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