And not a spongehead in sight

Jonathan Sale pays a visit to the current Newquay surf festival, and is impressed
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The Independent Travel
My son explains it every summer. "What you do is not surfing," he snaps. Every summer I take my wooden surfboard into the Cornish sea, wait for any old wave and hitch a ride to the beach. Meanwhile my son stays further out on his board, which is shorter, fatter, man-made and more expensive than mine. In his wetsuit he looks like a black beetle, bobbing up and down beyond the breaking surf until finally he races along the breaking surface of the perfect wave. He travels parallel to the beach rather than towards it.

He finishes where I begin. As the wave crashes down, he slides out to sea again, leaving the white water to peasants like me.

"Is what you do surfing?" I ask.

"No," he sighs, "it's body-boarding."

"Spongeheads" is how other surfers refer to body-boarders, and also "doormat- riders" and, because they keep getting in the way, "speed bumps". But my son didn't go into all that.

Last year, fed up with my perpetual "what is proper surfing then?", he sent me along to the Headworx Cherry Coke Surf Festival in Newquay to see how it is done. Here I saw the world champions standing on their 6ft boards and carrying out spectacular manoeuvres. I turned to Dave Reed, the contest director, to ask what I was looking at.

"Contemporary surfing on a shortboard," he answered.

These shortboards featured, and will continue to feature during the current festival, in the surfing contests at Fistral Beach, Newquay. But today you can watch the one pro event for the traditional "longboards", the leviathans measuring nine or 10ft which first launched surfing as a craze. With pounds 1,000 prize money, this is the richest longboard event in the country.

Being more buoyant - photographs exist of a surfer standing at the rear with his dog like a figurehead at the bows - they are easier to master than the shortboard, though hard to master fully. They can perform a certain number of "radical" manoeuvres but are less nippy. No longer made of hefty balsawood, they are, thanks to new technology, enjoying something of a revival. Yet it is the shortboard championship which is the high point of the festival; the exciting shortboard rules the waves this week, and indeed every week all over the globe during the surfing year. Professionals aim to qualify in the World Championships, in which the 44 top surfers compete on the seas off Java, Hawaii and other exotic locations. They pick up points at each stop in the world qualifying series, of which the "five-star" venues with the top prize money are California, South Africa, Brazil - and Newquay.

Also nosing towards Newquay will be almost all of the world's top female surfers, for whom it counts as a three-star event, courtesy of the Voodoo Dolls Ladies Pro Surf. Amateurs too can join in some of the contests, all of which are covered by the official phraseology: "The surfer who executes the most radical, controlled manoeuvres in the most critical sections of the biggest or best waves for the longest functional distance, shall be deemed the winner."

One of the all-comers' events is the "tag team challenge"; a key element of this is that a selected surfer in each group of four can choose, after any single ride, to double whatever score it achieved. This means that a surfer can settle for a perfectly adequate ride, or wait in the hope of catching what all surfers long for, the ideal wave. But how can the north coast of Cornwall compare with, say, Hawaii? Those magazine photographs of a surfer inside a "tube", in which a vast blue wave arches right over his tiny frame, were not taken a few miles from the A30.

"You can get big surf and small surf here," says Dave Reed loyally. He runs Planet X, a new surfing equipment shop in Cliff Road. "From September to March you rarely see a flat day." Unfortunately, he admits, the festival takes place during the period between April and August. "But there is only one year we haven't been able to finish. A good comparison is with something like cricket."

Unlike the umpires in a cricket match, the judges of the 1994 qualifier at Newquay split the honours evenly between the top 16 surfers when the waves were flattened out on the last day. As that pattern looked like being repeated in 1996, they shifted the finals forward by 24 hours, an option not open at Lord's.

"I've been to events in Hawaii, Australia and California that have had to be cancelled," adds Dave, who has been a judge on the international circuit. The Met Office does not forecast the height of waves. A prediction of sorts can be made from the depressions over the Atlantic, which are good for waves but bad for weather. This year locals swear that the final echoes of Hurricane Willie are adding a little oomph to the rollers but these are dying away; later the waves should become more "gnarly" (translation into English: heavy).

Whatever the state of this year's waves, more competitors than ever have signed up and around 200 of the world's top professionals are taking part. The one to watch is Rob Machado, who a couple of years ago was number two in the world. He is an American who was born in Australia and has an English mother. Russell Winter is a genuine British entrant, from Newquay itself, and is the top-ranking European surfer.

When the festival is over the surfing season continues. "Surfing is more of a recreational than a competitive sport," enthuses Dave Reed. "It's about going in the water and having a bit of fun. It's a free sport; you don't have to pay to get into the water or to watch the championships."

Surfing is not quite free, actually. Unless you want to borrow my wooden monstrosity, you will have to buy a board for anything up to pounds 350 (pounds 100 second-hand ) and a wetsuit for between pounds 50 and pounds 200. Rather than throwing yourself in at the deep end, Reed recommends a little tuition, which costs between pounds 20 and pounds 30 for a day course plus pounds 10 for hire of equipment.

"The sea is a dangerous area: there are rip currents and large waves. It can be intimidating and you've got to be able to handle it. You have to know what you're doing."

This year, the festival includes no body-board contest, so my son will not be a contender. Nor is there - ever - a wooden board Golden Oldies heat, so I will not be a contestant either. Anyway, Reed has its doubts about my trusty item of surfing equipment. "I would be careful about riding one of those," he warns. "If the nose goes down on a shallow beach and hits the bottom, the back edge goes straight into your stomach."

So this won't be the year I take it to Hawaii.

Travel insurance tips, back page

Festival events: Today: Pro Longboard event UK Surf Open.

Monday: UK Surf Open Rootjoose; The Girls beach concert.

Tuesday: Pro Surf - every day until finals on Sunday; Ladies Pro Surf - every day until finals on Saturday.

Thursday: Survival - aquatic triathon event.

Sunday: Surf Expression Session - most outrageous manoeuvre.

Monday Tag Team Challenge.

Contacts: Tourist Information Centre, Marcus Hill, Newquay TR7 1BD, Tel 01637 871345. Accommodation and booking service. Open Mon-Sat 9-6, Sunday 10-5.

Fistral Backpackers, Headland Road, Newquay 01637 873146. Hostel accommodation for the more youthful surf rat.

Smile Surf Shop, 28 Fore Street, Newquay TR7 1LN, Tel 01637 873389. Equipment, boards, wetsuits and clothes.

West Coast Surfari, 27 Trebarwith Crescent, Newquay TR7 1DX, Tel 01637 876083. One of four local surfing tuition companies. pounds 55 for weekend course, pounds 110 for week (pounds 80 and pounds 190 with accommodation).

Planet X,12a Cliff Road, Newquay TR7 1NE (Tel 01637 852650). Clothes and shoes for surf, skate and street, plus some surfboards. Cafe at back looks out over the bay.

Surfers Against Sewage, The Old Counthouse Warehouse, Wheal Kitty, St Agnes, Cornwall TR5 ORE. As seen in a Channel 4 10-minute slot last week, they campaign against the fact the seas are going down the toilet and vice versa.

TEACH YOURSELF SURFSPEAK

Radical

An extreme manoeuvre: what a manoeuvre on a board should be.

Aerial

Vertical take-off above the lip of the wave, followed by safe landing on the face (of the wave, not yours).

Grom or grommet

Trainee surf rat.

Ice-cream headache

Intense headache for short period, especially in winter months, caused by temperature difference between your head and the seawater.

Kook

Hopeless surfer, believed to derive from cackling Australian bird, the kookaburra.

Three-sixty

A complete, swift turn that leaves you facing in the same direction.

Wipe-out

Prang.

Goofy

Right foot in front of left on the board.

Squirting

Underwater bodyboarding, as seen in the gorge of a ferocious Australian river. Don't even think about it.

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