Best of British surfing

Times Online, July 13, 2007

A few months ago I was chatting with Reid Pinder, a senior executive of Billabong, one of the world’s leading surfing brands. Pinder’s life has been all about surfing. He was born and bred in Australia and could have made it as a pro surfer had it not been for a knee injury.

Curiously, Pinder harbours a lifelong passion for Middlesbrough F.C. “I love the club,” he tells me. “I try and watch the team as much as I can.” However, His fidelity stopped short of upping sticks to live in Middlesbrough. “No chance,” he said, “there’s no surf there.”

Pinder is wrong. So too, are the legions of surfers from the stereotypical surf nations who dismiss the UK and Ireland as being no more tangible than snow in the desert. There is a vibrant, bustling and embedded surf scene on our shores – not to mention some world-class waves – as I found after 18 months of south to north travel in search of our credentials as a Surf Nation.

From Jersey to the Shetland Islands, good surf pummels our Atlantic, English Channel and North Sea coastline – not least the beaches of the North East, just a few miles from Middlesbrough. That there are magnificent, if often rather wintry, waves here is fitting given that Captain Cook – the first Westerner credited with writing about surfing – came from Marton, near Middlesbrough. The journals of Britain's most famous maritime explorer were published posthumously in 1784, and readers encountered his astonishment at “the most supreme pleasure” to be had in the act of riding waves.

The principal scribe was, in fact, Cook’s Lieutenant, James King, who further marveled at “the boldness and address, with which [the Hawaiians] perform these difficult and dangerous manoeuvres.” If any of its surf breaks are receiving swell thanks to low pressure systems hovering between Iceland and Scandinavia, a similarly jaw-dropping fate awaits the visitor to the North East.

Then, waves are driven down onto a coastline with a geology of slab reefs that creates the perfect tube of surfing clich�. Any number of surf spots including Tynemouth, Saltburn-by-the-Sea and Scarborough will light up with the performances of local hardcore surfers, men who don’t mind a little nip in the air, like Tynemouth’s big-wave surfing legend Jesse Davies.

“North Sea surf can be as glassy as you like, and as heavy as you like,” Davies tells me. “It’s not like Cornwall, where you can find a wave somewhere just about every day if you’re that keen. But when we get good swell, with the wind in the right direction, we get perfect surf.”

It is true, though, that in Britain most roads in surfing lead to Cornwall. Newquay – dubbed “Surf City” – is awash with surfing at every turn and Fistral Beac boasts one of our best beach breaks. Surfing here is intense and competitive – no surprise that Europe’s most successful professional surfer yet, Russell Winter, hails from Newquay. Yet, beyond the hustle of Newquay, Cornwall still offers solitary and mellow surf. The old surfing mantra of “seek and ye shall find” readily applies to a county whose mean temperatures are always a couple of degrees warmer than anywhere else in the UK.

One of the best longboard surfers in Britain, Sam Bleakley, sums up the joy of surfing his local break, Sennen Cove, in the far west of Cornwall: “This place is beautiful. The surf here isn’t as predictable as some other breaks in Britain, but the variability is part of its appeal.

The sandbars are constantly changing, meaning that sometimes you can have perfect, tubing 8-10ft waves, others gentler surf in the 2-3ft region. In winter there’s an almost sinister feeling to surfing here because of the dramatic landscape and seclusion, then from spring to autumn you’ve got sunshine and crystal clear water, making it feel more like the Mediterranean than England. No matter where I travel, I love surfing here more than anywhere.”

Experts such as Bleakley and Davies are almost evangelistic when describing the quality of the surf here, and they are far from alone. The British Surfing Association estimates that there are now some 500,000 regular surfers in the UK, and up to 40% are women. The good vibes from surfing attract over 130,000 people to Newquay for just one week during August, when leading surf brand Rip Curl hosts its annual Boardmasters event. This is a contest featuring top surfers from around the world whose performances help fuel yet more interest in a sport which has drawn celebrities such as Cameron Diaz and David Beckham.

The Renaissance man of English football reportedly became enamoured with surfing while filming an ad for Pepsi, only to find out that his employer, Real Madrid, was fearful one of its assets might get injured in the ocean. But according to two-time British champion Alan Stokes, the club needn’t have worried: “One of the great things about surfing is how safe it is. Unless you’re out in big waves there’s really very little chance of injury. You should always ask the lifeguards about the conditions and consider booking lessons with a surf school if you’re not so confident of your athletic abilities.”

As for the appeal of surfing, opinions were divided. For Chris Noble, who counts Scotland’s famed Thurso East as his local break, surfing is simply “fun,” while for John McCarthy, a born-again Christian and Irish big-wave surfer based in Lahinch, County Clare, “surfing is a taste of heaven.” The UK’s best female surfer, Robyn Davies, told me that being out of action through injury for the best part of 18 months made her feel like her heart “had been broken in two.”

All of them are right, but the only way to find out why is to get in the water and give surfing a try. A word of warning, though: once you’ve ridden a wave, you’ll be addicted for life.

Alex Wade’s top five surf spots for beginners

Sennen Cove, Cornwall – an exquisite bay that picks up any swell going with waves suitable for all levels of ability. Contact www.sennensurfingcentre.com and www.smartsurf.co.uk for lessons.

Watergate Bay, Cornwall – surf with all mod cons thanks to the chic and relaxed Hotel and Extreme Academy, Watergate Bay. A place created to be “a ski resort on the beach.” See www.watergatebay.co.uk

Saunton Sands, North Devon – gentle, rolling waves and a seemingly endless expanse of beach. Perfect for beginners and the scene of quality longboarding. Lessons can be booked via www.pointbreaks.com

Lahinch, County Clare, Ireland – the hub of Irish surfing, Lahinch Bay has reef, point and beachbreak set-ups. Around the corner, beneath the Cliffs of Moher, is the big-wave surf spot known as Aileens. John McCarthy runs the Lahinch Surf School – www.lahinchsurfschool.com

Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire – the elegant Victorian town is a gem with a wide, sandy beach and an immense headland jutting out into the North Sea. It boasts the world’s oldest water-powered cliff lift as well as great waves. Lessons can be booked with Saltburn Surf Hire – www.saltburnsurf.co.uk

But for experts?

Porthleven, Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall - England’s best reef break. Often crowded with surfers of the highest standard – don’t paddle out here unless you’re in that category.

Crab Island, the Gower Peninsula, Wales – a legendary right-hand reef break that demands respect

Thurso East, Scotland – no surprise that this immaculate right-hand reef break has hosted the O’Neill Highland Open for the past two years. A world-class wave but very, very cold in the winter.

Alex Wade’s Surf Nation: In Search of the Fast Lefts and Hollow Rights of Britain and Ireland is published by Simon & Schuster, £12.99, on 2 July