May 24, 2006

Britain’s Surf Capital Draws Die-Hard Wave Riders

By Sophie Hares

NEWQUAY -- Huddled in the open back of a Volkswagen van, Mark Chivers surveys the choppy Atlantic swell, preparing to brave the relentless drizzle and bone-chilling wind in the hope of catching a wave.

On a damp spring day with just 1 foot of surf and a temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit, conditions at Newquay's Fistral Beach may be a long way from Hawaii's tropical big wave breaks, but those making the pilgrimage to Britain's surf capital are undeterred.

"I might give it a miss if it was tsunami conditions but I'd go rain or shine, you're still going to get wet," said Chivers, 27, wearing a woolly hat as he sat in the van with his friends, fondly recalling learning to surf in Australia's Byron Bay.

Nearby, banker Paul Coles who drove the 260 miles southwest from London for a weekend of Cornish sun, sea and surf, shivered in Fistral's parking lot as he peeled down his wetsuit.

"I thought surfers were really unfit, doped up and completely relaxed, but it's completely knackering (tiring) out there, especially when you work in the City all week," said Coles, 24, referring to London's financial district.

Despite Britain's often harsh conditions and inconsistent swells, surfing now ranks as one of the fastest-growing sports, with more than 500,000 taking to the waves each year at spots from the northerly Orkney Islands to the southern Isle of Wight.

Newquay draws thousands of spectators and world-class surfers to its annual Rip Curl Boardmasters contest, while this month's O'Neill Highland Open contest at Thurso at the northern tip of Scotland may become a regular fixture.

Not surprisingly, surfing is proving big business.


The British Surfing Association calculates at least 300 million pounds ($560 million) is generated each year as die-hard wave riders splash out on new boards and even those with no intention of getting their feet wet stock up on the latest surfwear and accessories.

Property developers are planning compact apartments in Newquay for the "weekend warriors" who swap their City pinstripes for wetsuits. And the University of Plymouth, in the neighboring county of Devon, offers a degree in surf science and technology.

"There's real good guys in the water, it would be locals usually, unless they come from abroad. Not many of the people who come from up country are really good," said blond Newquay surfer Jake Ellis, a former under-18 British team member, working in one of the town's surf shops.

At Fistral, where a class of novices practice their moves on the wet sand, National Surfing Center manager Barrie Hall says the number of people taking lessons at his school has doubled over the past five years.

"People want to be involved, they see the benefits and appeal of it, the cool lifestyle," said the tanned instructor at the beachside center with its racks of sturdy beginners boards.

"Particularly for overseas surfers, the perception is, surfing in England, what's that all about? But we do have good surf, and we do have some of the most dedicated surfers in the world, given the environmental factors we have to deal with."

Surfing in Britain, where around 20 percent of board riders are women, is far from a new phenomenon.

The British Surfing Museum points out British explorer Captain James Cook was the first European to witness board riding in Hawaii in 1778 and says people have been riding waves along the nation's 11,000 miles of coastline for well over 100 years.

Chris Nelson, co-author of Footprint's "Surfing Britain" and "Surfing Europe" guides, says surf communities have now sprung up around the country and waves can reach up to 20 feet, although conditions can be unpredictable.

"Some of the surf spots in the U.K. are as good as anywhere in the world, when the swells come out of the Arctic you can have absolutely perfect surf conditions, as good as Indonesia and Hawaii, but you don't get the consistency," said Nelson.

"People think we're slightly crazy. They look at the temperatures we put up with and think British surfers are quite hard core, which a lot of them are. Certain regions get their best conditions in the coldest weather."


With its clean waves sweeping down from the Arctic on to a slate reef, this year Thurso at the tip of Scotland made its mark as a world class surf spot when it became the most northerly place to host a professional tournament with the inaugural O'Neill Highland Open.

The event was won by Russell Winter, one of the few Britons to have competed on the World Championship Tour. Former British champions Alan Stokes, Sam Lamiroy and Mark Harris also compete at an international level.

"The sport's open for anyone to participate, young or old, it's not necessarily about competition," said Dave Reed, chairman of the British Professional Surfing Association.

While the laidback surfing lifestyle often proves an initial draw for many looking to grab a board and take to the waves, experts say British surfing is finally coming of age.

"Surfing's become a bit more mainstream. It's not a fringe sport any more, the British surfers are as good as any in the world," said Nelson, who plans to include several British breaks among the world's top 80 in his next book "Surfing the World."