Surrounded by the sea, with nearly 200 beaches, little wonder surfing is a huge part of life in Cornwall.
Whether you have been a water baby since birth, you’re looking for something new to take over your life, or it’s something to try on a short break, going surfing, or, more precisely, not going surfing, is like a visit to Cornwall without biting into a pasty or licking an ice cream. It just shouldn’t be allowed! In many coastal towns and harbours you will find young, and not so young, men and women donning wetsuits grabbing their boards and jumping in ‘for a cheeky one’ (surf) during their lunch break and after work. Indeed, many of the companies we talk to here, from Finisterre to Oltco, will head off to the beach for a surf during the working day and make up the time later.
So what is the pull of surfing? We talk to four very different surfers to find out: professional Sam Bleakley, who has been surfing almost since he could walk; model and surfer Corinne Evans, who didn’t start until she was about 15; Tass Swallow, who runs Tassy’s Surf Ratz, coaching girls in St Ives; and ex-Army veteran Martin Pollock, who only took up surfing after loosing both legs and an arm to an IED (improvised explosive device) in Afghanistan.
Don’t be fooled by old-fashioned ideas of surfers. Like many today, Sam is a hard-working family man who, when I meet up with him, is on his way to pick up his finished and bound thesis for his PhD, in geography, travel writing and… surf. “I grew up near Gwenver and went surfing from an early age with my dad. Now I can carry on the tradition by getting my own young children started.”
Sam has been an international professional surfer and amongst other things is a travel writer, an Ambassador for Finisterre and a commentator at International Surf events. “I’ll be in Papua New Guinea for the next event… it’s a wonderful job… washed-up old surfers just chewing the fat!” He has travelled to some extraordinary places to make documentaries about emerging surf cultures: places like Mauritania, Sierra Leone and Ghana, and still competes on the British Tour.
He is a longboarder from choice. “It’s more feminine and I love the dance on the board, on the wave. Shortboarding to me is more aggressive, more punk; while longboarding is more like jazz music.” He talks about the opportunities surfing has given him and its spiritual side. “When surfing you are totally engaged in the present and the environment.” He’s written a rather beautiful book about it, Mindfulness and Surfing: Reflections for Saltwater Souls. It’s wonderful even for a non-surfer like me; the last words, and my favourite quote in the book, are from Sam’s daughter Lola: “Dad, I want to surf with you in places I’ve never heard of.”
I meet Martin at the Sand Bar overlooking Praa Sands and his eyes keep wondering to check the waves below. He grew up in Mullion and joined the Army in 2008, was deployed to Afghanistan a year later where he was shot in the leg, but recovered and returned to the front line. Then in 2010 he lost both legs and an arm in an IED explosion. As we drink coffee he quite naturally talks about “when I was blown-up.” Apparently, other vets refer to their ‘being alive day’ as the day they got blown up and survived. But Martin tells me: “My ‘being alive day’ was the first day I surfed. It just felt so right. I don’t think I realised the impact until later, just how much it grabbed me. When I’m surfing I’m happy… it’s peaceful, it’s fun.”
In 2012 he got the chance to go to California to learn to surf with Operation Surf, and hasn’t looked back since. Now he has lessons from Dan Joel at Poldhu: “He’s been a big help, helping me and coaching me… And I must mention Van Curaza who runs the surf charity in the States; he’s been my buddy since the beginning.” He grins: “Though his wife does all the work!” Martin spends a lot of his time inspiring other vets to take to the water and surf; he helps Operation Surf in the UK as well as returning every six months or so to the States to surf with them.
“There’s a number of things about surfing for me,” Martin explains. “I get real physical benefit and my mental state is better. When I’m in the water I’m freer; it’s easier to move on a surfboard.
I am really restricted on land; it’s still an effort on the water but not the same. Surfing has filled a part of me that was missing. I feel connected to nature and the planet. ”
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“I started Tassy’s Surf Ratz five years ago, to help fund the competitive side of my surfing. It started out with just a handful of girls, but within a year I had to start another class for girls under ten! That’s when my real passion for coaching started. It’s not all about surfing; it’s about developing self-confidence and helping girls to have a positive self-image. Surfing has proved to be the most amazing tool for building self-esteem in what is arguably the hardest time in these young girls’ lives.” Now she coaches around 25 girls between the ages of 6-16 years old.
In 2015, with a dream of creating a surf clubhouse for her Surf Ratz, Tass took on the challenge of a derelict but iconic building in the heart of St Ives, with the sea on three sides. She launched a successful Crowdfunder campaign to raise the funds and got the lease from the Council. Tass picks up the story: “After two years of more fundraising, planning and plain hard labour we are finally operational and so excited to be on the run up to our first summer season as a Surf Education Centre & Community events hub here in St Ives.”
Events in for 2017 include: sea school workshops, rockpool and coastal foraging, more sea themed supper clubs, exhibitions, lifeguard and surf coaching courses and the launch of ‘Surf MumZ’ – a class for surfing mothers everywhere!
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Corinne is equally passionate about getting women into surfing and runs surf lessons, and surf and yoga days. She didn’t really start surfing until she was 15 and joined the local surf club. “There weren’t many other girls surfing, none of my friends did it… but I just loved it, really got bitten by the bug! I enjoyed the free surfing most; I tried a few competitions but didn’t like the pressure.”
Now she makes her living from surfing, modelling – she’s an Ambassador for Ann’s Cottage – writing for girls’ surf magazines and running her surf tours. She also manages the fundraising events for the Wave Project,
which helps people with mental and physical disabilities get into surfing.
“But I still surf as much as I can. I love Fistral, especially in the winter.
“It’s such a funny feeling, the anticipation of not knowing whether you are about to catch the wave of your life or wipeout! There’s no consistency with surfing. You’re out in the wind, rain and sun… it changes every time you go out. The best surf is usually from autumn to spring… so you just have to embrace the cold, windy days and enjoy. It’s the best thing ever and I just want to encourage more women and girls to grab a board and get out there and have some fun!”
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