Piano rolling, sax, bass and drums in synch, the trumpet sets loose on a snaking improvisation. The timing is perfect, syncopated, just behind the beat: invention, not imitation. If the pulse of jazz is the ocean swell, then the trumpeter is the surfer improvising against that backdrop, not by stating the obvious, but by creating space through style. Each surfer’s timing and improvisation deviates just enough to make his or her music instantly recognisable. And when the rhythm is swinging, the dance is mesmerising.
Slick music is a good metaphor when sliding the oily surf of California. But try translating that glide to the erratic waves in the UK. Something more profound dictates our rhythm. The bigger beat of the moon, and the great sweeping rhythm of the seasons. Surfing here is often about creating rhythm from chop. This is about timing. Tuning in. Being cool-headed in the heat of change. Leaving without a trace. In the ocean, you’ve always got to be in your senses. Don’t challenge nature, adapt. Stick with your animal instincts.
Wherever the turbulent Atlantic greets the UK’s rugged coastline, sometimes with a kiss, mostly with a slap, there is now a thriving surf culture – an estimated 500,000 souls becoming aware of the delicate balance between the natural setting of sea life and human cultural intrusion. No surfer wants to paddle out in polluted waters; or to sit back without protest while a pristine area of coastline is ‘developed’ as a marina. It was surfers who first collectively noticed how much raw sewage floated around Britain’s coastline, and protested. In 1990, the environmental action group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) was formed in Cornwall. Their work spread, to clean coastal waters nationally, making often flamboyant, but well researched, representations.
Every surfer craves the experience of surfing with dolphins, or sitting close to basking sharks. In Cornwall I have sensed the sudden suspension of time – sought by all meditative techniques – deep inside the ‘tube’, as the water curtain falls to a god’s applause. I have nearly drowned at the hands of powerful waves, and saved another from drowning. I have seen suffering men and women re-born and healed through surfing. And I have bathed in the rainbows that peel off the back of waves combed by offshore winds. When I take off on a wave, poised on a sliver against a shifting ocean that stretches to the horizon, I feel both fish and bird, caught between gravity and levity. On each occasion of bliss, fear, and plain contentment, I have been educated into the ways of the sea – the complex relationships between winds, currents, beach shapes, wave types, and lunar-tidal movement.
The UK’s 7,723m/12,429 km coastline encompasses some of the most stunning beaches in Europe. The surf conditions are best between September and November. Intimidating 6ft/1.8m waves demand total wetsuit cover in bitter 5°C/41°F wintertime Wales, Scotland and North East England. The largest surf scenes are in the warmer South West, enjoying all-year round 2-4ft/1-1.2m waves. The Cornish landscape is a mixture of wild moorland, Neolithic remains and the first post-industrial landscape created by abandoned tin mines. A granite bedrock defines the peninsula, with waves from all directions breaking on brilliant white quartz sand and into coves tucked under steep cliffs. With nine beaches, Newquay on the north coast was naturally equipped to transform from a typical fishing town into ‘Surf City UK’. Today it houses most of the thriving British surf industry and international surf contests.
Britain’s connection with surfing goes right back to Yorkshireman James Cook who captained the first group of westerners to witness surfing in Hawaii in 1778. Cook grew up in a place where some of the heaviest waves in the UK break, at Staithes reef. Here Cook felt the lure of the sea before he embarked on his Pacific voyages. Two centuries later, in the 1950s and 1960s, travelling South African, Australian and Californian surfers brought the sport to Biarritz, France, Jersey and Cornwall. Today British surfing is a sophisticated and always evolving culture and economy. But surfing remains shaped by the dream of the ‘perfect day’ – thick glassy waves and long hollow rides. Surfers call these sessions ‘unreal’, because these perfect moments are rarely found. Indeed they are ‘hyper-real’, beyond the norm, and sometimes ‘sur-real’ as we seem to enter another dimension where time slews in the strangest ways.