Travel: Life on the crest of a very big wave

Surfing is now the pastime and the passion of around 100,000 people in Britain. Matthew Brace describes the thrills and spills of doing it standing up
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The Independent Travel
IT BEGINS with a push from behind as the wave scoops up the surfboard with tremendous force. The full energy of the wave is about to be released when it crashes on to the shore after its long journey from mid-ocean. The surfer picks up speed immediately as the wave races home, forming a crest, which in winter around our coasts, can be 10-l5ft high.

There is little time to think as the surfer goes from lying flat on the board to standing, back foot at right angles to the centre of the board and front foot at 45 degrees, and then makes for the golden spot just below the crest which is beginning to teem and spit spray. The wave is his.

Surfer and board hurtle towards the beach with a wall of roaring water chasing them in. The more experienced surfer can twist the board around and run sideways along the wave, squeezing through tubes of water as the crest curls over him and collapses, or racing back up the wall and flipping high into the air over the crest and then plunging beneath the surface on the backside of the wave.

The first ride on a surfboard is a memorable experience. Mine was when I was 12, in Widemouth Bay on the north Cornish coast during a late-summer storm, and it was the most exciting day since the one when my Dad took the stabilisers off my bike a few years before.

Don't despair if you didn't learn as a child, however, because hundreds of adults take to surfboards for the first time each year. The British Surfing Association, which began in the mid-Sixties when surfing was taking off in the UK, can provide you with a starter pack.

The BSA also has lists of courses all over the country, run by instructors they have trained. It also runs national and international competitions, and encourages surfers to stick to a code of conduct which focuses on safety and consideration for others. They will also give advice on which boards to rent or buy. Beginners have to go through the ignominious process of training on larger-than-average boards which are easier to steer but far less fashionable, while bronzed surf devotees jog along the beach with their trendy, brightly decorated models. This is one sport where bigger is not necessarily better.

The demand for lessons is increasing each year, according to the BSA's national director Colin Wilson. "More and more people seem to want to do it properly these days, learn by the book and take lessons, which is a good thing because as more people get out on to the waves, they need to be surfing safely," he said. There certainly are increasing numbers of surfers out there, with about 100,000 around Britain involved in the sport.

Fistral Bay, at Newquay in north Cornwall, and Croyde Bay in north Devon are packed in high summer. Croyde is one of the first surfing beaches reached by day-trippers from London, Bristol and the Midlands.

Increasingly, die-hard surfers are travelling further afield to find deserted beaches and more challenging waves. Some take long drives from Penzance to North Yorkshire, and even to the violent cauldron of the Pentland Firth off the north coast of Scotland, where waves smashed to pieces a huge wave-energy machine a couple of years ago.

"In North Scotland, you get world-class waves and no population, but it is very cold," Mr Wilson said. "There are 15-20ft waves - that's Hawaiian standards - and rock reefs which make better waves. But rock-reef waves, with steeper take-off and more power, are definitely not for beginners. It would be like going from go-karts to Formula One. And you have to remember when you wipe out, not to go in head first. I've come out after surfing over rock reefs needing stitches."

Meanwhile, surfers are going hi-tech, calling helplines for information about swell and wave heights, and searching for wave-prediction models on the internet. By rights, surfing should be our national sport, not football. After all, we are surrounded by some of the most spectacular seas in the world. Admittedly, they are unbearably cold almost all year, but the wet-suit has eased the pain.

And compare the venues. Football invariably takes place in an anonymous stadium with the smoke stacks of long-dead factories looming behind the floodlights. Surfing's arena is a glorious stretch of coastline backed by cliffs or dunes, the sun dancing on the waves and sea birds swooping in the sky. Mr Wilson believes that the beauty of the sport's sur-roundings is still one of the main thrills for surfers. "It's you on your own. You don't need 10 other people to do it," he said.

If people want to help protect the environments they enjoy while surfing, they can join the SAS. That is Surfers Against Sewage - not the Army's special-forces division - a campaign group calling for a clean-up of Britain's waters and beaches, which has been kept busy with the UN Year of the Oceans. But like all surfers, they know when to stop work and heed the call of the waves.

FACT FILE

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What to take

You will need a board, special wax, and a wet-suit with a rash vest to prevent chafing.

Further information

To find out more about surfing, including details of courses, contact the British Surfing Association (tel: 01736 360250), and Surfers Against Sewage (tel: 01872 553001).

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