Surfing UK: a nation in search of attitude

It is not just at the Olympics that Britain disappoints. Despite some locations to rival California's golden coastline, the country's biggest surfathon came to a close this week with little to excite the home fans.
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From foaming, pouting peaks of cylindrical ecstasy through to flaky filleted troughs of crumbly despair, the Headworx Cherry Coke Surf Festival at Fistral Beach, Newquay, has been a two-week-long scene of extreme barometric and emotional highs and lows. The eventual winner of the climax of this surfathon, the Headworx Pro, was a rookie on the Associated Surfing Professionals world tour, 18-year-old Taj Burrow from Yallingup in Western Australia, a kid with sun-bleached hair and salt-cracked lips who surfs like a dream.

But there were also the ingredients of a nightmare in a surf contest with no surf. It was predictable that the surf gods would punish the presumption of scheduling the finals for 3pm Sunday by serving up perambulatory wavelets at the weekend rather than seething, spitting, soul-churning barrels. Imagine turning up for the Cup final and finding that Wembley had mysteriously shrunk to a postage stamp-sized patch of well-mowed turf. Thus, the Headworx final was enacted on the dregs of a dying swell on Saturday. By Sunday those pumping sine-curves of a few days before had, like flickering life- signs on a cardiograph, flattened into a terminally straight line.

The last four surfers, desperately milking those limp, saggy ex-waves for their last ergs of energy, were all Australians. Burrow had the distinct advantage of being the lightest, skinniest guy in the field, riding the shortest, slimmest board, a 5ft 11in Swallow-tail thruster with a koala logo shaped by Maurice Cole, the man who has shaped champions such as Tom Curren. The oldest and heaviest of the contenders, Mark - "Occy" - Occhilupo, 30, making a dazzling comeback after years in the wilderness, came in fourth.

Even though they were on their home-break, all the British hopefuls, Spencer Hargraves, Russell Winter, Lee Bartlett, and Tarwin Williams, went out in the early rounds. Rather like Atlanta, the Atlantic medal ranking goes roughly like this: Australia, US, Brazil, others . . . Brits. We petered out long before the waves did. Since the glory days of Martin Potter in 1989, Britain has slid to become the Atlantis of world surfing.

But Newquay was a tale of two cities. On the other side of town, the Hawaiians were stopping traffic in Bilbo (the original UK surf shop). It was like a battle of the sponsors. While Headworx were playing host to some of the world's top pros down at the beach and turning waves into shop windows, Chiensee - a rival German company - had drafted in some big-wave living legends in the shape of Gerry Lopez and Darrick Doerner, hot from Harrods and Brighton.

These men are au dessus de la melee (or maree) where the ASP tour is concerned and devote themselves to slotting into the mightiest waves in the world in Hawaii or plotting a post-Point Break movie in Hollywood.

Lopez's name has become inseparable from Pipeline, the most vertical, hollow, and easily identifiable tube of water anywhere, located in the Hawaiian Islands halfway between Sunset and Waimea Bay on the North Shore of Oahu, and halfway between heaven and hell. Pipeline was only pioneered as recently as the early 1960s.

Lopez - a "goofy-footer" naturally suited to this classic left-hander - first attempted it in 1964, attained perfect fluency around '67 and has stayed at the top of a very short tree ever since. Making a living out of hitching rides on 10 to 15 feet of spinning vortexes, Lopez has a healthy respect for such precarious vehicles which can stomp you into a shallow and needle-sharp volcanic reef.

Where Lopez is all laid-back island charm, his partner Darrick Doerner - "Double D" among cognoscenti - is more amped, more hyper, still on a mission. He is probably No 1 among a select crew of power-surfing specialists who have latched on to the Yamaha waverunner as a means of being towed into waves that were formerly unmakeable. Having pulled into the biggest tube ever ridden, a solid 40ft at Jaws on Maui, and envisaging potential 60 footers this coming winter, he has abandoned the merely 20ft-plus nursery slopes of Waimea for the "cloudbreaks" that lurk miles offshore. Doerner tried to be diplomatic about Fistral's waves but admitted: "When it's this size, I'd rather go and look at girls. It's more exciting."

But in truth, the weekend deflation notwithstanding, we don't lack for waves. Cornwall has a 12-month surf season and stands comparison with parts of California and Australia. Thurso, up in Scotland, boasts a wave which is the cold-water brother to Pipeline. When I was on the North Shore one winter, a photograph was faxed over showing a Newquay wave so huge that one of the locals asked: "Why d'you bother coming here when you've got waves like that back home?"

Surfing began in Britain around 30 years ago - we have a track record. So Hawaii-o-why can we not come up with a single solitary soul in the top 44 (the elite guaranteed seeding into the grand slam pro events)? Our deficiency is more demographic than geographic. Unlike Australia, California and South Africa, our centres of population do not coincide with our best waves. Newquay is not Sydney. Consequently, we have a relatively shallow pool of potentials. But the trouble runs deeper than this. It is often said that surfers have "attitude".

The problem is, in Britain at least, we have the wrong attitude. Our pros lack passion, vision, belief in their dreams, willingness to learn from anyone else's example. A lot of the Brits down at the beach should have been over at Bilbo begging for tips from the Hawaiians.

One exception to the general rule is Ted Deerhurst, who went out in the second round. He is now too old and too injured to stand much chance of making it big-time, but at least he has an open-minded attitude.

He threw away his silver spoon (he is the son of the Earl of Coventry) and set off on an unfinished quest for perfection that has taken him to Burleigh Heads and Santa Cruz, and finally the North Shore, where he is sporadically studying law at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu but concentrating on graduating in practical oceanography.

Deerhurst is still battling up the ASP ladder: "I'm lying around 623rd right now - but rising! I calculate that if I can shoot up to 420 or so, I might stand a shot at the most improved surfer award."

But the ASP tour organisers, with increasing satellite TV backing, are moving away from the traditional tourist tracks and towards far-flung big-wave arenas. Similarly, Deerhurst. While other surfers gear up for the US Open or the trio of contests in France, he is putting more effort into digging up a sponsor that will equip him with a waverunner and a shot at monster waves immune to crowds.

The spectators at Fistral may have missed out on the epic drama of surfing and the sense of grace under extreme pressure. But Deerhurst's dream, if it ever came off, would surely rectify the omission: "I want to ride a 40-foot tube, video it, and televise it back here in the middle of winter. That'd be the best Christmas present ever."