As another year draws to a close, surf culture is more diverse than ever before. We look at the different directions it is moving in and ask five riders of different craft to explore the ins and outs of waveriding.
Jamie Giddens / 31 / Surfskier from Lizard
Robyn Davies / 30 / Shortboarder from Porthleven
Karl Ward / 30 / Kneeboarder from St Ives
Sam Bleakley / 27 / Longboarder, Professional Surfer and freelance Writer from Sennen Cove
Jack Johns / 19 / Bodyboarder from Penzance
Stranger: If someone knew nothing about surfing and asked you what was the best way to ride a wave, how would you sell your way of doing it as the best to them?
Jack Johns: On a bodyboard, you can draw more powerful lines and get more critical on the wave. You can hit the top of the wave and get airs. It’s a more powerful way of riding on heavy waves.
Sam Bleakley: The beauty of longboard surfing is that it’s very stylish, artistic and expressive – and it’s very well suited to British waves. We have a lot of small dribbly beachbreaks here with not much power. Good longboarding is like salsa dancing in the sea…it’s a pleasure to watch.
Karl Ward: What sells kneeboarding really is the way kneeboarders get barrelled on a wave, and stay close inside waves. But to actually see a kneeboarder do the kind of manoeuvre that a stand-up shortboarder would do – like a tailslide on a wave – that’s actually what sells kneeboarding to me in this era now.
Robyn Davies: What draws me to shortboarding is the versatility of the board, because you can ride a whole range of different boards, and they’re all classed as a thruster – from a 5’5” shortboard to an 8’ gun.
Jamie Giddens: On a surfski, you can paddle out quickly and you can catch lots of waves and you don’t have to bother trying to stand up. It’s a lot safer because you’re actually wearing a seatbelt. No other form of surfing wears seatbelts.
SB: Did you see someone surfski in the olden days that made you want to do it?
JG: When I was 11 one of my dad’s friends was doing it on this real old 1970s surfski. He gave me one and I just stayed doing it.
KW: It used to be really popular; you used to see them a lot at Gwithian and Godrevy. Now you see them a lot less.
SB: Why do you think it’s become less popular?
JG: I don’t know. I quite like that though. Quite a lot of surfskiers drop in on loads of surfers and it gives us a bit of a bad reputation, because it is so easy to catch a wave. Whenever I paddle out, even if I’m in the position to catch a wave, I always let about three or four guys go first, because I know they’re probably thinking “oh no, here we go, we’re in for a bad one now.”
STR: Why do you think there are politics in the water between different forms of wavecraft?
RD: Surfskiers, longboarders and bodyboarders can catch waves so much more easily, because of the way they float and move through the water. Obviously a surfer wants to catch as many waves as they can during a session – so if that happens, things will just break down, because of the very real but unspoken rule in surfing that you should take your turn. That’s so easily broken down with just one drop-in.
STR: Do you think there’s one group that are more responsible for agro politics than others?
KW: There always seems to be this big rivalry between bodyboarders and stand-up surfers – that’s how I always remember it. I don’t think so much now, but that’s one thing that I remember growing up.
SB: When bodyboarding boomed, suddenly there was a mix of stand-up surfers and bodyboarders… and the set would come, and the bodyboarder could swing around at the last minute and take off really late into the barrel, whereas the shortboarder might’ve been about to get up. I think that caused tension. And I think people assumed that bodyboarding was easier to do. What’s happened now is that it’s become apparent that bodyboarding is appropriate for the gnarliest waves you can imagine, and if it wasn’t for bodyboarders, Teahupoo wouldn’t be the pinnacle of excellence that it is today. Bodyboarders have really opened surfers’ eyes to how deep you can surf in the barrel.
JJ: I guess most surfers just see bodyboarders as their competition surfing – spinning around in the whitewater and so on. But there’s a whole lot more to it – basically I ride for the heavy waves; getting barrelled and doing airs. But not much of the surfing world really sees that – they just see it as a grovelly thing you do before you go on to stand-up surfing.
KW: Especially in this country; you’ve really got to travel to get those waves haven’t you? If you surf in Cornwall, you don’t get that big a choice of waves to surf where you can actually show bodyboarding for what it actually is and what you actually do it for.
SB: Jack knows the waves he wants to surf, and I know I don’t want to be riding a longboard on them. It’s not functional.
RD: It’s stupid!
SB: Kneeboarding has had a huge role in the progression of the shortboard revolution – and the outcome of that is now 6’ thruster shortboarding, and tube riding and big airs and fast progressive surfing. I think people forget how crucial kneeboarding was in the evolution of our sport… but I don’t know the role of surfskiing in the evolution of our sport!
JG: It’s come from canoeing, so culturally it’s not joined in. So it’s been excluded. But as far as extreme goes, surfskiing is well extreme becausefaced with any wave that’s over three foot, sitting strapped to a surf ski makes you shit yourself a lot more than if you’re on a surfboard or a bodyboard. Landing on rocks at Porthleven, and thinking “I’ve got to get the board between me and the rock…”
RD: Watching Jamie at Porthleven is classic…
Str: Surfskiers seem to get the most stick, have you had much bad attitude towards you when you go out?
JG: No, never have.
SB: That’s because you’re a decent person. You don’t paddle out with an attitude that encourages people to look down on you.
KW: Yeah, it’s not the wavecraft, it’s how you deal with yourself in the crowd, and where you are.
SB: The biggest kick is surfing well and opening people’s minds to what you do. I saw Jack on a really hollow day down at Sennen. Nobody was getting any clean barrels, then Jack paddled out on his bodyboard and got these three beauties. Everyone else was getting pinned, and he was just sitting tight in the barrels and coming out clean, and it was a perfect example of the right equipment for the right moment.
JJ: If you go somewhere and people haven’t seen you ride a bodyboard well, they often just write you off straight away. Everyone writes a bodyboarder off. But as soon as you travel and surf in Tahiti or somewhere, and the locals there see some amazing bodyboarding, they respect you totally and they can see how skilful it is. Some people around here have never seen it done well. Tourists come down and get on a bodyboard and muck around in the froth, and that’s what most surfers see.
SB: Good surfing is beautiful to watch, whether it be longboarding, shortboarding, bodyboarding, kneeboarding or surfskiing… it’s magic. But bad surfing is awful to watch.
KW: At the end of the day you do it because you enjoy it. That’s why you get so many people down on holiday… the first time they hire a bodyboard, they don’t have a clue and they’re out there, but they’re hooked. Just one little go and they’re hooked. For us it’s a nightmare because then there’s less space, but it’s all about yourself and your enjoyment and what you get out of the sport and out of nature.
SB: There’s a massive range of surf equipment available to use these days and you have to strike a balance between your aspirations, your bodyshape, where you live – what waves you’re going to be riding and how your going to get to the beach. I’m tall and riding a longboard really allows me to use my height and my style of surfing more gracefully, whereas Robyn’s smaller so it is more functional shortboarding because she is lower down, more compact and can be more aggressive and powerful. It is a very dynamic time to come into surf culture, because recently it has opened its blinkers to incorporate all of the different kinds of boards that we as surfers have ridden over history. And now that’s accepted as part of surfing, and you just find something that suits you. Nothing turns me on more than perfect clean pointbreaks, nose-riding on a longboard.
JJ: Whereas for me, I prefer the shorter, more powerful, heavier waves that just explode all at once and you get that real short, intense barrel.
STR: Do you get many days like that in Cornwall?!
JJ: Very rarely – pretty much never actually! That’s why I have to travel.
SB: The group of surfers who started bodyboarding before Jack all started bodyboarding because none of them could drive. Some of us had dads who could drive us to the beach; some of us lived by the beach. So we could ride surfboards; put them on the roof of the car or just walk down to the beach. Whereas they had to hitch – and bodyboarding is the most functional way of getting to the beach. Jack used to be a really good shortboarder. Then he changed to bodyboarding; and to me that is a sign of someone who’s found what they’re good at – has found their niche and is doing it for the right reasons.
STR: Yes, lots of people start bodyboarding and then move to stand-up.
JJ: Yeah, some people see it as going back, but for me it’s a progression.
SB: The reality of this debate is that we’ve got a group of surfers here who are all good at what they do. All of the stereotyping and image and all the wannabe comes from the people who aren’t good at what they do. If you had a bunch of bad surfers sitting around here, I bet there’d be a lot more inbred rivalry between them, and they’d be happy to argue out why they do what they do. When you take people who do it for the right reasons, that makes us quite open-minded, we don’t have any problems with one another’s approach to surfing, because we all respect what one another does.
RD: And I’ve tried them all, too. Although I didn’t stick at any of them, I can still totally understand why people do it, because it is a completely different rush. Surfskiing is really difficult!
JG: It’s what you’re used to. I tried shortboarding for a couple of years, and by the end of it I was thinking, “I could’ve caught that wave, that wave and that wave… why am I putting myself through all this trauma?” Once you’ve got into something and you really like it, there’s no reason to do something else just to fit in with a group of people.
RD: I think it would be good to have all the longboards, shortboards, kneeboards, bodyboards and surfskis all set out, and get a load of politicians to come and choose which one they would take out!