Welcome to Britain: world's top surfers endure waves of rain

Standing next to the increasingly disconsolate man, a professional surfer from South Africa shivered as he pulled on a thick woolly hat and a heavy beachwear hoodie as he recovered from the goose-pimpling embrace of the Cornish seas.

Less than 20 yards away, several hundred British aficionados were delivering their verdict on the spectacle unfolding before them in time-honoured fashion: forming a large queue for shelter and lager in the beach-bar tent.

Welcome to the Rip Curl Board-masters 2005, the biggest event in the British surfing calendar where the leading names in the World Qualifying Series (WQS) - part of a sport now worth an estimated £12bn a year - come to measure their talents against some of the best waves around the country in the full splendour of an English summer. The week-long event reaches its climax tomorrow.

Sadly for the organisers of this showpiece gathering, which helps to ensure that surfing pumps more than £70m into the Cornish economy every year, Mother Nature had forgotten to read the script.

For the first two days of the week-long "free lifestyle" festival, the sun shone but the sea on Fistral beach - the capital of British surfing - took the form of a maritime mill pond. As one competitor put it: "About as much fun as finding a turd in your wet suit." Yesterday, as the first competitors took to the water at a sprightly 8am, the elements had finally rustled up a respectable surf, but added a thick grey drizzle and light fog to render crowd participation meaningless.

By mid-afternoon, the skies eventually cleared to offer 10,000 surfies and lager drinkers rays and waves in equal measure, but the tally of waves for the week read: 235 good, 468 average and 489 poor.

But the Rip Curl Boardmasters speaks volumes about the nature of Britain's love affair with the art of what the Hawaiian's called "hee'nalu" or "wave sliding".

From the beaches of Thurso in Scotland to Newquay's lucrative crescent surfing beach at Fistral, it seems Britons cannot get enough of doing battle with the seas clad in figure-hugging neoprene while clutching what to all intents and purposes is a sculpted fridge door.

By the end of this year, it is estimated that some 350,000 Britons will have surfed at least once in the past 12 months, some 100,000 of them women. Surfing in Britain has flourished into an industry that was worth £200m a year in 2001 - an increase of 25 per cent on 1999.

In Cornwall, the sport has been credited with rejuvenating the tourist economy in places such as Newquay - a once dowdy resort where chintzy B&Bs have been transformed into trendy surfing hostels. A former dilapidated hotel and social club in Newquay which was turned into a surf lodge by one entrepreneur nine years ago was this week put up for sale for £2m.

Attendance at the Newquay festival, which includes additional attractions from skateboarding to a free pop festival (not forgetting the Babes Bikini Competition), is expected to exceed 130,000.

Dave Reid, director of the British Pro-Surfing Association and organiser of this week's contest, said: "We now have a fantastic sport in this country which has by no means reached its ceiling. Most people think Newquay is the only place to surf, but there is great water up and down the country which people are only just discovering. There are few other activities so focused on enjoyment, no matter what your level. That is what people respond to."

But while cagouled British holidaymakers mingled with perma-tanned specimens of humanity from Bondi, there are fears that the easy-going spirit of surfing may be becoming tarnished.

Surveying the panoply of corporate banners and marquees on Fistral beach bearing the names of sponsors from surf-wear brands such as Rip Curl and Billabong to the multi-national brands of Nokia and Foster's Group, it is clear that big money has also realised that where there is surf wax and tube riding, there is also lucre.

Gregor Park, trade marketing director for Nokia UK, said: "There is a certain halo effect for all sponsors on the surfing scene. It is a good way of tapping into the youth market."

But Dave Easton, who manages a surf shop close to Fistral beach and has been a surfer for 17 years, fears that "soul surfing" has been lost. He said: "Where's the magic gone? Newquay is now more about stag parties and townies who think surfing is about beating the sea rather than hitching a ride. We are being out-priced by China and events like Boardmaster's are more about selling T-shirts than admiring the sea."

In the meantime, competitors will be left pondering the mysteries of the Cornish seas. Luke Munro, 22, a surfer on the men's WQS tour from Australia's Gold Coast, said: "I love coming here because every time the water is different. But Jeez, I was wincing when I got into my [wet] suit this morning. I don't know how you guys survive in winter."

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