Beach can be heart-breaker

The Sunday Times, July 30, 2006
SURFERS first started catching the waves of Fistral beach about 50 years ago. None could have foreseen Newquay becoming the UK’s “surf city,” but the pioneers knew that, on its day, Fistral is a world-class surf spot.

It is a beach break where waves break on a sandy seabed. They can be fickle because the sandbanks on which waves break change frequently, as opposed to reef breaks where the surf breaks predictably over static coral or rocky reefs. There is also the point break, with which many non-surfers will be familiar thanks to the eponymous film starring Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves. Here, waves break off rocky points, creating greater reliability. While Point Break ends with a sequence filmed at Bells Beach in Australia, there are few point breaks in the UK, though there are, particularly in Scotland and the northeast, many reef set-ups.

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A key aspect to surfing a beach break is fitness and the ability to “duck dive”. With reef or point breaks, a surfer can enjoy a dry hair paddle out, paddling around rather than through incoming waves. At Fistral, throughout the Boardmasters, surfers have to paddle through wave after relentless wave. An experienced surfer will have perfected the skill of duck-diving. As he approaches a wave that is about to break, he grabs the rails at the front of the board and depresses them deep into the water.

Superb fitness is vital to handle the conditions of the northwest-facing beach, which picks up swell driven in from low pressure systems tracking in to the UK from the north or mid-Atlantic. But as well as fitness and technique, surfers will utilise years of “water time” to exploit Fistral’s waves to the full.

“The first thing I’ll do is watch the way the waves are breaking,” says St Ives local and Boardmasters wild card entry, 17-year old prodigy Jayce Robinson. “I’ll work out which sandbanks are working best, where the peaks are and where the rips are. Things can change in minutes at a beach break — the swell might increase because of a pushing tide, the wind might change direction to alter the faces of the waves or the banks might move.”

Local knowledge could be an asset for Robinson and other UK surfers. “Paddling straight out would be a mistake,” he says, “there’s a rip close to the rocks at the north end that will take you out to the line-up.”

Robinson surfs in “natural foot” stance, with his left foot forward. This means his preferred waves will be right-handers, those which, as a surfer looks to the beach, break to the right.

A surfer then surfs “frontside” rather than with his back to the wave, making for more explosive manoeuvres than backhand surfing. Newquay local Mark “Igor”, Harris, 24, an RNLI lifeguard and professional surfer, is another natural foot surfer, and, like Robinson, Harris will be looking for right-handers when he paddles out for his first Boardmasters heat.

“I’ll be looking to pick waves with big open faces that will allow power carves and snaps,” says Harris. “You need to try and get a good score in early, so sometimes you stick to your best moves. But if you’re low on points towards the end of the heat, it might be worth trying the kind of move you’d usually reserve for free-surfing.”

That kind of move would almost certainly be an aerial, or “air” — spectacular and high-scoring but not always easy to land and often a death or glory statement.

Fistral works on all tides but is usually at its best at low tide, when punchy, hollow peaks are formed. The beach holds swell up to 8ft, but even at moderate size offers its fair share of “barrels,” when a surfer rides inside the curl of a breaking wave.

One man tipped to make an impact in Newquay this week is Brazilian Adriano de Souza, who is as capable of finding immaculate barrels as he is landing extraordinary airs. Just as De Souza was jetting in, a three-to-four foot swell began to pound Fistral.

Last year, the surf gods did not smile on the Boardmasters event but, this time, the scene is set for Fistral to showcase the very best of British — and, perhaps, Brazilian — surfing.