Surfers let it rip

The Sunday Times, July 30, 2006

Britain’s most successful surfer returns to familiar territory this week at a six-day celebration of the sport that could attract 140,000 spectators. It was in the chill of Newquay, not the heat of Hawaii or Tahiti, that Russell Winter developed his skills. Winter, 30, whose career earnings stand at £151,000, is one of the star attractions at the Rip Curl Boardmasters event at Fistral beach and is rushing back from the US Open surfing event at Huntingdon beach, California, to compete. In 2002, he became the second British surfer to win the event, following Martin Potter’s triumphs in 1984 and 1987.

Fellow British professional and twice European longboard champion Sam Bleakley says: “Russell is the best surfer yet to emerge from Europe and is the only Briton to make his mark at the highest level in international competitive surfing. The fact that he is so exceptional is all the more amazing when you consider that he has gone on to beat the best from a Newquay background.”

Surfing in the UK is never less than a willing embrace of the cold, a far cry from the lifestyle portrayed in cult American movies such as Point Break and Big Wednesday. That Winter should have risen so far through a daily fare of icy, inconsistent surf suggests that he is a man of uncommon single-mindedness.

The youngest of three brothers, he grew up among the houses overlooking south Fistral when his father, Mick, moved the family from London in 1984. His brothers, Steve and Dean, run a surf school in Newquay and are respected surfers in their own right: Steve has been British champion, while Dean has made a name for himself as a big-wave rider. All three speak with London rather than Cornish accents, and, as Steve puts it, all three spent “every day, all day, from dawn till dusk” surfing.

They also spent a lot of time pursuing another passion — fighting. “We’ve all competed as martial artists or boxers,” says Steve, who looks more pugilist than surf dude. So, too, the most successful of the Winter clan. Russell is a compact welterweight with speed and power. “His physique is perfectly suited to getting the best out of Fistral,” says Sam Lamiroy, another British pro hoping to shine at the Boardmasters. “He’s really quick and agile.”

Winter has made it to the top 44 before, only for injuries to scupper his ability to stay there — first was a medial ligament tear, then a gash to his leg at the big-wave venue of Teahupoo, Tahiti. The gash became infected, and Winter saw his prospects on the World Championship Tour (WCT) vanish with three weeks in intensive care. This season, though, he is back and firing on all cylinders, with a win at the O’Neill Highland Open in Thurso, Scotland, and solid performances elsewhere. At stake this week is a first prize of more than £6,000, the winner also receiving 2,000 World Qualifying Series (WQS) points. In Winter’s case, victory would put him in contention to qualify again for next season’s elite tour.

Just before his final heat at the Highland Open, held in perfect, if freezing, surf, Winter lightly shuffled from toe to toe, eying the waves like a boxer standing in his corner waiting for a fight to begin. Throughout the event he had kept himself to himself, as if saving all his energy — and aggression — for the water. He won thanks to a performance that was far and away the best anyone had seen in Scotland. This week, Winter’s adversaries will be hoping that surfing’s “British bulldog” will have left at least some of his aggression in California.

Since its inception in 1981, the Boardmasters has attracted top surfers from Hawaii, Australia, Brazil, South Africa and America, as well as the best European surfing talent. Past winners include icons of surfing such as former world champions Tom Carroll, Martin Potter and Tom Curren. It is the most watched surfing contest on domestic shores and claims to be “Europe’s biggest free lifestyle festival”. Running alongside the surfing are BMX displays and a music festival.

Newquay has long been the epicentre of British surfing. On its day Fistral, its principal surfing beach, can produce hollow, powerful waves that are among the best beachbreak surf anywhere. But the trouble is that Fistral’s day, compared with the almost military predictability of overseas reef and point breaks, is all too rare.

If the surfer’s lexicon is not one of opacity, the judges’ criteria are a little easier to fathom. Surfers have a maximum of 15 waves per 20-minute heat, in which their two highest-scoring waves are aggregated. Each wave is scored out of a maximum of 10, with the highest scores going to the surfer who performs “the most radical controlled manoeuvres in the critical section of a wave with speed, power and flow”.

Innovative moves such as a successful aerial — when a surfer propels both himself and the board over the breaking lip of a wave, turns in a midair and lands back on the face of the wave — will accrue extra points. Much of a surfer’s repertoire may be incomprehensible to the uninitiated, but there is no doubting the allure of the Boardmasters. The event is a five-star WQS contest with a prize pool of £54,000. In world surfing terms, the WQS is the championship to English football’s Premiership, with the top 16 WQS finishers qualifying for the WCT.

The WCT is run by the Association of Surfing Professionals and is made up of the top 44 surfers, who compete at prime surfing spots such as Pipeline in Hawaii and Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa. Success on the WCT is the holy grail of professional surfing: WCT champion Kelly Slater, whose career earnings are currently £752,000, with 2006 earnings of £47,000, may have become a celebrity beyond surfing, but each and every putative Slater has to do their time on the WQS. Talent will take you to the top — and, as Russell Winter proves, Cornwall is as good a place as any to catch the right waves.