Catching the wave

Surfing is booming across Britain, with half a million enthusiasts and many more hooked on the style. It can even be studied at university now, reports Arifa Akbar
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The Independent Online

It is 6am on Llangennith Beach in south Wales and crowds of sportily clad surfers are preparing to ride the waves. "Surf mania" has migrated from Australia and California to British shores.

It is 6am on Llangennith Beach in south Wales and crowds of sportily clad surfers are preparing to ride the waves. "Surf mania" has migrated from Australia and California to British shores.

Newquay in Cornwall and Croyde in Devon are promoting themselves as "surf towns" to tourists from home and abroad, but the new British passion is thriving in hot-spots across the nations - beaches as far afield as Thurso in the north of Scotland and Lond Sands on Tyneside are attracting the surfing crowd. Thurso has some of the best waves in the country and is ranked highly on the international scene for its long "tube" rides.

The reef break of Bundoran beach in Co Donegal, Ireland, as well as Cayton Bay, near Scarborough, have also been flooded by the new generation of surfing enthusiasts.

The popularity of British beaches - where the best surf is to be found over the autumn and winter months - has also been helped by developments in wetsuit technology, which has made it possible to surf in cold waters all year round.

And the surfer as a breed has undergone a radical transformation in recent years. Women, city dwellers and middle-aged enthusiasts are latching on to the sport in increasing numbers, contributing to the estimated total of 500,000 surfers in the UK.

Sarah Elliott, manager of Boardwise in Chiswick, west London, says the number of serious customers who visit her surf shop has doubled over the last five years. "The new customers are the slightly older generation of fortysomethings who used to surf and are getting back into it now. We get a few lager boys and kids, but also a lot of stockbroker-like people," she said. "Surfing's attraction is that it's a more exciting lifestyle than being cooped up in hot steamy London; it's a chance to get away from that and spend a weekend by the ocean."

The British Surfing Association has seen membership soar over the past two years, growing from 2,500 in 2002 to about 10,000 today, and the manufacturing element of the industry in Cornwall alone is estimated to be worth £62m a year.

David Reed, the national director of the association, said its main surf school in Newquay had seen a surge in people taking lessons from 200 clients 10 years ago to 8,000 last year. Surf schools have increasing numbers of women signing up and the highly respected Carve magazine has introduced a regular supplement, SurfGirl, to attract the expanding female market.

Industry journalists believe women's growing passion for surfing has injected glamour into a sport that previously had a male, "Beavis and Butthead", image. Remy Whiting, of Wave Length magazine, said: "Women's interest in the sport gives a commercial advantage to companies as well as making it more glamorous and appealing to men."

John Stockton, chief executive of Britain's biggest surf wear label, Animal, said the company had grown sixfold in the past few years, with projected turnover of £40m in 2004. Behind the success of surf wear was a radical change of image, he said. "Surfing and action sports were seen to be a bit intimidating and even self-indulgent. It was about exclusivity and Hawaiian shirts. But now it has become much more accessible and is associated with a cool, free-living lifestyle. If you are a 35-year-old lawyer working in the City, you are expressing your desire to kick back and get away from it by being interested in surfing."

David Friar, manager of the industry's annual trade show Surf Shop, said the biggest growth market was women's surf gear. This had led the industry to become more fashion-conscious and commercially successful.

And the fashion worn by surfers is moving into the mainstream. Chris Curtis, news editor at Drapers magazine, said the crossover of surf brands into fashion products had given the sport greater kudos.

The magazine last year revealed a 300 per cent increase in the value of sales over the past two years in five major labels, Quiksilver, O'Neill, Vans, Mambo and Ripcurl, whose sales figures have risen from £41m in June 2000 to £128m in June 2003.

The biggest international surf brands, such as Quiksilver, Ripcurl and Billabong, had moved into the "lifestyle" clothing territory formerly dominated by Nike and Adidas, Mr Curtis said. "It is not longer a niche market and has a mainstream, aspirational quality. It is now a full-blown part of street wear. To wear a Quiksilver T-shirt says something about your attitude to life and how you want to be perceived as a good-looking tanned person having a fun time."

As interest in surfing rises, the demand for experts within the industry has spawned specially tailored educational courses and degrees that lead students directly into the industry. Cornwall College has offered a two-year surf science and technology course since 1999. Pupils can convert the qualification into a degree at Plymouth University. Swansea Institute of Higher Education is also offering a degree in surfing and beach management from September 2004.

The courses have encountered criticism, however. Last week Peter Morris, an official from the Professional Association of Teachers accused them of "devaluing" academic and vocational education.

Ian Jenkins, the director of the degree course at Swansea, responded that the courses were responding to a clearly identified need. There had been a call from industry professionals for education and training to provide employees who would have professional management skills within the area. He said: "This is an exciting new development, which demonstrates the growth of surfing and its economic value to the leisure and tourism industry."

Mike Williams, programme manager at Cornwall College, said the course ranged from practical elements such as designing boards and organising surf competitions to the study of coastal ecology, marine biology and the psychology of competitive sports.

There had been a surge in course applications over the past few years, especially from women, he said. "Most of the people who come on the course love surfing and they tend carry on to get jobs in related industries and sports development," he added.

The college is situated only two miles from Portreath beach, near Camborne in west Cornwall, and for the students who signed up for the course last year - including the first woman student - it is as much a lifestyle choice as an educational experience.

"Most of the students live overlooking the sea and it's a lifestyle thing. They live the life of university students but mix that with the thing they love. A large number of the lecturers are surfers too," Mr Williams said.

Andy Cummins, 27, who completed a surfing degree three years ago, said he chose to study surfing because it combined his love of the sport with the gaining of an academic qualification. "People think the course is for 'sandcastle scientists' but it incorporated modules including microbiology and the physics of movement, which are not soft options," he said.

"I have never sat in a physics class before and thought it could be related to surfing. It brought the science alive."

He began surfing at the age of 15 in his home town of Saltburn, near Middlesbrough, and quickly became addicted to the sport, but never expected to be making a living from it. He has, however, worked as a surf teacher, and is now with the campaigning organisation, Surfers Against Sewage.

He believes the boom in surf culture has given the sport a new respectability. "The ridicule factor is no longer there. Surfers used to be known as just surfing beach bums but now they are doctors, teacher and lawyers," he said.

THE BOOMING INDUSTRY

THE TOP SURF SPOTS IN BRITAIN

1 Thurso, Highlands . Considered to have "world-class waves" by UK surfers, its remote location means the beach is never overcrowded. Amazing scenery. Right-hand reef break brings waves up to 20ft high. Not for the inexperienced surfer.

2 Cayton Bay, Scarborough. An abundance of beaches facing different directions and three different types of break - a point break, a beach break and a powerful reef break.

3 Fistral Beach, Newquay, right. Famous beach break (where waves form with multiple peaks). Quality varies vastly from month to month dependent on sandbar formation, but consistently good surfing. Hosts the Rip Curl Boardmasters, the UK's biggest surf festival.

4 Swansea. It has several great breaks, such as Freshwater West Beach and Langland. Easy access to the Pembrokeshire coast is a bonus.

5 North Devon. The area is competing to become the new surf capital of Britain. Great beaches around Croyde and Woolacombe, and numerous surf shops in Braunton.

6 St Ives. Becoming the resort Newquay always wanted to be: fashionable bars and restaurants on the harbour front, a long surfing heritage and easy access to both the north and south coasts of west Cornwall.

7 Bude. Often overlooked, Bude has great surf spots, bars and restaurants, and has been a mecca for British surfers since the Sixties.

8 Tyneside. Not the first place you would think of for riding the waves and the North Sea is really cold in the winter, but the hardy souls who venture out have truly world class waves on their doorstep. Newcastle has produced three British surfing champions, and this year it is hosting the British National surfing championships.

9 Bournemouth. Suffers from a lack of swell in the summer, but has a thriving surf community. A new artificial surf reef in the pipeline for Boscombe, due to be constructed by 2006, will provide world-class waves.

10 Porthcawl. Five or six great breaks that cater for beginners to advanced surfers, and a long surfing heritage.

SURF GEAR

The essential basics cost about £350: £220 for a beginner's board, £70 for a wetsuit, £20 for a rash vest and £25 for neoprene boots, for added group and protection. A spare board ankle leash (in case of breakage), £20, wax (to help the surfer's body grip the board) and even gloves (for Britain's sometimes extreme winter conditions), £20.

The gear essential to fashion:

Billabong 'Frontline Pants', £45. Walk the walk (low-slung, crotch around the knees, shuffle). Or:

Billabong board shorts, £45-50. Available with floral, flame or graffiti decoration, or in plain black.

Billabong floral design airtex shirt, £40, or T-shirt, from £20.

V Dolls halter bikini, £23. Beware of the big waves.

Duffs skate shoes, £40-65.

Flip Raglan 'Hate Kill Destroy' zip hoody/WE women's hoody, £52.

Oakley sunglasses, £75-230. To wear with: Beanie, £15-25. Essential for deckchair supporters.

SURFING BY NUMBERS

The number of surfers is estimated to be about 500,000, according to the British Surfing Association, though this number may fall to as few as 250,000 if one counts only those who pursue the sport "consistently, for more than one year", says David Reed, its national director. The number stood between 20,000 and 30,000 10 years ago. Up to 1,000 surfers can be found at Newquay alone on a sunny weekend day. The BSA's main surf school in Newquay has seen a large rise in people taking lessons - from 200 clients a decade ago to 8,000 last year.

SURFING AS AN EDUCATION

Swansea Institute of Higher Education is offering a degree in surfing and beach management from September. The course is "similar to a business studies degree", according to Professor Ken Reid, the deputy principal. The 20 students accepted onto the course from the 130 applicants will study marketing, technology, coast management, conservation and surf entrepreneurship. The institute hopes to expand the course to up to 50 applicants within three years.

Since 1999, Cornwall College has offered a two-year surf science and technology course to 40 students who can go on to convert the qualification to a degree at Plymouth University.

SURFING AND THE MEDIA

There are now more print and television surf magazines than ever before, and surfing is used to sell everything from Guinness to Freelanders. There are nine magazines on news stands, among them SurfGirl, started three years ago by Carve magazine to reflect the growing interest in the sport from female boarders. Television shows include Threesixty Surfing on Sky Sports, and the manufacturers Billabong, Ripcurl and Quiksilver are even rumoured to be grouping together to start their own dedicated board channel this year or next. Steve England, deputy editor of Carve, said: "Surfing is the new sex."

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