Saturday, January 7, 2012

Article on Surfing in North Devon for Exmoor Magazine

Thanks to Exmoor The Country Magazine for allowing me to re-publish an article I did for them recently on Surfing in North Devon (below). You can find out more about the excellent magazine here.


SURFING IN NORTH DEVON

Tim Kevan explains why people paddle out into the sea even in the middle of Winter and goes on to give a guide to North Devon’s main surfing beaches

When people think of surfing they might think of Hawaii, California or the Beach Boys. Yet there is an altogether different culture which is on our doorstep in North Devon. It’s one in which people move away from good jobs for the opportunity to live by the sea and paddle out in the middle of Winter in thick wetsuits in order to catch the best swell in the right conditions. Yet despite its obvious pull, it’s often hard to put it into words exactly what it is that makes it different. For everyone it is to get away from the day to day and capture those moments on a wave which seem to take us outside of time and yet live on in our memories forever. But it’s also to sit out the back beyond the waves and watch the rise and fall of the sea as if counting time to the heartbeat of the world. To see oyster catchers playing or maybe catch a glimpse of a porpoise. In a world full of noise, bureaucracy and a vacuous celebrity culture it is to experience silence. To immerse yourself fully into the beauty of the natural world. To feed the soul and admire the beauty of the creation which surrounds us.

But as with fishing, foraging, or any other such activity which take us out into the countryside, it’s also about patience. Being prepared to get out there even without the guarantee of any reward and enjoying the quest for the waves almost as much as their capture. Working out what the wind and swell forecasts will mean for different beaches and then taking account of both the times of the tide as well as their size. But above all else, it’s perhaps about paddling out into the sea with your friends, sharing a few waves and then having a quiet beer afterwards which best sums up the experience which is surfing.

For my part, having been brought up in Minehead, I first caught the bug in North Devon as a teenager in the 1980s. But having become a barrister in London, I found myself only able to surf on long weekends and in the holidays. It was therefore a great relief after some ten years of practice to move back to the West Country and in particular near to the surf a few years ago after having got a book deal to write my first novel.

The history of surfing goes back to the ancient Hawaiian kings and their word for it explains its meaning to them. It is he’enalu which splits into two. He’e means to run, flow, slip, glide and also to flee as well as to ride a surfboard. Nalu means to suspend one’s judgment, to think within oneself and to search after any truth or fact as well as the surf itself. As for its discovery by the rest of the world, it was as far back as 1777 that canoe surfing was described in an account of the voyages of Captain James Cook in the following way: “I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea.”

In North Devon surfing has been popularized by the rise of the local surf shops and the people who run them. The pioneers were Tim Heyland and Dave Aldridge-Smith who established Tiki in the 1960s and they were followed by the likes of Gus and Ross Thomson who founded Saltrock in the 1980s and Jules Matthews who set up Gulf Stream surfboards the following decade. These people and their products have helped to get not only the locals into the water but also to popularize the sport for those travelling from much farther afield. So much so that surfing today is a mainstay of the economy of North Devon.

As for the best conditions, the perfect day would be a big groundswell with offshore Easterly winds (ie blowing form the land to the sea) to clean up the breaking waves. But it certainly doesn’t need to be like that in order to be catching waves, particularly for beginners who are mostly catching just the white water crashing towards the shore. Then there’s sites such as MagicSeaweed.com and WingGuru.com which help with predicting the conditions and webcams provided by Tiki and Eyeball Surfcheck which help in checking them out on the day.

THE BEACHES

Saunton Sands
The huge stretch of beach which backs onto the UNESCO biosphere reserve of Braunton Burrows is not only stunning but also the best beach for learning due to its gentle gradient and relatively slow waves as well as the fact that there’s plenty of space to walk down the beach and away from the crowds. Beginners should keep away from the rocks on the right hand side as there’s a rip current which could drag the unwary out to sea.

Croyde
Famous for its left-hand barrels or hollow waves, it’s also a place where beginners in particular need to be especially careful. As well as the crowds on this relatively small beach, waves often break quite powerfully in shallow water, particularly at low tide.

Woolacombe
This is another long beach like Saunton where you can walk further down and avoid the crowds. But again, be careful of the rip currents and of the rocks on the right hand side.

Putsborough
This gets shelter from the prevailing South-Westerly winds, particularly at high tide. But again, be careful not to get caught on the rocks, this time on the left hand side.

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