Queensland, where he won the state title in 1965.  Lascelles was a contemporary of many surfing legends, including the great Australian world champion Nat Young, but settled in the village of St Agnes – a few miles west of Newquay – in 1970s.  “On one surf trip to Morocco I was told that there was great surf in Cornwall,” he says.  “I came over and fell in love with the place.  When the weather’s good it’s just about the prettiest place in the world.” 

Lascelles runs Beachbeat Surfboards in St Agnes, selling between 800 and 1,000 boards a year.  He estimates that he must have shaped over 20,000 boards in his career, and has seen first-hand how surfing has developed in Cornwall.  “St Agnes had a surf scene back in the seventies and produced a number of British and English champions” (one of whom, he modestly neglects to add, was Lascelles himself).  “Newquay came on hugely in the eighties and now places like Croyde in North Devon and the surfers in South Wales have caught up.  Surfing in Britain as a whole is booming.” 

The boom is down to a major push from companies such as Rip Curl, O’Neill and Quicksilver, who long ago identified the importance of the British market.  Lascelles also credits technology as playing its part in the surfing boom:  “The wetsuit has changed the face of British culture.  In the seventies, the beach was almost a novelty, with only a few people going in the water.  Now it’s a way of life.  Anyone can put on a wetsuit and suddenly the sea doesn’t seem so forbidding.” 

If surfing is a way of life, it is increasingly one that is as commercially viable as it is romantically appealing.  Lascelles is proud of being a year-round employer in St Agnes.  Beachbeat – and Laminations, the shaping side of his business – employ a minimum of seven people, rising to 11 in season.  “For a long time I’ve been one of the biggest employers locally,” says Lascelles.  This is true of many surf shops and shaping factories in Cornwall.  A recent report commissioned by Cornish Enterprise found that surfing is worth up to £42m annually to the county, while the British Surfing Association (BSA) estimates that there are 1,000,000 surfers nationwide and 150 surfing-related businesses in Cornwall alone.  The BSA published research in 2001 indicating an annual turnover of £200m - a figure up by 25% over the preceding two years – in an industry comprised largely of employers of the size of Beachbeat.  This makes for beach life being a wealthy, as well as a healthy, way of life.

Outdoor Types

The BSA has its home on Fistral beach and there Barrie Hall, its head coach, runs surfing classes from Easter to mid-November.  Hall is English but has the deep tan of the archetypal surfer.  He exudes healthiness and is surrounded by alarmingly fit protégés, who put newcomers through their paces all day with just a short break for lunch.  Hall, who has surfed for 20 years, says that “Newquay is the epicentre of British surfing,” and says that on its day, Fistral provides “as good a beachbreak as just about anywhere in the world.” 

A couple of miles north-east from Newquay, on the golden sands of Watergate Bay, is the Extreme Academy, a maritime playground centre offering everything from surfing to mountain boarding and kitesurfing.  One of its franchisees is another Australian émigré, Patrick Sweeney, who runs West Coast Surfari from the beach. 

Like Hall, Sweeney looks so healthy that he is a walking advert for the benefits of surfing.  He is a leathery man with a boundless zeal and an extraordinary physique – not tall but with a super-strong upper body, honed by years of paddling out through surf.  He cites his age as ‘unknown’ and, like Chops Lascelles, fell in love with Cornwall over 20 years ago.  He says that his surf classes are filled with all manner of people.  “We get beginners who want to learn to surf and older guys coming back into the sport.  Women are really taking to surfing, too.  There’s always been a strong underground scene in surfing but its rise in popularity is phenomenal.” 

Not Macho

Cornish breaks such as Fistral and Watergate are as likely to be filled with female surfers as men, with women accounting for 20% of newcomers to surfing.  “There are aggressive, powerful surfers [on the world tour],” says Kai Stearns, editor of SG: Snow Surf Skate Girl Magazine.  “They’re not just trying to surf as well as the guys – they’re getting inspiration from other women now.”  Hall, Lascelles and Sweeney have all noted the emergence of women in the line-up (the term used by surfers to denote the area where they wait for waves), and there is now a dedicated British surfing magazine for women, Surfgirl, published by Orca Publications in Newquay.  Hall says that the film Blue Crush has helped drive interest in surfing among women, though another surfer at Fistral had a more unreconstructed view:  “The big corporates know that women love to spend money on clothes.  So they’ve made a big marketing push – which is working.”

Dress Code

On the beach, anything goes.  Surfers are athletic types who are not afraid of showing off their bodies, so for the men, expect board shorts and nothing else (so long as it’s sunny), while the women – at least in surf mag adverts - tend to favour bikinis and thongs.  In reality, this is Britain – so when surfing flesh is covered by wetsuits.  Apres-surf wear, in bars and restaurants, is strictly informal.

Cars

As surfing attracts ever-increasing numbers of metropolitan wannabes, expect to see a 4x4s, Subarus, Volvo and Audi estates clogging up the A30 to Newquay – as much as the all-time surfers’ classic, the VW Camper Van.

Eating and Drinking

Newquay and many other towns in Cornwall are full of fish and chip shops but, seemingly, little else by way of dining options.  Indeed, for a long time Cornwall’s culinary ambition appeared to linger at the level of the humble pasty.  All that is changing thanks to the surfing boom.  There are now quality restaurants with stunning sea views at many beaches.  One of the hippest is The Beach, at Sennen Cove (01736 871191), a new and airy venture that serves a range of Mediterranean food in relaxed, unpretentious surroundings.  For a more traditional – but very fine - Cornish dining experience The Driftwood Spars (01872 552428) in St Agnes is a good bet, while in the more yatchy atmosphere of Padstow there is Rick Stein’s excellent café (01841 532777).  

Emblematic of the new beach culture is the beach hut and bistro at the Extreme Academy and the brasserie in the surfer-friendly, eponymous hotel, The Watergate Bay (01637 860543).  Informality, superb views and good food prevail and Will Ashworth, the managing director of both the Academy and the hotel, has no doubt that surfing is key to his business: “The increase in the popularity of surfing is staggering.  The Extreme Academy’s Surf School teaches five times as many students as it did ten years ago and the proportion of female surfers has risen from 10% of customers to 40%.  Here in the summer there can often be as many as 250 surfers in the water at one time – both locals and visitors alike.  Surfing has radically changed Cornwall’s leisure industry.”

In The Water

In the line-up at Watergate, a few days before the Rip Curl Boardmasters, are surfers Dan Harris and Ashleigh Bennetts.  The two surfers coax decent rides out of the small surf, and both live the lifestyle to the full.  Harris prefers to ride longer boards which allow ‘soul-surfing’ moves rather than short boards, which require an explosive style and consistent, powerful surf.  At 26, he teaches surfing in the summer, and earns money to travel and surf in the winter.  Bennetts says she has “been surfing so long I can’t remember when I started.”  Both are looking forward to the Rip Curl event, which will see top international surfers such as last year’s Brazilian winner Renato Galvao as well as Australian stars Luke Munro and Zane Harrison.  But the question on many surfers’ minds is: will there be any waves?

Cornwall has world-class waves – but they do not usually appear in August.  Commerciality dictates that the Rip Curl is held now, when the highest number of people will be on the beach.  Unfortunately, the timing has in the past led to the world’s top surfers battling it out in conditions that they would not normally get out of bed for.  But as Chris Power, the editor of Britain’s best-selling surf magazine, Carve, says:  “We have had classic summer swells for the last two years at the Rip Curl.  If we get one this year, people will see surfing as it really is.  It is, quite simply, the best sport on earth.”  

See www.ripcurlboardmasters.com for information on the event.