Rid­ing a wave of retro taste

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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

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