Making waves

The Independent, Media, 28 November 2005

Surfing is no longer a minority sport for enthusiastic amateurs – it’s big business, and with six new titles to cater for a growing audience, the media is catching up with the trend.  Alex wade surfs the zeitgeist.

Chris Power, editor of Carve magazine, has a glint in his eye as he scrutinises the weather maps.  Outside, the streets may be damp and deserted, but Power and his colleagues in the office of Newquay’s Orca Publications have checked the forecast and know that yet another epic autumn swell is about to hit the west coast of Britain.  For the UK’s vibrant surfing press, the past three months have been a non-stop whirl of activity – as, indeed, is the case every year.

“The perception of surfing in the UK is that it is a summer sport,” says Power.  “The nationals run articles on surfing in July and August, usually concentrating on Cornwall and Devon.  The irony is that the best waves arrive between September and December.”

The annual autumnal swell means that the UK’s surfing media go into overdrive.  While in America photographers have been risking life and limb (not to mention arrest) to record the extraordinary devastation wrought by hurricanes Katrina, Rita et al, those same storm systems have made for UK surfing perfection.  After a flat summer, surf spots have, as Power puts it, “been going off.  Well-known breaks all the way from Cornwall to Ireland have been firing, and so have a number of secret spots.  We have to make sure we’re there to record the action.”

Surfing in the UK is now a year-round sport supporting six dedicated magazines.  As Rob Barber, editor of ThreeSixty (an Orca title devoted to surfing’s forebear, bodyboarding), says:  “Surfing is everywhere now.  Ten years ago you’d have been told you were mad if you’d said the sport had enough room for six titles.”  In Cornwall alone, surfing has been estimated to be worth £42m annually, and even David Beckham is reputed to be a convert (to the displeasure of Real Madrid, who have apparently said he will have to wait until the end of his career before taking to a surfboard again).

Women are believed to account for at least 20% of newcomers to surfing.  The burgeoning female surfing community supports Orca’s third title, Surfgirl, edited by Louise Searle and first published in 2002.  “We come out four times a year, packaged with Carve,” says Searle, “but I can see Surfgirl coming out as a stand-alone title.  We have to compete with other women’s magazines and so are more fashion-based than the other surf mags, but women do surf in the winter, too, and I think the demand for more issues will be there soon.” 

Carve is published eight times a year, and, says Power, has a readership of 30,000.  The magazine has trebled in size since its first issue of Spring, 1994, in which Power’s editorial set out a mantra from which he has not departed:  “Our number one aim is to get you stoked, just itching to go surfing.”  As such, Carve has a travel-magazine feel and features its fair share of overseas surf locations – the quintessential turquoise tubes, curling white-water lips and clear skies that are guaranteed to inspire its mainly late-teen to late-20s readers. 

Steve Bough, the editor of Wavelength, Britain’s longest-running surf magazine, takes an avowedly more British angle.  Known as ‘The Length’ to its cognoscenti and with a readership of 20,000, Wavelength first appeared in 1981 and has just celebrated its 150th anniversary.  “We try to focus on British surfers and British waves,” says Bough, whose magazine is published 11 times a year (with a combined January/February issue) by Cornwall & Devon Media.  Bough, like Power, surfs regularly.  “All our staff, including freelancers, surf,” he says, adding that the past three months have been frantic.  “We have a network of people all over the UK and Ireland, on standby to get pictures of the best waves and stories of who surfed where and when.  It’s the busiest time of year to be editing.”

Wavelength’s 150th issue came out in November and features a collage of images of British surfing that reveals a subculture heading ever more rapidly to the mainstream.  From the days when surfing was practised by a hard-core of amateurs, sans corporate sponsorship and media exposure, the sport is now something from which many people all over Britain make their living. The British Surfing Association (BSA) estimates that there are 1,000,000 surfers nationwide and 150 surfing-related businesses in Cornwall alone.  In Russell Winter, Britain boasts the first professional surfer from Europe to qualify for the international World Championship Tour, while our own British Professional Surfing Association (BPSA) tour draws crowds at beaches from Newquay and Croyde in the south-west all the way to Thurso at the tip of Scotland. 

Anyone who doubts that surfing has arrived need only travel to the pretty Cornish village of St Agnes.  There, hanging in pride of place in the local art gallery, is a surfboard of notably eclectic hue.  It is one of many shaped by local shaper Peter ‘Chops’ Lascelles but designed by Damien Hirst. 

“Surfing is expanding in every direction,” says Alex Dick-Read, editor of The Surfer’s Path, a Permanent Publishing title printed on 100% recyclable paper.  “The standard of UK surfers keeps going up, and more and more people are taking to the water.”  The demand means that there is room for six issues per year of The Surfer’s Path, a reflective, mature take on international surfing which is also published in the U.S.  Dick-Read estimates its UK readership at 18,000 with US readers accounting for another 20,000.  Britain’s other surf magazine is Pitpilot – the new kid on the block with a British emphasis and an underground feel. 

The surf mags are here to stay, and, it seems, set comfortably for more growth.  But some things will never change.  As Alex Conrad of Sprout Media, a Cornish film production company specialising in surfing and other extreme sports, says:  “In the winter big swells wrap into spots hidden from the summer tourists.  If you’re lucky and know where to look you can find surfing paradise.  But it is freezing.”