Surf History

A little bit of background

It is generally accepted that Polynesians from Tahiti and Hawaii were the first to enjoy the sensation of gliding across the face of an unbroken sea wave, standing proud on wooden surfboards crafted from the timber of sacred trees. Fifteenth century ‘Meles’ (Hawaiian chants sung by elders and passed down generation to generation) record the surfing activities of the great Royal families and other dignitaries of even earlier times. As most schoolchildren will be aware, Captain James Cook was the first ‘civilised’ western observer of this pastime in the early 1770s, closely followed by western missionaries, resulting in a suppression of the sport. It is commonly accepted that surfing at the time was outlawed as being an ‘unchristian’ activity. Some historians now believe however, that it was gambling that was actually outlawed causing the demise of surfing by removing the ‘sport’ from the activities of the noblemen who used to bet on the size of waves and length of ride. Either way, surfing disappeared to most of the world for many hundreds of years.

In 1915 the legendary Hawaiian Olympic champion, Duke Kahanamoku, while touring the world, introduced the sport of surfing to Australia and America, where previously only glimpses of the sport had been seen. Surfing was eventually introduced to Europe in the early sixties by Australian Lifeguards working at Newquay, although it has been claimed that the first surfers to ‘stand up surf’ in the UK actually did so at Treyarnon Bay in the late 1950s. The ‘surf culture’ of the sixties quickly became established often being seen, mistakenly, as a part of the ‘hippy’ culture of the era. While others were ‘turning on’ or ‘dropping out’, surfers were busy ‘tuning up’ in preparation to ‘drop in’ on new waves, waves never before ridden. That’s not to say that the surfers didn’t wholeheartedly embrace the more relaxed lifestyle, they just took a different line. The Trevose Head area has long been recognised as home to many excellent surfers and watermen since the 1950’s. Tigger Newling (whose family lived at Treyarnon Bay) dominated the embryonic European surfing scene of the late 1960’s and ’70’s while younger brother Mike (who still carries legendary status in Australia) soon became one of the pioneer professional surfers after the family emigrated to Australia in the mid ’70s. As a result of his membership of the infamous Newport Plus crew of the late 70’s, he and his fellow surfing hot rats (Tom Carroll, Rich Cram, Derek Hynd and a whole bunch of other hot Sydney rippers) became regular visitors, basing themselves in the area when competing in the newly established pro comps in Newquay and France. This continued a pattern of visiting international surfers, originally established by the likes of Keith Paul, Corky Carrol and Bob Cooper in the early ’70s and carried on by Johnny Gomes, Taylor Knox and Mike Stewart in recent years. All arriving on ‘hearsay’ and raising the standards of the local surfers just by being there.

Being within an easy drive (an hour or so) from the City of Plymouth, there has always been a regular trickle of city folk to these beaches. John Copley and Steve Daniel (who both still rip, Steve on a long or shortboard) spent their school holidays surfing the local breaks to become, along with Paul Russell and Ian Thompson, the stand out surfers in the early ’80s. The ’80s also saw the rise of Chris Rea (now owner of the Harlyn Surf School), Dave Pearce (acknowledged artist), James Hodson and Plymouth transplants Rob Erskine (owner of Rebound Surf (surfboard makers and coaching)) and Steve Nicholls, all of whom still stand out when the surf is pumping (Rob placing 2nd in the 2000 British Masters). A young Mark Bennett led the charge through the ’90s along with Tom Mitchell and Nick Lloyd, any of whom draw attention wherever they surf. The standard has been raised again by the likes of Eugene Tollemache (who, bizzarrely, picked up the Chilean Pro-Am title while on a surf expedition there last Winter), Sam Lamiroy, Martin Connolly and the younger ones like Matz Trout and Cheyne. So what’s the big attraction, you may ask. To the uninitiated it can appear that all there is to surfing is the burgeoning fashion and accessory business, the ‘cool’ image, the surf slang and general youth culture. And to many coastal visitors that’s fine. The very idea of wrestling their way into a cold, damp, wetsuit in order to battle their way through chilling seas just to be dragged back to the beach is shocking. But….when the breeze is coming off the Cornish moors caressing the swells generated by storms a thousand miles out in the Atlantic, when the sun is creating rainbows in the spray of breaking waves, when the Ocean is a translucent turquoise that exists on no painter’s palette, that is when only the truly town-hardened could not wish to join those surfers.

So if you do happen to visit our beaches, please bear in mind that there is just a little culture and a little history attached to it all.

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