Being a surfer in the Midlands is not easy. Miles from the nearest inconsistent beach break – 1 hour 47 minutes’ drive to be exact – it takes momentous self-motivation to jump in that car and chase prospective swells. My “local” break is in South Wales, hates onshore wind, and has the same water colouration as a melted dairy milk bar. Getting down to the haven that is the Southwest of the UK is a real trek. Involving comfortably over four hours of driving, both time and finances do not permit regular visits to the more consistent breaks of Northern Devon and Cornwall.
Nevertheless, when a swell pops up on the forecast engines my gut starts to turn and I get the same excitement and apprehension I did when I first suited up a number of years back. It was a dull Wednesday in the cathedral city of Worcester, and sat behind a computer screen as raindrops pattered the infrequent 80s themed windows, my mind drifted to whether the passing of this current weather system would leave us with some high pressure. For what seemed like months, low pressure systems had rolled in off the Atlantic with very narrow windows of swell that were not accompanied by howling onshore breeze, and the distances involved did not justify a trip down for that half-day window of surfable conditions.
Flicking online to the forecasting website, there was a promising mid-period swell for the coming weekend. The weather looked set fair, with brisk offshores forecast throughout Friday and Saturday. At 3-4ft, 12-13s, if was by no means the swell of ages but I had an itch that needed scratching. Being early Autumn I dug out my boots from the loft, dusted off my 4mm suit and began to ponder where I might go. With the small size of the swell, Cornwall seemed my only option. That was a long drive.
As Friday came, and work concluded, I ran to the car and ploughed down the M5 with an enthusiasm that massively outweighed the quality of the forecast, but the grom in me was hyping over clear waters and beautiful sunsets. The weather forecast was clear, so whatever the swell delivered it would be a nice few days by the coast.
I made good time, remarkably good in fact, and I wound into the area of track I planned to spend the night just as the last slither of sun dropped below the horizon. The spot overlooked a small bay on the south coast, and was devoid of any other vehicles looking to spend a cheap night on the road. Perfect. As I watched the colours drift from orange and yellows, to deep reds and indigoes, I cracked open a beer and settled down for a feed before the stiffening offshore breeze became uncompromisingly cold. Autumn was definitely here.
Retiring to the claustrophobic back of my little Peugeot 207, there is just enough room for a curled up surfer and two boards and although I was cramping up, cold, and exhausted, the gentle rocking of the car in the buffeting wind meant I drifted off with a smile on my face. This is why I came, I dreamed, as head high rollers pounded the imaginary beaches in my mind and I paddled my way through metaphorically crystal waters.
I rose early the next morning, way before sunrise. My first spot check was Porthleven, and as I frantically tried to warm my hands on the crisply cold steering wheel, some colour began to grace the sky above. It was a beautiful sunrise, one of the most dramatic I have witnessed, as the early morning clouds rendered the entire sky a bright luminescent orange. As birds flittered on telegraph poles and early risers drove wearily past without a cursory glance, it already felt like it was worth the journey.
Drawing into the harbour town famed for its punchy reef break, I parked up and trotted down the hill to eye up whether it was breaking. It was, and there were a couple of guys out, but it was nothing special. It lacked power, form, and quickly went fat and there appeared only just enough swell to pitch the waves up over the shallow outcrops, particularly with the tide nearly at its high. I fetched my camera, took a few shots, and moved on in search of a more swell-sucking location.
It was mid-morning before I finally settled on a spot. A quiet car park leading to an expanse of beach on the south coast had a few battered old vans littered with ‘Sex Wax’ and ‘Quiksilver’ stickers. It was a good sign. Cresting over the dunes to take a closer look, it was breaking. Or at least the shorebreak was. They were effectively closeouts but having observed a mid-aged longboarder stroke into a few nice ones, I suited up and ran down for the extremely short paddle out.
It was one of those sessions that most would get frustrated at. Long waits between rides and short rides at that, I would stroke in, pop up and the wave would shut down before I barely had chance to pump down the line. It did not matter though, I loved it. At around head high, the bigger sets had some punch and I spent a good hour try to hone my backhand, pressing up and grabbing rail before being churned up by the shorebreak and deposited on the boulders. Emerging with a beaming grin, I would pace my way back out into the empty line-up and catch the next wave in a repetitive situation of Déjà vu. Next were the fly-away kickouts. Opting for my forehand side, a strong pump got me ahead of the lip and as the wave shut down I would push to the top and be flung out back, hanging in the air for what seemed like an age.
I must have looked ridiculous from the shore, as dog-walkers and coffee drinkers chilled in the autumnal sunlight. Did I care? Did I heck.
3 hours of completely average but incredibly enjoyable shorebreak surfing later I washed up on the shore, arms shot from the frantic paddling and I too went to grab a beverage to warm up. I overheard a couple of locals yarning away in the café at how “the swell hadn’t delivered”, or “it’s a bit slow isn’t it”. Taking the moral high-ground I grinned into my coffee cup. If only they knew I had a 10 hour round journey for that session (and another the following day), and at no point on the entire microadventure had I regretted coming down. I guess sometimes it takes that distance to make you realise what it means to get in the water and surf, no matter what the conditions.
And in there lies the beauty of being a landlocked surfer. It is an effort, a chore at times. Hours of browsing swell charts and weather forecasts can made you think of packing the boards away and finding a new hobby. But when you get that moment, that clarity, it makes it all worth it. A beautiful sunrise, lonely night cramped up in some isolated parking spot or just the appreciation of what it means to surf, being so detached from coastal life gives a new perception of what it signifies to have it in the first place. It is a gift, so don’t get complacent. Reach for the little things and notice the detail. But most of all, if it is mediocre 3ft shorebreak, keep an eye out for me looking inordinately enthusiastic out the back, or more likely being washed up on the rocks at the shore! Don’t complain, get after it.