Thursday, October 22, 2009

'Scribblings from the Surf' - Devon Life 11/09: Extreme Sports

The fifth in a series entitled 'Scribblings from the Surf'. For more information on Devon Life, click here. To read the article, see the text below or click to enlarge the pictures of the original article below that. To see the whole series, click here.


Barrister and writer Tim Kevan meets a big wave surfer, an extreme snowboarder and the boss of a champion superbike team.

Maybe it’s something in the air or just the inspiration of the wild coastline but when ex-Blue Peter presenter Gethin Jones came to present a TV programme called Danger Hunters, the stars of two of the episodes both came from North Devon: big wave surfer Andrew Cotton and extreme snowboarder James Stentiford. But it’s not only them. North Devon is also home to the British Superbike Cup winning team for 2009.

The big wave surfer: Andrew Cotton
Andrew Cotton started both surfing and skateboarding at an early age and even when he left school he planned his continuing education around the surf, taking a part-time job at local board-maker Gulf Stream and also managing to take three months off a year to travel to some of the more demanding surf breaks, including trips to the big waves of Hawaii. But perhaps the turning point came when he was 25 years old and was forced to undergo a knee operation which put him out of action for several months. This gave him an opportunity to take stock and when he returned he was more committed than ever to forging a path as a professional surfer.

First came a sponsorship deal with among others West Wetsuits. This was followed by a trip to Madeira with Irish surfer Alistair Mennie which marked the starting point of what has now become a famous partnership in the history of European big wave surfing. On their return they spent four days tow-in surfing enormous waves at Mullaghmore Head in Ireland. This was some four years ago and at the time tow-in surfing was a relatively new sport, particularly in Europe. It involves being towed into waves by a jet ski which allows surfers to catch much bigger waves.

Since then Andrew and Alistair have led the way, helped in part by Andrew’s sponsorship by Analog Clothing and Gravis. The next Summer they surfed the now notorious Aileens in Ireland and their exploits soon started to get international attention. For the last two years they have both been nominated for the prestigious international big wave XXL awards and the have also had a documentary made about them entitled ‘Driven’ by Plymouth film-maker Anthony Butler (Mr B Productions, 2007). Then, in October 2008 they were invited to compete in the APT World Tow Surfing Championships in Punta da Lobos in Chile and achieved tenth place overall. But despite his achievements, Andrew remains modest, describing himself as “Just a surfer who enjoys getting barrelled and pushing personal boundaries.”

The extreme snowboarder: James Stentiford
Equally extreme are the activities of professional snowboarder James Stentiford who also has his home in North Devon. Like Andrew, he got into his sport when it was in its infancy which for him was back in 1987 when he taught himself to snowboard. He was immediately hooked and over the next few years carved out a life which allowed him to spend as much time as possible on the slopes eventually spending around four months a year in Chamonix. It was perhaps his connection with the Alps which fired his imagination for tougher rides but it wasn’t until a trip to Alaska in 1997 that his riding first became extreme and he experienced the possibility of dropping off tiny peaks and riding down the exposed side of the mountain.

Since then he has gained world renown and is not only the best free-rider in the UK but one of the leading snowboarders in the world. This was underlined recently when he was selected as one of only four snowboarders for the elite team of extreme athletes set up by Nissan as well as finishing seventh in the free-riding world championships. So too by the fact that he is sponsored by leading brands such as Quicksilver, DC Shoes and Lib Tech Snowboards and it is his sponsors who also provide him with the dream day job since he also runs the UK surf, skate and snow teams for DC Shoes and the UK skate and snow teams for Quicksilver. He’s also travelled the globe and has heli-snowboarded in Greenland, Russia, New Zealand, Alaska, USA, Turkey and Macedonia and been cat-skiing in Canada, Japan, Morocco and Cashmere.

But well beyond the glamour of big name sponsors and international travel there is the feeling of peace he gets when he’s in the mountains along with the speed and the sensation of weightlessness. As he says “The world makes sense and I feel most comfortable when I’m in that environment.” Like Andrew he also credits the need for challenge as part of his drive and he sees snowboarding as a form of self-expression which coupled with the physical challenge leaves him still wanting more after all these years.

The superbike team: Quay Garage Racing
Away from the sea and the hills, another extreme sports is motorcycle racing and it’s a little know fact that Braunton-based Quay Garage Racing has grown into the leading privateer team in British superbike competition. It is run by Ian Woollacott who oversees all the work involved in keeping their Honda Fireblade CBR1000RR on the track as well as running Quay Garage as his day job. He started in 2003 in order to support North Devon rider James Buckingham who went on to win the 2005 British Superbike Cup Championship. When James eventually retired it didn’t stop Quay Garage who have just recently won the same title with their new rider Gary Mason. In doing so they qualified third at Thruxton and made history as the highest ever placed privateer team on the grid.

Above all, what shines out from all of these people involved in extreme sports is their ‘can do’ attitude and spirit of adventure. The desire to push forward the boundaries and to achieve something which hasn’t been done before. It’s an heroic ideal which is all too lacking in our health and safety conscious day to day lives and stands out all the more as an inspiration to us all.

Tim Kevan is the author of the comic novel ‘BabyBarista and the Art of War’ (Bloomsbury) and the co-author of ‘Why Lawyers Should Surf’ (with Dr Michelle Tempest).

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