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Handplaning in Cornwall: Catch a break without the Hasselhoff

Handplaning means you don't need to be a 'Baywatch' surfer to enjoy Cornwall's waves. James Stewart pulls on his wetsuit

Relax, oh nervous swimmers of Cornwall. The Hoff in his Baywatch era pomp watches over Watergate Bay. See him sleek in a wetsuit, casting a connoisseur's eye at the pale aqua waves. Observe him prepare for action, an orange float in hand, ready to plunge seal-like through the breakers.

Children gaze in awe. Fathers look with respect. Mothers go giggly. "Here, you'll need these," says Carl Coombes, sports manager at Extreme Academy. He hands me a pair of stubby flippers. The Hoff is to have duck's feet? And wade in backwards, Carl adds, otherwise you're likely to face-plant in the shallows.

The Hoff has left the beach and I have returned, just another duck-footed novice in the art of handplaning.

One of the most interesting movements in contemporary wave-riding, handplaning is essentially bodysurfing to the max. There's just you, a 30cm float to generate lift and speed and the endorphin-busting thrill of riding moving walls of water.

It's also a doddle compared to traditional surfing. Within 15 minutes of a two-hour lesson with Extreme Academy, Cornwall's leading watersports centre, most people catch a wave, Carl says. "Beginners can't just stand up and surf, so for people who want to be in the water and discover the sensation of catching waves and have a load of fun, handplanes are perfect. Wild swimmers love it – they get that idea of just enjoying being in the ocean – and our four-to-one instructor ratios suit less confident swimmers, too."

Autumn is an ideal time to come and play, he adds. The sea is still warm (relatively) and after the flats of summer, low pressure systems helter-skelter across the mid-Atlantic, pumping waves on to the Cornish coast.

Although there's nothing new about handplaning – Captain Cook reported Tahitian islanders riding waves with driftwood floats in 1769 – it has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. As surfing has shifted from counter-culture to corporate, so some surfers have returned to the source. "Gnarly, dude" clichés and big-name sponsors are out. Shaping your own board and soul-surfing are in.

By stripping surfing back to its essentials and evoking a simpler more innocent era of wave-riding, handplaning taps into the zeitgeist. It is riding waves for pure stoke, as no one in handplaning ever says.

That a handplane also lets you ride sloppy waves that would otherwise be unsurfable means Britain, with its erratic, often wind-chopped swell, is ideal territory. "The waves here are not really performance waves like, say, Australia, so surfing becomes about flow and style," James Otter explains.

During my week's stay at Little Barn, a lovely rustic-modern bolthole moments from Newquay's Fistral beach, I expected Cornish surfers to dismiss handplaning as kids' stuff. Yet James, a maker of traditional wooden surfboards as Otter Surfboards, was one more local who adored it.

"On my first time, we were in chest-deep water that was too choppy to surf," he said. "So we jumped into waves with handplanes and suddenly we were catching waves and planing along open faces. We were like, 'This is ridiculous! How can this little bit of wood make so much difference?' We were like kids, shouting and hollering."

Since that epiphany Otter Surfboards has crafted wooden handplanes alongside surfboards from its workshop in Redruth. They're beautiful objects, with swoopy organic lines and the rich nutty odour of tung oil.

James also runs workshops to shape your own handplane, and will run one in London during this year's London Surf Film Festival (from 31 October to 3 November).

He adds: "Handplaning is also one hell of a cardiovascular work-out – you can go in for half an hour and feel like you've had a three-hour surf because you're constantly swimming. But most of all it's just a really fun way to ride waves."

Which is how this so-so surfer on the wrong side of 40 came to be wearing duck feet on Water- gate Bay.

On the beach, I had watched the surfers struggle to catch sloppy windblown waves. Yet after a quick lesson in handplane basics – kick hard into a peak, thrust out the handplane on a stiff arm Superman-style and push it on to the face for lift – Carl and I are trading 20-metre rides.

As we bob outside the breakers, the sea fluorescing turquoise whenever the sun bursts from clouds, I realise that this is the first time in years I've felt such child-like joy at being in the ocean. It feels like play. Like freedom, too, compared to being tethered to a surfboard.

A wave approaches – a tiddler at three feet, yet still three times overhead for a swimmer. I kick and emerge from hissing whitewater to skim across a clean green face. The wave steepens into a wall, then pitches, and for a half-second I speed through a turquoise tube of water.

My first barrel in more than 10 years of surfing. I could get used to the duck feet.

Travel essentials

Handplaning there

Extreme Academy (01637 860840, extremeacademy.co.uk) is at Watergate Bay, TR8 4AA, 3km north of Newquay. Two-hour lessons cost £30, and handplane hire costs £6 for two hours.

Otter Surfboards (07738 688165, ottersurfboards.co.uk) sells wooden handplanes (£60) and runs handplane workshops approximately every three months (£90).

Staying there

Little Barn, Newquay, sleeps two and is booked through Classic Cottages (01326 555555, classic.co.uk; from £291 per week).