Wipeout for surfers as Cornish sands ebb away

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It is Britain's answer to the Hawaiian North Shore: an expansive golden beach with strong hollow waves that has been the British surfer's paradise since the 1970s. But now Newquay's famous Fistral Beach faces a crisis: it is losing its sand.

A season of vicious storms has left the usually well-covered seabed sparse and dotted with dangerously exposed rocks. Lifeguards have been put on high alert, while surf schools are rearranging their business to make sure they avoid the hidden edges. Surfers have been restricted to the south side of the beach, and swimmers have also been cordoned off in a smaller area.

Sand on the beach has always moved during the winter, but the area's RNLI lifeguard manager, Paul Benney, said: "This is the worst it's been since I've worked on the beaches here, and I've been involved with them since the early 1970s."

The main theory as to why so much of the sand has been swept off the beach is a change in the winter wind. "The prevailing wind in Cornwall is normally a south-westerly", said Mr Benney, "but this winter we've had a lot of north-westerlies, and environmentalists think that is having an effect on the sand."

He added: "It's going to be tricky when the peak season starts; it will be much more difficult to control. At the moment there are only hundreds of visitors on the beach, but in the height of summer we get thousands."

Alan Stokes, a professional surfer who lives in Newquay, said: "I wiped out on [the rocks] yesterday, but I wasn't hurt. For learners it's pretty bad though, as they could do themselves some damage. The lifeguards have always kept the surfers in the middle of the beach, away from the large rocks at each end, but now there's rocks there too, so it is more dangerous for swimmers and people learning to surf. If it gets any worse it will be a problem, because the swimming area will get smaller and smaller."

Steve Winter, an instructor at the Winter Brothers Surf School, said: "We can no longer go in the sea at any time of the day. I am now having to run sessions when the tide's gone past the rocks or low tide sessions. It's affected my family life because I don't get to say goodnight to the kids because the business is now tide dependent ... the rocks have made it a dangerous place to be at high tide."

Karen Walton, the director of the British Surfing Association, said: "We always recommend to anyone who wants to surf and is going to a new beach that they have a lesson with a BSA approved school, or failing that get local advice."