SURF PI­O­NEERS

Sue and Sarah Whit­ley look back at the old days of surfing, which, de­spite the hard­ships, they wouldn’t swap for any­thing.

Surf Girl - - Spot Check - words FRAN MCEL­HONE

It was a nov­elty for there to be a woman in a wet­suit in the wa­ter in the 60s,” Sue re­called, sip­ping Earl Grey, lean­ing across her kitchen ta­ble, which has a sweep­ing vista across Saun­ton Sands.

So close is the 75-year-old’s home to the beach, you can taste the salt in the air. To check the surf re­port, Sue only has to wan­der out on to the deck­ing. How­ever a surf cam pokes out of the hedge skirt­ing the gar­den for her daugh­ter Sarah, who was a teenage pro in the 90s and now runs a surf school from the beach.

When Sue started surfing here in 1960 she said she was the only woman in the waves, giv­ing rise to the pos­si­bil­ity that she could be Devon’s first fe­male surfer and one of the first in the UK.

“Stand-up surfing had just started hap­pen­ing in

Corn­wall, but it hadn’t moved across to Devon yet,” she told me. “There were only belly­boards in the sea.” Sue still has one of her first boards, a thin red wooden plank that she still loves rid­ing be­cause, “there’s barely any­thing be­tween you and the wa­ter, so rid­ing it feels like you’re part of swell it­self.”

“My friend Chris was the first stand-up surfer at Saun­ton in about 1961 or 1962,” she con­tin­ued. “He’d been out in South Africa and when he re­turned he made a bright or­ange fi­bre­glass board in his garage. We called it The Barn Door, be­cause it was so big. You couldn’t re­ally fail to catch a wave. Two peo­ple had to carry it, one at ei­ther end.”

“You couldn’t buy a board here so I went down to Newquay where there were a few peo­ple mak­ing them. And you couldn’t buy a wet­suit, not even in Newquay.

They were made in Lon­don. They were ghastly things!

You could hardly move in them they were so thick. There was no surf cul­ture in Bri­tain yet, only the Beach Boys! I re­mem­ber Tiki, Braun­ton’s first surf shop open­ing up in 1963.”

Sue painted a pic­ture of an ado­les­cence rid­ing empty waves, en­joyed only by a few early mem­bers of a fledg­ling club that, un­be­known to them, would bur­geon into a world­wide phe­nom­e­non and an Olympic sport.

There was no ap­petite for be­ing the best on the wa­ter back then. It was just about hav­ing fun. “I just went out be­cause I liked it,” af­firmed Sue. “There was hardly any­one in the sea when I started, but it soon took off. I re­mem­ber the sea be­com­ing busier and busier, and now I’m dodg­ing peo­ple all the time.”

“There are guys in the vil­lage, in their 80s now, who’ve told me, ‘your mum used to carve us up,’ ” in­ter­jected Sarah, who learnt how to surf from her mum, aged six.

“It was more about soul surfing back then, go­ing right and left, al­most like a dancer on a board.” Now 40,

Sarah re­mem­bers be­ing one of very few girls in the wa­ter through­out the 80s and early 90s, by which point, surfing had be­come a global sub-cul­ture. “I was mainly surfing with guys on their long­boards in their 40s or 60s – there was still only a hand­ful of us in the wa­ter.”

Pure pas­sion was Sarah’s driv­ing force, which led to her win­ning the first com­pe­ti­tion she en­tered – the English Na­tion­als, aged 15. A haul of ti­tles came through­out the next decade – in­clud­ing Ju­nior Euro­pean Cham­pion aged 18 – while she was on a tra­jec­tory that saw her trav­el­ling to In­done­sia, Aus­tralia and South Africa to com­pete, rep­re­sent­ing Bri­tain in the World Cham­pi­onships along­side only a hand­ful of other women.

But while Sarah only had eyes for the waves, not the tro­phies, she said com­pet­ing at a high level was hard as a woman. “Be­cause of the weather and con­di­tions here, you have to travel and surf out­side of Bri­tain to be pro,” af­firms Sarah, who had a le­gion of kit spon­sors in­clud­ing Rip Curl, Oak­ley, Vans, Rhino and Tiki. “So you needed to travel, but the means was hard. There wasn’t fi­nan­cial spon­sor­ship in women’s surfing back then. And of­ten at the comps, you won a plas­tic or wooden tro­phy, and that was it.”

Now that, in a land­mark move­ment, The World Surf League has an­nounced equal prize money for men and women, the play­ing field is chang­ing. For­eign travel is far eas­ier, surfing is em­bed­ded in British cul­ture and op­por­tu­nity knocks. Sarah how­ever, is res­o­lute that she would not swap be­ing an 80s grom for be­ing a noughties grom. “It was re­ally dif­fer­ent back then,” she re­flected. “Ev­ery­one would hoot each other onto the waves. Nowa­days peo­ple shout you off the waves.”

“I had a lot of fun out there,” she rem­i­nisced. “I would surf be­fore and af­ter school, and then in the long­est days of sum­mer, late into the night. It was so dark some­times the only way we could see if a wave was com­ing was to press our faces flat against our boards, level with the wa­ter, and then we’d jump on as the wave was upon us. My mum would hang a towel from the up­stairs win­dow to tell us din­ner was ready and it was time to come in.”

Seems like soul surfing runs in the fam­ily.

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