British surfing's great white hope

Times Online, August 5, 2007

It is 6pm on a summer’s evening on Porthcurno beach in the far west of Cornwall. By anybody’s standards this is an idyllic place, with golden sands lapped by turquoise waters that are home to seals, dolphins and, in summer, basking sharks. Many of the beach’s visitors have spent the day on shark alert, thanks to sightings of a supposed great white off the coast of nearby St Ives. But now, as the afternoon draws to a close, their attention is diverted by two men whose capability for exertion seems beyond the call of duty.

Jayce Robinson, the 18-year-old from St Ives who is the UK’s hottest surfing prospect for years, and his personal trainer Stef Harkon look unfeasibly fit, not to mention enviably tanned, as they run up and down the sand dunes of Porthcurno. Training is tough, and many onlookers wince as Harkon hurls a medicine ball at Robinson, knocking him to the sand.

It is tough for a reason. There are just a few days to go before the Rip Curl Boardmasters, Britain’s biggest surfing event, and Robinson has secured a wild-card entry. Despite being up against an array of world-class surfers, he means business.

“I want to change the perception of British surfing,” says Robinson. “If I can get through the early rounds at the Boardmasters I’ll feel I’ve done well. I want to get my name out there and show what I can do.”

The Boardmasters is as good a place as any to build a reputation. Since its inception in 1981, it has attracted top surfers from America, Australia, Brazil and South Africa as well as the best of European talent. Past winners include icons of the sport such as former world champions Tom Carroll, Martin Potter and Tom Curren, while Russell Winter, Britain’s most successful surfer, won in 2002. More than 140,000 people will throng Newquay’s Fistral Beach over the next six days, making this by far the most watched surfing event in Europe. As well as being a platform for young tyros such as Robinson, the Boardmasters is also an important event on surfing’s World Qualifying Series (WQS). A place in the top 16 after a gruel-ling schedule of 46 contests held as far apart as Mexico, Japan, Australia and Scotland means promotion to surfing’s Premier League, the World Championship Tour (WCT), where fortunes can be made.

The WQS is notorious for its rate of attrition among surfers who cannot handle the treadmill of long-haul travel and seemingly endless competitions, but Robinson is undaunted. “The WQS takes its toll, for sure,” he says. “But it’s got to be done. If I want to make my mark as a surfer, I’ve got to pay my dues.”

The international surfing world has already had a glimpse of what Robinson can do thanks to a recent appearance in Surfer magazine, the world’s longest-running surfing publication. July’s issue included a poster showing the bleach-blonde Robinson executing a frontside off the lip on a pleasingly paradisal wave. Surfer’s predominantly American readership sat up and asked: “Who’s that?”

The British cognoscenti have been watching Robinson for years. “He’s got fantastic natural ability and could really go places,” says Harkon, a former competitive surfer, lifeguard and fitness trainer who has also coached the footballer Nicolas Anelka. “I’ve known him since he was a kid and he’s always had speed, agility and coordination. We’re working on building up his strength and power. He needs to develop this to get to the top.”

There is no doubting Robinson’s determination. Harkon is a powerfully built man whose training regimes are straight out of the army, but Robinson, sponsored by Rip Curl since the age of 12, keeps pace with a routine that would exhaust the average recreational surfer. As well as the seemingly endless running on the energy-sapping sand, Harkon has Robinson doing press-ups, squat thrusts and, using a Swiss ball, sit-ups and chest raises. Then he has him mimicking the action of paddling a surfboard by pulling at elastic cables.

Robinson watches his diet, rarely drinks, and surfs his local break of Porthmeor, St Ives, for hours at a time whenever there is swell. Having left school at 16, he spent two days at college only to quit because “I knew it was going to get in the way of my surfing”. Since then he has racked up a surf-travel CV that includes numerous trips to the Canary Islands (“there’s a fantastic right-hander at Lobos, I love it there”) and plenty of time in Australia. He has also surfed in Chile, California, Morocco and many of Europe’s best surf spots, and recently posted a third place at Croyde in the first event on the British Professional Surfing Association tour. With a four-year deal in the bag with Rip Curl, as well as sponsorship by the energy drink Relentless and Supertubes, his local surf shop, Robinson looks set for domestic success, at the very least.

Surfing has a jargon all of its own, and to outsiders little of it is comprehensible. But if the precise import of slashes, hacks and off the lips is, for many, as elusive as variants such as layback slides, roundhouse cutbacks and frontside 360s, there is no mystery about the financial value of this year’s Boardmasters. The men’s event has a prize pool of $125,000 (£62,000) and this, with its five-star rating – the higher the rating, up to six stars, the greater the points up for grabs – means that the top competitors are rolling into town.

A look at the professional surfers that Robinson will face is enough to convince the cynic that surfing is a sport requiringa high level of athleticism. These men appear preternaturally weathered by exposure to the elements but there is no doubting their fitness. Robinson’s frame has yet to fill out but, though of medium height, he exudes agility and speed.

That surfing requires serious athleticism is further endorsed by James Cracknell, the double Olympic rowing gold medallist and an ambassador for Land Rover, one of the Boardmasters’ sponsors. His three-year-old son is named Croyde after the North Devon surfing village, and Cracknell’s passion for what its aficio-nados call “the sport of kings” saw him spend a week surfing in Hawaii with a top surfer. “I paddled out at breaks like Pipeline and got nailed,” he recalls. “ButI take my hat off to any pro surfer, anywhere. They’re unbelievably fit and athletic, naturally strong and very supple.”

The Rip Curl Boardmasters takes place in Newquay from tomorrow until August 12. For full details, visit www.ripcurlboardmasters.com