Paul Lay finds out why a Cornish resort is on the crest of a wave
DESPITE the efforts of a small group of hard-core surfers to establish the chilly Scottish town of Thurso as a rival, the true capital of British surfing is the Cornish resort of Newquay. The Headworx Coca Cola 1995 Surf Festival is already well under way, and next Sunday the town is hosting the festival climax - the final of the British stage of the Association of Surfing Professionals' World Tour.

If surf's up, the thousands lining the town's expansive Fistral Beach should be in for some spectacular if chaotic viewing, as some of the world's best (and most beautiful) surfers do battle with the Atlantic breakers. Local pros are among the favourites competing for a share of the $60,000 (pounds 38,000) prize money, alongside rivals from the more likely surfing strongholds of Australia, Brazil, and the US.

They'll be attempting to perform manoeuvres including cutbacks, sharp changes of direction, aerials, in which the surfer uses the power of the wave to launch into the air, and the "tube ride", where the surfer enters the "tube" formed by a powerful breaking wave, to emerge at high speed on the other side. The pros do all this with apparent ease; but for the nervous out-of-town newbie, the festival organisers have been wise enough to lay on a land-based surfing simulator. Novices can at least approximate a little bit of the thrill of catching a wave without first making a fool of themselves at sea. And if the hook takes, punters will be well catered for in Newquay, home to a score of surfing accessory shops, eight board factories, five surf schools, a couple of specialist mags and a host of surfer-friendly places to stay.

Surfing arrived in Newquay in the Sixties, introduced by visiting Aussie lifeguards. Local craftsmen began designing and shaping boards, and a new industry was born. Until the late Sixties, surfboards measured up to about 9ft in length, which allows surfers to ride a single wave for the longest possible time. Modern boards are more manoeuvrable, narrower, and a couple of feet shorter, allowing for speedy turns and acrobatics. Despite a recent upsurge in interest in longboarding, it's the shortboards that dominate. Shortboards popularised competition - the sport is to be included in next year's Olympics.

More controversial, recent years have seen the rise of the much-disparaged bodyboard (or "boogieboard"), a short, rectangular board made from soft foam on which the surfer lies or kneels. Relatively easy to learn, bodyboarding's popularity annoys the hell out of the elitist, lifestyle surfer.

"Real" surfing, argue the purists, takes considerable practice: a natural aptitude and a whole day of intensive lessons might just be enough to keep you balanced on the board for a few brief, heart-thumping seconds before "wipe-out". But with a bodyboard, provided you're not too intimidated by a swirling sea, the fun's almost immediate, a big advantage if you live a long way from the coast and simply don't have the time - or the money - for conventional surfing. A decent boogieboard costs as little as pounds 40, whereas a beginner's shortboard is around pounds 150.

Innovations in wetsuit manufacture and materials mean that even in Britain, surfing is now an all-year sport, hence the first tenative dips into Scottish waters and the North Sea, where temperatures drop to about 4 degrees centigrade. There are few sporting sights stranger than a gang of hard-core surfers revelling in the dramatic, windy waters as the December rain pours down on a tourist-deserted cove. To the delight of the locals and surf-addicted "blow-ins", the regular low-pressure weather conditions ensure the surf is at its rumbling best in winter.

There are hundreds of bleak, weather-beaten coves along the north Cornish coast, many known only to locals, and which never see a tourist. They aren't likely to either, if some local surfers have their way. Newquay, aware of the town's dependency on the surf industry, holds out a friendly hand to the naffest metropolitan bodyboarder - but other, harder-core surf resorts are not so welcoming - at best suspicious, at worst openly aggressive to outsiders.

A photographer colleague chronicling winter surfers in nearby St Agnes was told, somewhat cryptically, that he was as welcome there "as dog shit on a Friday afternoon", a situation not helped by the fact that he turned up in a brand new, bright red four-wheel drive. Better to arrive in a battered old VW van: for St Agnes, just 10 miles south of Newquay, is a stronghold of the soul surfer, a strictly non-competitive, stridently anti-materialistic, pot-smoking breed, living season to season, and in a good year saving up just enough money to winter in warmer climes (Indonesia - cheap, if a tad politically unsound - is a favourite).

The penchant for pot has meant that Britain has been unable to enter a male squad in the amateur world championships for a decade, despite winning in 1983, ever since the introduction of drug tests. Cannabis takes three months to get out of the system and, well, that's half the season gone. For many, cannabis versus competition is simply no competition at all.

At this summer's festival, the calmer weather and welcoming atmosphere mean beginners can take the plunge armed with the reassuring knowledge that there will be plenty of other day-trippers crashing about in the sea, while the pros can concentrate on impressing the crowds. Other attractions include the "surf band" Reef, live Big Breakfast broadcasts, MTV shenanigans and the world premiere of Blue Juice, a film centred on the British surf scene, starring Cath- erine Zeta Jones. Soul surfers will definitely be staying away.

n Headworx Coca-Cola 1995 Surf Festival, to 14 August, Fistral Beach, Newquay, Cornwall. British Surfing Association 01736 60250.