Surfing: Ice-cream headaches in the English rain

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The Independent Online

Spot the odd one out: Honolua Bay (Hawaii), Malibu (California), Perranporth (Cornwall), Bondi Beach (Sydney) and Teahupoo (Tahiti). A bottle of Double Vision Mudgee Sparkling Shiraz to those who recognised that only Bondi will not stage a round of this year's women's world surfing championships. A blob of clotted cream in the eye for those who doubted north Cornwall's place on the global surfing circuit.

Spot the odd one out: Honolua Bay (Hawaii), Malibu (California), Perranporth (Cornwall), Bondi Beach (Sydney) and Teahupoo (Tahiti). A bottle of Double Vision Mudgee Sparkling Shiraz to those who recognised that only Bondi will not stage a round of this year's women's world surfing championships. A blob of clotted cream in the eye for those who doubted north Cornwall's place on the global surfing circuit.

Perranporth joined the élite this week when it staged the Roxy Jam, the fifth of nine rounds of the World Championship Tour, featuring the planet's top 16 female surfers. The Cornish final brought together the world's top two women, both aged 21, as Peru's Sofia Mulanovich, the champion, held off the challenge of her closest rival, Australia's Chelsea Georgeson.

The excitement was clearly too much for Perranporth (population 4,003). As the final day's action began, seven spectators were at the waterfront, along with a handful of officials, reporters and photographers. Reg Foster, a local, looked puzzled. "I was just going for a walk on the beach and stopped to see what was going on," he explained.

Not that it was easy to miss the women's world surfing circus, which had been here only once before, to nearby Newquay nearly 20 years ago. Roxy, who make winter and summer sportswear and accessories, plastered their logos everywhere around the Perranporth beachfront. Swimwear is big business and Roxy combined the surfing with concerts featuring female musicians and exhibitions of women's art.

While some legs of the world tour attract thousands (even the Perranporth crowd touched three figures when the sun shone last weekend), local audiences are largely irrelevant to its success. In a marketing executive's dream, surfing on the sea is increasingly popular with surfers on the internet.

"We've done live webcasts for the last few years," Maritxu Darrigrand, Roxy's marketing director, explained. "The future of surfing is live on the web. When our webcast went down the other day we had thousands of e-mails from around the world asking what had happened."

So why Cornwall? "We'd been holding the Roxy Jam in France for a few years and wanted to go somewhere different," Darrigrand said. "The UK is our second biggest market after France and Cornwall has a very strong surfing history. Female surfing is particularly strong here. The big events usually go to Newquay, but we were told the surfing was very good here, too."

The competitors were not so sure. Keala Kennelly, who took to the surf in her native Hawaii before she could walk, said: "If the weather was better here I could see this place would be fun. The people are lovely, the countryside is pretty, the towns are cute. But it was raining when we arrived and I thought for a while that we would never see the sun."

"It rained a lot when we were in Fiji and Tahiti," she admitted, "but at least it was warm. Here it rains and it's freezing. I've spent most of my time in the house huddled around the heater. This is the coldest water I've ever surfed in. I'd much rather be in a bikini than a wetsuit.

"I had to have seven staples in my head when I cut it open on the reef in Tahiti and when I first went in the water here I was screaming in agony when the cold hit the scar tissue."

Georgeson, who lives on Australia's Gold Coast, had a similar experience. "On the first day I couldn't believe it was so cold," she said. "When I started walking out my feet were burning. I almost wanted to turn around and come back in.

"I take my hat off to the local surfers. I wouldn't be able to be a surfer here. I couldn't handle that cold water and the whole effort of putting on a thick wetsuit every time you want to surf. They're the most committed surfers I've ever come across."

Committed and growing in numbers, according to Nigel Bowden, secretary of Perranporth Surf Life Saving Club. "When I first came here you might have seen four or five surfers' cars in the car park," he said. "Nowadays at the weekend there might be 70 or 80. Surfing's never been so popular here."

The water at Perranporth can reach 18C by September, but with a temperature this week of 11C, following the coldest winter for more than a decade, the surfers have been nursing what they call "ice-cream headaches".

However, with the world's top two reaching the final and Layne Beachley, No 3 and six-times world champion, making the semis, the Cornish waves seemed to provide a fair test. After the first two days were cancelled because of poor conditions and another session switched down the coast to St Agnes, the waves on Perranporth's glorious stretch of golden sand had reached a respectable, if un-Hawaiian, four feet by the end of the week.

Wave selection is all-important. Each heat lasts half an hour and the surfers can ride up to 15 waves, with their best two marks counting. Of 400 waves ridden this week, just 15 were officially classed as "excellent". There are no set routines: the surfers have to impress the judges as best they can and are encouraged to make their manoeuvres as "radical" as possible.

Most legs of the tour - including Perranporth - offer $65,000 (£36,000) in prize-money, with $10,000 (£5,600) going to the winner. "With sponsorship you can make a decent living, but four or five of us don't have sponsors," Australia's Pauline Menczer, a former world champion, said. "Sponsors aren't interested in the women who aren't so pretty or are a bit overweight. I've seen them give sponsorship deals to girls who can't surf particularly well but look great."

Mulanovich, the winner, was not among those complaining about the venue. "It's the coldest conditions I've ever experienced, but I don't mind it," she said. "I feel more comfortable wearing a wetsuit anyway. The waves are hard to predict, but we've surfed in far worse. You have to wait for the right waves and if you find them it's great fun."

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