UK Longboarding feature / Russ Pierre images – GLIDE magazine JAPAN

Longboarding in the UK

Glide – Japan

Text © SamBleakley

Wherever the cool-water Atlantic greets the UK’s rugged coastline, there is now a thriving longboard culture. Over half of the estimated 500,000 UK surfers ride longer boards. This is because the long reach of the continental shelf takes the sting out of swell in the UK, making the rolling tidal beach breaks ideal for bigger boards. The weather is mild and changeable, with warm summers and wet and windy winters, but all-year round 2-6 feet waves, best between September and November. The epicentres of longboard culture are at Sennen and Newquay, two consistent beach breaks in Cornwall, and Bantham and Saunton, two long, easy-to-ride sand bottom rights in Devon.

Although Captain James Cook and his ship Discovery became the first Europeans to witness surfing at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, in 1778, beach culture did not take off in the UK until the 1920s. During the warm summers, improving railway and car transportation allowed tourists to come to Cornwall and Devon in southwest of the UK, where they rode the consistent 3 foot surf on wooden bellyboards. There were isolated cases of Tom Blake style stand up riding in the 1930s and 1940s, but surfing emerged from the Live Saving clubs in the 1950s, and their relationships with equivalent movements in Australia and South Africa. By 1963 a longboarder named Rodney Sumpter, who was born the UK, but raised in Australia, was considered one of the hottest on the planet. He’d won the Australia Junior titles and stared in The Endless Summer with Nat Young. Fresh from victory at the 1965 US Open, Sumpter decided to move back to his homeland in the UK. With ultra cool finesse and effortless nose-riding, he instantly became an inspiration to the 1960s generation, winning competitions and encouraging UK riders and a surfing industry to blossom throughout Cornwall, Devon and Wales. By the 1980s surfboard design had gone full circle and longboards were back. Rodney Sumpter re-emerged to claim the national longboard titles.

In the 1990s the growing longboard community was deeply inspired watching Joel Tudor and Nat Young free surfing during an Oxbow promotional tour to the UK. Oxbow asked the charismatic Robert ‘Minnow’ Green to run a British Longboard contest, and he soon started the hugely popular British Longboard Union contest Tour. In the UK, Chris ‘Guts’ Griffiths was a guiding light – dominating in Europe as a full time professional and scoring fifth place in the World Championships in big French surf, knocking out Joel Tudor en route. Watching him influenced me (Sam Bleakley) not just as a freesurfer, but as a serious competitor. I went on to become a multiple national and European longboard title holder. Soon, UK surfers Elliot Dudley and Ben Skinner would enter the stage, taking British longboarding to new heights, in turn pushing the latest wild bunch of hot talent, including noseriding princes James Parry, Matt Travis and Mike Ley, plus longboard divas Candice O’Donnell and Grace Davies.

World Title contender and multiple European Champion, Ben Skinner’s mark of respect is that the very best in the globe always fear coming up against him in a heat. Ben is also a business entrepreneur, setting up both a successful surfboard company (Skindog Surfboards) and surfing school in Newquay, Cornwall. Elliot Dudley has also made his mark on the international scene and is a brilliant and widely travelled surfer. “UK longboarding has such a tight knit group and everyone gets on so well, which is really positive,” says Elliot. His surfing is a stunning celebration of surfing’s eras and styles, and like all the top UK longboarders, switches easily to shortboarding.

Today the freeride ethos is alive and flourishing in women’s longboarding in the UK, where a combination of adventure, imagination, grace and professionalism shape a contemporary art form. Multiple champion Candice O’Donnell’s pivotal point was in the UK in 2005, when Roxy ran a stop on the Women’s ASP shortboard World Tour. Spotted by Roxy for both her longboard finesse, effervescent character and stunning looks, a sponsorship ensued. Candice’s career took off and she was soon mixing with contemporary legends such as Kassia Meador and Jennifer Smith. By 2010 Candice had bagged the full brace of UK and European Longboard titles, competing with an infectious joie de vivre.

UK longboarding has spawned creativity far beyond the realms of competition. There are those for whom surfing is both anchor and well of sustenance and inspiration in their lives, who move easily from the board room to the longboard greenroom, or from the aesthetic of fashion to fashioning beauty and elegance on the waves. One of these is longboard fanatic Maia Norman, an acclaimed clothes designer, devoted mother of three boys and partner with the globe’s most adventurous visual artist, Damien Hirst. “I wish
everyone had something like surfing in their lives,” says Maia. “A place you can go to clear your slate. I feel like a million bucks when I come out of the water – especially in the cold. Sometimes when I’m out sitting on my board, I see the sheep scattered over the rolling green hills and feel like I’ve really got the life I was looking for.”

About Sam Bleakley

I am a freelance writer and professional surfer from Sennen, West Cornwall, in the UK. I specialise in surf exploration projects with renowned surfEXPLORE photographer John Callahan. I have undertaken groundbreaking trips to the likes of Algeria, Liberia, Kenya, Oman, South Korea, Hainan, Palawan and the Maluku Islands. Surf writing has led me to visit sixty countries. My roots, however, remain in Penwith, where I live with my family above Gwenver beach, close to Land's End, the westernmost tip of Britain - next stop Novia Scotia. I have an MA in Geography from Pembroke College, the University of Cambridge, and I am currently researching a part time PhD in Travel Writing with Falmouth University. I am the author of two illustrated surf travel books, Surfing Brilliant Corners and Surfing Tropical Beats (Alison Hodge Publisher, Penzance). I have been a multiple European and British Longboard surfing Champion, and former competitor on the ASP World Longboard Tour. I am widely published and featured in international magazines and newspapers ranging from Resurgence to Action Asia to The Cornishman, and a regular contributor to The Surfer's Path. I have studied and taught travel writing courses and guest lecture on aspects of surfing, travel, writing and geogrphy in further and higher education. I edited The Surfing Tribe: a history of surfing in Britain, and have edited Longboarding supplements and specials for Carve and Wavelength magazines. My first book, Surfing Brilliant Corners, details a decade of extreme global surf travel, illustrated by John Callahan. Surfing, jazz, geography, ecology and cultural studies mix as I journey to Mauritania, locked in political strife, where landmines litter access to some of the best waves on the planet; and Haiti, which captures my heart and makes it race as if falling in love. My second book, Surfing Tropical Beats, follows our surfEXPLORE team on a rollercoaster ride from Haiti to Gabon, through Algeria, India, Vietnam, China and back to Haiti.
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