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Surf's up in Cook country

The North-east coast is a favourite haunt of surfers in winter. It's also the home of the explorer who first told us about the sport. Alex Wade reports

Kelly Slater, seven-time Association of Surfing Professionals' world champion, wants to surf there. So does Tom Curren, a three-time title-holder. Many others maestros of the rollers have heard of the area's reeling lefts and awesome, walling rights, and want to join in. But for once the bronzed demi-gods of international surfing are not setting their sights on an unknown, mystical Polynesian island. Rather, they are planning a trip to the less fabled realm of north-east England. In winter.

The coastline near Newcastle and Middlesbrough is home to perhaps the best waves in Britain. Granted, they appear in winter, but there is a satisfying resonance to the North-east's emergence on the surfing map, given that the area sells itself as "Captain Cook country". Cook was born in Marton, near Middlesbrough, and his third voyage turned out to be the one in which Europe encountered the surfing culture head-on for the first time.

Britain's most famous maritime explorer found his ship Discovery forced to return to Hawaii's Kealakekua Bay for repairs in February 1779. Up until then relations had been cordial with the Hawaiians, who, on his first visit the previous month, welcomed Cook as the personification of a local god. But second time around his appearance was less miraculous. A dispute escalated, and Cook and four of his marines were killed.

His journals were published in 1784, with the record of the third voyage completed by Lieutenant James King. Surfing was described for the first time in writing, with King marvelling at "the boldness and address, with which [the Hawaiians] perform these difficult and dangerous manoeuvres".

Visitors to Captain Cook country have ample opportunity to marvel both at the art of surfing, as practised by expert local surfers, and the rich maritime history of the area. What might appear less than propitious conditions - a hefty band of low pressure hovering over Iceland, driving lines of North Sea swell on to the exposed reefs and points of the coast - are precisely those that will draw surfers to the water. But dedicated landlubbers need only to park up Tynemouth and Saltburn-by-the-Sea to watch the action. Those tempted to have a go can avail themselves of the growing number of local surf schools.

"Surfing has always had a small but dedicated following in the North-east," said Jessie Davies, a big-wave surfer from Tynemouth, "but more people are getting into it." Davies's belief was endorsed when more than 5,000 spectators turned up in October to witness the O'Neill British Nationals. As Davies says: "The sport is booming in the UK, and people are starting to realise how good the waves in the North-east are."

Those waves break on dramatic beaches of white sand such as Saltburn, or over the slate reefs and points, offering conditions suitable for beginners, intermediates and experts. The region is dotted with ruined castles, whose stark silhouettes, illumined by a wintry sun, add to the sense of surfing in one of the more dramatic locations.

Gary Rogers has run Saltburn's surf shop with another local surfer, Nick Noble, since 1990. A highly regarded surfer, like Davies he coaches beginners, and says women are playing a huge part in the boom: "There are as many women taking up surfing as men, and though a few years ago we were regarded as aliens, people in the North-east have got used to us."

Anyone doubting the vibrancy of the community to which Rogers refers should pay a visit to the Captain Cook birthplace museum in Stewart Park, Marton. The museum hosts an exhibition devoted to Cook's life, and is neatly complemented by the British Surfing Museum, whose collection is on loan until June 2006. Put together by Peter Robinson, a Brighton surfer and journalist, the BSM saw 30,000 visitors between March 2004 and September 2005, during its initial residency in Brighton.

The collection of memorabilia and surfboards is fascinating, from a beguiling Tiki board from the 1960s - suitably bedecked in the prevailing flower-power imagery of the era - to Ray Martin's paperback Surf Broad, a novel promising the "naked truth about the those who live only for the next big wave, a searing story of the free love, free sex, surfing generation!".

The modern-day surfers of Saltburn are also on display at Captain Cook's birthplace museum, thanks to "Saltburn Surf", a show of photographs by Ian Forsyth. From a group photograph of some 40 or so surfers, to an image of local man Nathan Robinson flexing his muscles to reveal the word "Cove" tattooed across his upper back (the Cove is a secret surf spot in the area), Forsyth's fine pictures capture still points from the North-east surfing scene.

But for Phil Philo, the curator, pride of place belongs to an historic 18th-century "Olo" board on loan from a museum in Hawaii. "It's our first international loan," says Philo, "and a way of getting the Captain Cook story across to a wider audience."

Philo's enthusiasm is understandable, given the pedigree of his acquisition. "The board was used and owned by Abner Paki, the Hawaiian high chief," he explains. "Only Hawaiian royalty would have ridden a board like this. To think that it could even have been seen in action by Cook is incredible."

A tour of Cook country can take in similarly thought-provoking sights. Further south, on the coast as the North York Moors begin, is Whitby, whose connotations with vampirism (Bram Stoker's Dracula arrived here from Transylvania) are of less interest to North-east surfers than its wave which, on small swells, can break nicely on low to mid-tide with an offshore, south-westerly wind.

The Cook Memorial Museum is in the building where Cook lodged as an apprentice seaman, and the abbey stands like a bedraggled sentinel above the surf, looking towards the tiny fishing village of Staithes.

There is the cottage in which Cook lived for 18 months from 1745. It overlooks the harbour and the North Sea. It is difficult not to imagine that the young man must have gazed at the sea, dreaming of a life of exploration. There may be less ship-building in the North-east than there was, but, just possibly, Cook's legacy lives on in the form of the modern surfing generation born and bred near his hometown.

Britain's top five places to ride the waves

The Cove, Yorkshire

Surfers have a code which means that secret spots remain secret. The Cove is a cold and dangerous secret, but it is also a world-class wave. Just ask Nathan Robinson and any of the North-east crew. But don't ask them where it is.

Thurso East, Scotland

Long known as one of the best breaks in Europe, Thurso is a right-hander offering either a long wall of water or a fast, pitching tube-ride. "To witness the beauty of a 10ft swell exploding on to the flat reef at the mouth of Thor's River is to see the raw power of an Arctic storm condensed into a huge, perfect barrel," say Chris Nelson and Demi Taylor, authors of Footprint's Surfing Britain. Thurso is set to explode on to the world surfing map, as rumours of an Association of Surfing Professionals five-star World Championship Tour event grow ever more likely.

Porthleven, Cornwall

This is not a spot for the faint-hearted, Porthleven is a reef break that is often crowded but, to experts and locals, is as good as it gets. The wave breaks in front of the harbour, making a natural theatre for those watching. Given the crowds and ferocity of the wave, watching is what anyone less than expert will do.

Croyde Bay, Devon

The surf capital of Devon, Croyde is possibly the fastest low-tide wave in England. Like Porthleven, it suffers from crowds, so if you're going to surf Croyde, you need to know what you're doing. Unfortunately, many surfers take to Croyde without having attained the requisite level of ability. Around the corner, Saunton Sands offers much better beginners' waves.

Fistral Beach, Newquay

For a long time, Fistral Beach was the home of every major British surfing event, it is now also the home of the British Surfing Association, whose instructors are on hand from April until the end of October. As Barrie Hall, head coach at the BSA, says: "On its day, Fistral is as good a beach break as anywhere."