Riding a wave of retro taste
Sally Parkin, the founder of the Original Surfboard Company, is back on dry land. Blue eyes intense and ablaze, salt water dripping from an all-in-one Twenties woollen navy bathing suit, Parkin clutches a “bellyboard” – a slimline wooden board on which enthusiasts lie prone to catch waves as they approach the shore. She’s just spent an hour on her board, and couldn’t be happier. There’s just one thing.
“It’s not bellyboarding,” she says, with evangelical conviction. “It’s surf riding. That’s what it used to be called, and that’s what it should still be called. And it’s just as much fun as stand-up surfing.”
Parkin has been surf riding at Porthcothan beach in Cornwall to prepare for tomorrow’s World Bellyboarding Championships at Chapel Porth beach, near St Agnes. She is far from alone. The 12th World Championships, organised by the National Trust, will see more than 300 entrants compete for the chance to be crowned champion. They come from all over Britain, and the age range is arguably the most inclusive in sport – from four to 90.
John Isaac, a British surfing photographer, will be among them. He enters the event each year, and in 2012 won the Spirit of Bellyboarding award. “The Bellyboarding World Championships is a celebration of British eccentricity,” he says. Isaac’s eyes light up as he explains bellyboarding’s appeal. “It’s accessible to everyone – you don’t have to be a surf dude to splash about in the sea on a bellyboard. You’re closer to the wave than with conventional surfing. There’s a no-frills feel and it’s a lot of fun. Where else can you enter a sports event and get an award for wearing the best costume?”
Sartorial elegance is retro at Chapel Porth. Competitors sport swimsuits from yesteryear and chat aimiably about their choices, not to mention their provenance. At a recent event, Cannes-based American entrant Scott Bell cut a dash in a 1934 Jantzen all-in-one with a “modesty flap” – wetsuits are strictly prohibited. There are prizes for wacky swim caps, best patina, best varnish, the most stylish and the longest ride as well as a “Long Distance Award” – for the competitor who has travelled the furthest to enter the event. Past winners in this category have come from the British Virgin Islands, New York, South Africa and New Zealand.
The event was set up in honour of a Londoner. Two Cornish surfers – Chris Ryan, a Chapel Porth car park attendant, and Martin Ward, an RNLI lifeguard supervisor – held the first Championships in 2002 to commemorate the late Arthur Traveller, who had come down to the beach every year with his wooden board. Initially tongue in cheek, the event has gone from strength to strength, with the number of entrants going up year after year.
I was among them in 2011, on a day that was alternately rain-lashed and sunny. The sea conditions were far from ideal – the wind was onshore, making for lumpy and uninviting waves – but the spirit of the competitors was contagious. If stand-up surfing is sometimes bedevilled by a Too Cool for School attitude, there’s not a bit of it among the bellyboarding fraternity. They’re big on bonhomie, riding waves not to impress but from a simple love of the sea. And perhaps, as American advertising executive, surfer and entrant Matt McGregor-Mento told me, bellyboarding amounts to a humble oceanic revolution.
“Bellyboarding chimes with a rethinking of surf culture generally. We’ve reached a point in our surfing evolution where we recognise that we’re not all pros, busting the lip and getting shacked. We’re reassessing how to have fun in the water, what to ride, where and when. Pound for pound, you can have more fun on a bellyboard than any other kind of surfcraft.”
Fun on bellyboards is thought to have started in the early 1900s when a form of the Hawaiian “Paipo” board (made of wood) was copied by British soldiers returning from the First World War and inspired by stories of surfing from South Africa, Australia and Hawaii. Its heyday was in the Fifties. Slimline wooden boards, about four feet long and with a steam-bent semicircular nose, were seen on many British beaches, their owners lying on them to ride the breaking white water of waves. The pursuit slipped in popularity with the advent of standup surfing in the Sixties, but the past few years have seen a renaissance. Parkin has been at its forefront.
“I grew up in Exeter but spent my childhood summers at Porthcothan Bay near Padstow,” she says. “I remember learning to swim and surf at the age of five. I started off riding smaller versions of the old wooden bellyboards, which in the Sixties were all that was available. I loved riding waves on those boards. It was so much fun, and so sociable as well. The whole family would catch a wave at the same time and see who could ride it farthest up the beach. We were in the sea every day, come rain or shine.”
In June 2008, Parkin set up the Original Surfboard Company, which makes restyled versions of the wooden boards that she remembers from her childhood. Her company has been going great guns, shipping boards to customers around the world, with higher spec designs available thanks to a collaboration with internationally renowned Australia-based surfboard shaper Tom Wegener. Competitors in the British market include Otter Surfboards, Paipo Glide and the Traditional Surfing Company.
All are highly respected, which is the most apt description of one woman who didn’t let her wooden bellyboard moulder in the garage – Gwynedd Haslock, who, at 70, is reputedly Britain’s oldest female surfer.
“It’s lovely to see people enjoying the sea, whatever they’re doing and whatever craft they’re using,” says Haslock, who lives near Truro. Haslock – the British, English and Cornish women’s surfing champion on many occasions between 1967 and 1990 – goes bellyboarding instead of surfing when it is high tide and busy at the Newquay breaks she has surfed for 50 years. She recently featured in a Land Rover ad, and eloquently sums up the allure of surfing – whether you do it on a bellyboard or a more conventional board:
“There are wonderful moments in the sea as you’re waiting for waves: listening to the birds and watching them in flight and seeing them dive for fish; seeing fish skim along the top of the water in the gleaming sun; first thing in the morning, seeing the moon still there and the sun breaking through the red sky; seeing dolphins. At sunset, there’s a kind of peace as the sun sets and the waves continue to push gently through. I also like the black mood of the clouds when it’s raining; the way they’re replaced by the sun and then small rainbows can be seen through the waves.”
The 12th World Bellyboarding Championships is at Chapel Porth beach in Cornwall on Sunday September 7. See bellyboarding.co.uk for more details. Alex Wade is the author of Surf Nation and Amazing Surfing Stories
Surf’s up (as well as hair): Natasha Lark, aka Madame Tashy, at last year’s event. The slimline wooden boards allow surfers to get closer to the sea, above right