Young slaves to the surf

More people own a wet suit than go fishing. Alan Hubbard visits an academy on the crest of a wave

They were riding along on the crest of a wave and the sun was in the sky. But it was not so much a case of all hailing the distant horizon, as in the old
Gang Show days. Instead these youngsters, 150 of them from tots to teenagers, were hailing their mums and dads on the beach as they forged their way through the foam on surfboards, having a whale of a time.

They were riding along on the crest of a wave and the sun was in the sky. But it was not so much a case of all hailing the distant horizon, as in the old Gang Show days. Instead these youngsters, 150 of them from tots to teenagers, were hailing their mums and dads on the beach as they forged their way through the foam on surfboards, having a whale of a time.

It could have been California. In fact it was Croyde Bay, a tiny hamlet on the north Devon coast where, on a rare English summer's day, a fascinating exercise in bringing a splash of adventure to young lives has been taking place. These days our kids are certainly into surfing - but mainly on the net. At Croyde Bay it was more like netting the surf, or rather those would-be surfers who are not yet wet behind the ears.

Yes, the sun was out, but even if hailstones had been hurling down it would not have stopped the recruits to the O'Neill Surf Aca-demy from making waves. Seven-year-old Keisha Mitchum, from Maidstone, her face puckered in grim determination, hauled a surfboard almost twice her size to the water's edge, impatient for her tutorial from one of the team of 10 hunky instructors who might have stepped out of Baywatch. Although in this instance it was more like Baby Watch.

By the end of the morning Keisha, like her brothers Milo, 11, and 13-year-old Zac, was up and riding the board - well, after a fashion. But enough to get a taste for it that wasn't just salt water in a sport as much about spills as thrills.

"The trouble is they'll all want to move to California," laughed their mother, Kate. "The boys have done this before when we've been in America and they're more into surfing than they are football. But this is a fantastic idea, a great education for them."

Keisha's mum reckons that if you walk around the Blue Water shopping centre in Kent you'll see more surfing apparel, Hawaiian-print T- shirts and baggy shorts, than you will football shirts. "It's becoming a bit of a cult thing among kids."

So it would seem, judging from the reaction of the student surfers to an activity which the top exponents consider as much a spiritual as a sporting experience. Theirs is a watery world inhabited by the most beautiful people, yet it is now one that, in Britain at least, is becoming increasingly accessible to even those from the inner cities, where they think surf is something you put in the washing machine.

You certainly don't have to live beside the seaside to become a surfie. They came to Croyde Bay from places as diverse as Durham and Truro for their day with the Surf Academy, the idea behind which is to teach European youngsters the art of catching the waves. For the past four years Team O'Neill - formed by the American Jack O'Neill, who invented the wet suit back in the Fifties - have been giving free tuition at the surfing seminars to youngsters in Britain, Belgium, Spain, France and Italy.

The 150 "gromits" - that's the surfing term for beginners - gathered on the Devon sands were drawn at random from the 44,000 who had filled in application forms at sports-goods shops and tourism offices. Croyde Bay isn't noted for big surf, but the water was just about fiery enough for anyone trying to clamber on a board for the first time.

"British kids are natural surfers," claims Richard Schmidt, the Academy's director, who is also one of California's surfing gurus. "Those who come to our sessions are quite athletic, and pick it up quickly."

The routine at surf school is simple. A half-hour induction lesson, instructions on safety, some warm-up exercises and then in at the deep end - or, in this case, the shallow end. The first task is learning how to handle the board and then stand up on it. Master that and you are on your way to a spot of California dreaming. A burger on the beach and then it's back into the water. At the end of the day everyone gets a "surftificate" and a T-shirt.

You don't have to be a Baywatcher to appreciate that surfing is very big business indeed these days. Wherever there's a wind and a wave, you'll find someone chasing them, whether it is in Devon, Cornwall, Ireland or Tyneside - although up there you would need more than a pair of bum-huggers to take the chill off the North Sea. The more adventurous can even surf in the Arctic, riding waves created by icebergs. Titanic stuff, and dangerous too. But at this level, that's the hell of it.

The best surfing in the world, according to the experts, is in Indonesia, where the waves have incredible variety and are big and perfectly formed because of the powerful swell. "The thing about surfing," says Chris Lynch, one of the O'Neill team, "is that every wave is different, a new experience, a new challenge. I've ridden the surf all over the world and, as a way of life, it's so cool."

Unlike in the United States and many other countries, even the top surfers here are not classed as international athletes, so they receive no financial support. But they hope this may change as we take a more sophisticated attitude to what constitutes sport. Several schools on the south coast now have surfing as part of their sporting curriculum, and the University of Plymouth has just introduced a three-year degree course which covers all aspects of it. Last year they had 25 places available and were inundated with applications, some coming from Australia and Hawaii.

The course embraces not only practical surfing but marine science and technology, as well as the management issues underpinning the global surfing industry and theculture of the sport.

There are 100,000 surfers registered with the British Surfing Association, the numbers having doubled in the past five years. Britain has about 50 professionals, half a dozen of them regulars on the circuit, and last year the industry turned over some £160m. It is said that more people own a wet suit than go fishing.

Surfers do seem a bit like fish. Once they take the bait, they're hooked. That's why they are catching them young.

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