Surf’s up in Cook Country

The Independent on Sunday, Travel, 15 January 2006

Kelly Slater, seven-time Association of Surfing Professionals World Champion, wants to surf there.  So does Tom Curren, one of his predecessors and himself a three-time title-holder.  Many others among the surfing cognoscenti have heard of the area’s reeling lefts and awesome, walling rights.  But for once, the bronzed demi-gods of international surfing are not setting their sights on an unexplored, mystical Polynesian island.  They are planning a trip to the less fabled realm of north-east England.  In winter.

The coastline near the industrial monoliths of Newcastle and Middlesborough is home to perhaps the best waves in Britain.  Granted, the waves come in winter, but there is a satisfying resonance to the north-east’s emergence on the surfing map, given that the area sells itself as ‘Captain Cook country.’  Cook was born in Marton, near Middlesborough, and his third voyage proved to be that in which Europe met surfing.  Britain’s most famous maritime explorer found his ship Discovery forced to return to Hawaii’s Kealakekua Bay for repairs in February 1779.  Relations had been cordial with the Hawaiians - who, on his first visit the previous month, welcomed Cook as the personification of a local god – but second time around his appearance was less miraculous.  A dispute escalated, and Cook and four of his marines were killed.

Cook’s journals were published in 1784, with that of the third voyage completed by Lieutenant James King.  Surfing was described for the first time in writing, with King marvelling at “the boldness and address, with which [the Hawaiians] perform these difficult and dangerous manoeuvres.” 

Visitors to Captain Cook country have ample opportunity to marvel both at the art of surfing, as practised by expert local surfers, and the rich maritime history of the area.  What might appear less than propitious conditions – a hefty band of low pressure over Iceland, driving lines of North Sea swell onto the exposed reefs and points of the coast  – are precisely those which will draw surfers to the water, but dedicated landlubbers need only to park up at places such as Tynemouth and Saltburn-on-Sea to watch the action. Those tempted to paddle out and have a go themselves can avail themselves of the growing number of local surf schools.

“Surfing has always had a small but a dedicated following in the north-east,” says Tynemouth local and big wave surfer Jessie Davies, “but more and more people are getting into it.”  Davies’ belief was endorsed when over 5,000 spectators turned up in October to witness the O’Neill British Nationals in Tynemouth.  As Davies says: “The sport is booming in the UK, and people are starting to realise how good the waves in the north-east are.”  Those waves break on dramatic beaches of white sand such as Saltburn, or over the slate reefs and points up and down the coast, offering conditions suitable for beginners, intermediates and experts.  The region is dotted with ruined castles, whose stark silhouettes, illumined by a wintry sun, add to the sense of surfing in one of the world’s more dramatic locations.

Gary Rogers has run Saltburn-on-Sea’s surf shop, in front of the pier, with another local surfer, Nick Noble, since 1990.  A highly-regarded surfer, like Davies he coaches beginners, and says that women are playing a huge part in the surfing boom: “There are as many women taking up surfing as men, and though a few years ago we were regarded as aliens, people in the north-east have got used to surfers.  We’re part of the furniture now.”

Anyone doubting the vibrancy of the community to which Rogers refers should pay a visit to the Captain Cook birthplace museum in Stewart Park, Marton.  The museum hosts a year-round exhibition devoted to Cook’s life, and is neatly complemented by the British Surfing Museum (BSM), whose collection is on loan until June 2006.  Put together by Brighton surfer and journalist Peter Robinson, the BSM saw 30,000 visitors between March 2004 and September 2005, during its initial residency in Brighton.  The collection of memorabilia and surfboards is fascinating, from a beguiling 8’3 vee bottomed Tiki board from the 1960s - suitably bedecked in the prevailing flower-power imagery of the era – to Ray Martin’s paperback Surf Broad, a novel promising the “naked truth about the those who live only for the next big wave, a searing story of the free love, free sex, surfing generation!”

The modern-day surfers of Saltburn are also on display at Captain Cook’s birthplace museum, thanks to ‘Saltburn Surf,’ a show of photographs by Ian Forsyth.  From a group photograph of some 40 or so surfers, to an image of local Nathan Robinson flexing his muscles to reveal the word ‘Cove’ tattooed across his upper back (the Cove is a secret, highly-prized surf spot in the area), Forsyth’s fine pictures capture still points from the north-east surfing scene.  But for curator Phil Philo, pride of place belongs to an historic 18th century ‘Olo’ board on loan from the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Hawaii.  “It’s our first international loan,” says Philo, “and hopefully a way of getting the Captain Cook story across to a more popular audience.” 

Philo’s enthusiasm is understandable, given the pedigree of his (albeit temporary) acquisition.  “The board was used and owned by Hawaiian High Chief Abner Paki,” he explains.  “Only Hawaiian royalty would have ridden a board like this.  To think that it could even have been seen in action by Cook is incredible.”

A tour of Cook country can take in similarly thought-provoking sights.  A few miles further south, on the coast as the North York moors begin, is the port of Whitby, whose connotations with vampirism (Bram Stoker’s Dracula arrived from Transylvania in the town) are of less interest to north-east surfers than its wave which, on small swells, can break nicely on low to mid-tide with an offshore, south-westerly wind.  The Cook Memorial Museum in the building where Cook lodged as an apprentice seaman, and Whitby Abbey stands like a bedraggled sentinel above the surf, looking, to the north-west, to the tiny fishing village of Staithes.

There, in exquisitely preserved streets only accessible to visitors by foot, is the cottage in which Cook lived for 18 months from 1745.  It overlooks the harbour, and beyond, the raging North Sea.  It is difficult not to imagine that the young Cook must have gazed at the sea, dreaming of a life of exploration; perhaps, indeed, he even conjured an image of the waves that he later found in Hawaii.  The ship-building colossus that was the north-east of England may be no more, but, just possibly, Cook’s legacy lives on in the form of the modern surfing generation born and bred of his hometown and its environs. 

The Top Five Surf Spots in the UK

The Cove, Yorkshire.  Surfers have a code that means that secret spots remain secret.  The Cove is a cold and dangerous secret, but it is also a world-class wave.  Just ask Nathan Robinson and any of the north-east crew.  But don’t ask them where it is.

Thurso East, Scotland.  Long known as one of the best breaks in Europe, Thurso is a right-hander offering either a long wall of water or a fast, pitching tube-ride.  “To witness the beauty of a 10ft swell exploding onto the flat reef at the mouth of Thor’s River is to see the raw power of an Artic storm condensed into a huge, perfect barrel,” say Chris Nelson and Demi Taylor, authors of Footprint’s Surfing Britain.  Thurso is set to explode onto the world surfing map, as rumours of an Association of Surfing Professionals 5 star World Championship Tour event coming next spring grow ever more concrete.

Porthleven, Cornwall.  Not a spot for the faint-hearted, Porthleven is a reef break that is often crowded but, to experts and locals, is as good as it gets.  The wave breaks in front of the harbour making for a natural theatre for those watching.  Given the crowds and ferocity of the wave, watching is what anyone less than expert will do.

Croyde Bay, Devon.  The surf capital of Devon, Croyde is possibly the fastest low-tide wave in England.  Like Porthleven it suffers from crowds, so if you’re going to surf Croyde, you need to know what you’re doing.  Unfortunately many surfers take to Croyde without having attained the requisite level of ability.  Around the corner, Saunton Sands offers much better beginners’ waves.

Fistral Beach, Newquay, Cornwall.  For long the home of every major British surfing event, Fistral is also the home of the British Surfing Association (BSA), whose instructors are on hand from April to the end of October.  As Barrie Hall, head coach at the BSA says: “On its day, Fistral is as good a beach break as anywhere.”

Useful Contacts in the North-East - Jessie Davies and colleagues will give lessons on Tynemouth beach – 01912 582496.  BSA-approved. - contact Gary Rogers and Nick Noble for lessons – 01287 625321.  BSA-approved. - the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, Stewart Park, Marton – 01642 311211.  The British Surfing Museum is on loan until 4 June 2006 and Ian Forsyth’s ‘Saltburn Surf’ photographs are on show until 23 December.  On 22 and 23 December, Santa will be chilling out among the surfboards, at the helm of the museum’s ‘Hawaiian Christmas.’

Staithes Heritage Centre, Staithes – 01947 841454. - the Cook Memorial Museum, Whitby – 01947 601900