Surfing: Tynemouth the Hawaii of the north as Lamiroy hunts down Britain's 'Jaws'

The film Billabong Odyssey opens as this weekend's British National Surfing Championships begin.
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The Independent Online

Some of the exploits in Billabong Odyssey, a visually stunning surfing documentary that opens in British cinemas this weekend, almost defy belief.

Some of the exploits in Billabong Odyssey, a visually stunning surfing documentary that opens in British cinemas this weekend, almost defy belief.

"It's like surfing down a mountain with someone setting off avalanches behind you," says Mike Parsons, a 36-year-old Californian, of hurtling down the 64-foot vertical face of a monster breaking wave in Hawaii. And he's not kidding.

This is the extreme end of the sport: Parsons and a bunch of fellow former world-tour professionals spending two years in a quest to ride the biggest waves on the planet. They used hi-tech weather forecasting to identify their targets and high-powered watercraft to reach them, travelling from west-coast America to Mexico, Europe, Tahiti, Australia and Hawaii in search of the time of their lives.

You could argue the British National Surfing Championships, which take place today and tomorrow at Tynemouth, near Newcastle, represents the other extreme of the sport's spectrum.

Certainly the breakers are likely to be closer to two feet high than 100ft, even allowing for the seasonal North Sea swells. And although surfing is one of Britain's fastest-growing sports - with an estimated 600,000 recreational adherents - the UK is hardly the epicentre of a £2.8bn global industry.

But the championships will be fiercely contested none the less, and in the defending title holder, the British No 1, Sam Lamiroy, they will have a strong link to the type of elite endeavours undertaken by the Billabong Odyssey crew.

Lamiroy, a 28-year-old Geordie, started surfing, aged 11, at the Tynemouth beach where he competes this weekend. His first board was fashioned by a local enthusiast, Simon the butcher. He started entering local contests, and started winning. But even when he took the British junior title at 18 he "never imagined in my wildest dreams that I'd do it one day as a living."

When he came fifth in the World Under-21 Championships, aged 19, things changed. A "whole load" of sponsorship offers came in.

"My parents said 'OK, do it if you want to', but they also said they'd support me if I wanted to go to university," he recalled. "I wasn't entirely convinced about the surfing so I went to university."

Emerging with a degree in oceanography - what else? - he returned to the water competitively. He climbed as high as No 4 in Europe and even got inside the world's top 100, which was no mean achievement in a sport so utterly dominated by Americans and Australians. Yet he gradually came to the conclusion that the top-level circuit was not where he wanted to make his living.

One reason was the inherent disadvantage of being over 6ft tall. When judges awarded better scores for sheer numbers of turns or manoeuvres, Lamiroy felt incapable of replicating the feats of small, stockier opponents with lower centres of gravity.

"It can be galling to go all the way to South Africa, for example," he said. "You spend all that time and money getting there and then find two-foot waves and that you're up against a guy who only comes up to your hip but you know is going to beat you."

The clincher in scaling down his top-level ambitions was the realisation that competition dimmed, not enhanced, his enjoyment. "Technically, I know I'm as capable as anyone. But I didn't feel mentally equipped to deal with competitive surfing at that level. I'd score a nine [out of 10] in one heat and need only a three to progress to the next round but not get it.

"I tried all kinds of things, sports psychologists, the lot. But I came to realise it wasn't the competitive part of surfing I enjoyed but the act of surfing itself. It gives you little moments of happiness, pure joy, that are difficult to come by in normal life."

Fortunately, surfing offers more ways to make a living than among the upper echelons of the professional tour. Lamiroy still competes around Europe, and in events like this weekend's, which he has entered intending to win. But with commercial backers, including Red Bull and the kit manufacturers, O'Neill, he is at liberty to experiment with a variety of surf-related projects on their behalf.

His next venture, to start early next year, is essentially a UK Odyssey, backed by technological and meteorological support from Plymouth University. "The basic premise is to put together a team, on permanent standby, with the aim of surfing the biggest, most extreme waves around Britain, whenever and wherever they occur.

"I've seen some phenomenal waves in Britain and I'm always frustrated that I can't get people to understand quite how good they can be, in size and quality. The ultimate aim is to show people the footage and tell them it's Britain and get a response of 'You're kidding me!' That's what we're after."

So long, Billabong. Here come the Brits.