A Q&A with the National Maritime Museum Cornwall
Who knew that Cornwall, England, was a popular spot with surfers? We didn't. We got the full scoop on UK surfing from Ben Lumby, Exhibition Manager of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall (and surfer for 16 years), with additional information from Roger Mansfield, the surfing historian who helped assemble Surf's Up, an exhibition that's touring museums across the UK in 2006.
When did surfing get its start in Cornwall? The UK?
'Waveriding' began in Hawaii centuries ago. Before the advent of stand-up surfing, there was "bellyboarding"--a sport that originated in Durbin, South Africa. It made its debut in the Channel Islands and Cornwall in 1918.
A young man from Cornwall name Pip Staffieri surfed the local beaches from 1941. He's considered to be the first stand-up surfer in Europe. Following that, surfing did not really grow as a sport until the early 1960s, when boards were imported from Australia. At first the sport was mainly enjoyed by members of the local surf lifesaving clubs, but then interest spread.
How did surf clubs work?
As the numbers of surfers grew, beyond small cult gatherings, surf clubs enabled surfers to represent themselves and their interests as a group to the public at large. They were also often the focus for many of an intense social life, both on and off the beach. The earliest, most influential and most famous of these was the Jersey Surfboard Club in the Channel Islands, now in its 48th year.
What was the typical profile of a surfer 40 years ago?
Speaking as a surfer who started at 14 years old and who's been riding waves for four decades:
Forty years ago, surfers were misunderstood by the British press, which represented them as an off-shoot of some Californian beach-cult with bleached hair, hedonistic and with some language of their own. Whilst this bore some threads of truth, the reality was that young individually minded Brits, from all walks of life, were attracted by the inspiring vision of men on waves. They wanted to try the sport for themselves. Many gave up city careers to live on and around the beaches where they could ride waves. All grew tan and healthy; they surfed and lived with a passion as if there was no tomorrow.
What are the biggest differences between surf culture then, and now?
At first, British surf culture followed in the footsteps of the Californian beach boy scene, only it was more underground with just a few people making boards and clothing. Surfing is now a multi-hundred million pound sport, fashion and lifestyle industry that's accessible to anyone. There are some estimated 300,000 surfers in Britain today.
Why is Cornwall such a surfing destination?
Cornwall sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean, exposed to the swells that travel thousands of miles across the water. The coastline is riddled with bays that provide a variety of conditions to would-be surfers.
When's the best time to surf in Cornwall?
Depends how scared you are of the cold. Winter produces uncrowded consistently powerful swells, but an ice-cream headache is par for the course. A summer swell can be glorious, but get out there at dawn to avoid the crowds. Spring and autumn offer the best of both worlds; consistent swells and decent water temperature--i.e. not too much neoprene required.
Where else in the UK is great for surfing?
Devon, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and NE England all offer great waves and a few world-class spots thrown in for the bravest. Go explore.
What's the best advice for staying safe while surfing?
Understand the conditions. Rip currents are the biggest risk and can be dangerous. Ask a local before paddling out at a new spot. Stick a nose cone on the front of your board to protect the pointy end from hurting you. If learning, try and find a quiet spot to learn the ropes and/or take a surfing lesson.
Why were the surf boards once so long?
Boards were made out of wood, and they had to be long to get the buoyancy right. As materials improved--and fiberglass was introduced--surfboards were made shorter and shorter, enabling them to be faster and more maneuverable.
Do women surf in the UK? What's the gender breakdown for surfers?
More and more women surf in Cornwall now, and really well too. However, guys still outweigh the women by about 70/30.
What do you predict the future of surfing will be like in the UK?
So long as the crowds don't kill the sport, surfing will carry on being as popular as always. The UK has some seriously good surfers too, who do extremely well on the international circuit.