We Need to talk about British surfing

Wavelength staffer Luke Gartside discussing the past, present and future of British surfing.

For many of us, surfing is an escape from other boring, politics-laden areas of our day to day lives, and as such, we try to fill our magazine with the kind of stories and photography which aid that escape. However, sometimes we feel it’s important to take a step back and address some of the issues surrounding the progression of British surfers and surfing as a whole. Accordingly, we decided to gather together four particularly opinionated British surfers from four different generations who’ve experienced the British surf industry from the inside since the early days and get them talking about what needs to change.

Wavelength: I want to start by talking about the history of British surfing, so I guess it makes sense to start with you, Nigel. When you first got sponsored in 1973, were there a lot of sponsored guys in Britain?

Nigel Semmems: No, hardly anybody. Probably only a handful. Gul wetsuits was probably the biggest company involved with surfing in Britain back then, and they sponsored me initially. I remember going round to the factory and them giving me the very first all-in-one wetsuit. It sounds ridiculous now, but back then, everybody was surfing in long johns and a pod.

WL: And how much were you making back then?

N: I used to get three grand a year in cash coming in and then whatever prize money I won. That really funded me to go wherever I wanted to go. I think if you equate some of the prize money that I got at home to what they are getting now, the money’s gone backwards – I remember winning the Newquay Boardmasters and getting a 1000 quid! And I bought my house, which was a two bedroom bungalow, for 27 and a half grand back then.

Nigel Semmens, back when the big guns were buying houses from their winnings.

Nigel Semmens, back when the big guns were buying houses from their winnings.

WL: And so tell me about when surfing in the UK really started to take off.

N: I think it started to take off somewhat when they had the big contest in Newquay, and you had some of the top surfers in the world come to Newquay to go surfing, like Rabbit and Shaun Thompson. Then the national media were interested in it, and the companies sponsoring the contest all grew and it all snowballed. It didn’t happen massively quick, but over a period of years it developed.

WL: So why did companies suddenly start deciding to pour more money into surfing?

Sam Lamiroy: I think it became something that was cool. Right now, we’ve got a hipster movement in the mainstream, where motorbikes and beards are suddenly cool. If something becomes cool or fashionable it triggers a demand.

WL: So, Sam and Oli, tell me when you entered the scene.

Oli Adams: I feel like I was a grommet when that boom in popularity was going on. Sam must have been in his late 20’s and I was in my late teens. What I was earning at that stage as a grommet was a lot compared to what the grommets earn right now. But then I think a few guys in the open were earning pretty good money.

I guess it’s definitely a lot thinner on the ground now. If you look at how many professional surfers you’ve got in the UK, I think it’s only a handful. Whereas back then, there were probably at least 15 or maybe even 20 earning enough to travel round doing photo shoots and going to comps.

Jobe Harris: I feel like even a couple of years above me, you’ve got guys like Toby (Donachie), Lyndon (Wake), Alex (Baker), Stu Cambell, and Luis Eyre who were all getting paid. Now, there are not a crop of guys in the same age group which have anywhere near the same level of sponsorship as those guys did back then.

“I don’t think theres a pathway now for British kids to be a professional surfer.”
Nigel Semmens

S: Yeah, and I think there’s a slightly magic matrix in there because, Nigel, you said you were earning three grand, which now people would be like, “Pah! I get that off my shoe sponsor”, but actually at that time, three grand was worth more like thirty grand, and I would say there’s probably three or four people in the country that are earning that now.

WL: So, Sam, what do you think has caused the apparent shrinkage in the amount of guys earning a decent wage?

S: I think the companies and the marketing people are more discerning of where they put their money. I think if one of the UK kids who was 16 and was consistently in that very top bracket – I mean doing a Russ Winter – I think there’s money for them there.

N: My take on that is that the big companies now split it between 10 guys rather than supporting a few riders fully. There’s more value for them that way. Do they really care if you’re national champion? It doesn’t sell much more product for them. But if you do social media, they think, “Well, I can get 10 guys out there doing that”, and that’s good marketing for them, so I think the emphasis on sponsorship has slightly changed.

S: Do you think? I almost see the opposite thing – that now they want to back one winning-horse.

J: Well, with Quiksilver a couple of years ago, there were like 10 different guys in my age group all sponsored by them, and then as soon as they hit 16, almost all of them got dropped.

WL: But isn’t it because with the sponsorship model it’s hard to get good return on investment if you’re actually paying your surfers a salary?

N: But any business relies on advertising, and people want to follow the leaders. You know Kelly Slater could sell anything. That’s why they bung 100 surfboards over to Mick Fanning every year. They’re not doing it for his health. They’re doing it because he’s selling product, and if they stop selling product, the sponsorship will stop.

S: But then you take an Abercrombie and Fitch, or a Hollister, who sell off the image of surfing and outsell the likes of big surf brands 10 to 1.

O: But they’re not getting to the core are they? They’re just getting to the mainstream through the image of surfing.

WL: Are ‘the core’ good consumers of clothing though?

O: Not anymore.

WL: I think they’re rubbish consumers.

J: They’re thrifty!

O: Back when I was a grommet, you had a Quiksilver t-shirt because it meant you were part of something. Surfing was still this kind of cult thing in a way; it was like you were part of a little club. If you saw someone driving down the motorway with boards on, you’d almost be like, “Hey!” Whereas now it’s more mainstream, I think people just want their good hardware to do what they love best, and they don’t need that attachment to the brands to feel part of it.

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N: I can remember when I went to Hawaii for the first time, I just had to have some lightning bolt t-shirts and canvas board shorts, and I knew no one in England would have them.

S: Well, the surf brands used to do the same thing here. You used to only be able to get them in coastal surf shops, so as a holiday maker, who isn’t exposed to those brands, you come down to the coast, and the surf t-shirt you buy and you wear in Birmingham or London is the sign that you’ve been in touch with something else.

O: You’re part of this thing.

N: I can remember in the old original Bilbo shop, they would close from 5pm to 6pm to re-stock because they couldn’t keep it on the shelves long enough – and that’s it. That’s that exclusivity. It’s like a license to print money that.

S: But then surf companies got greedy. They said, “We’ve increased our turnover by 100% this year”, so they open two more surf shops, and then suddenly they go, “Oh Christ, it’s slowing down”, so then they fill the supermarkets with it.

N: Then they go on to be a public limited company and they have other pressures on them. They have to increase, and they can’t just trickle along and be happy with the profit their making.

S: The minute you’re a public company, you’re not answerable to the integrity of the scene – or the diehard surfer.

WL: So now they’re all in their post-mainstream explosion slump?

N: Well, my sons 24 years old, and sometimes I think what he’s wearing looks cool, and then I think how many people my sons age want to wear something they’re fucking dads are wearing. Imagine that across Australia, when guys are walking round with Rip Curl tees on. The kids don’t want to look like their big, fat-bellied old man.

WL: I’m just going to change it up a bit – and I’m sure the same theme of money runs through it, but I’m sure there are other reasons too – why is it that over the span of your four guys’ careers you’ve had relatively little international competitive success?

J: I think there has quite clearly been a massive increase in surfers. Just with the growth of the sport in general and with that increase, you have more of a chance of having a world champion quality surfer.

With Kelly Slater, they said he was a one off in his generation. Now there’s Gabriel Medina, Felipe Toledo, and JJF, who are all equally as good as each other. There were a quarter of the people who started developing at a young age when Kelly was growing up than there were when JJF, Felipe, and Gabby did, so you get four times as many good guys. Whereas in the UK we didn’t increase as much as what the rest of the world did.

In Australia, there are hundreds more surfers – with the surf clubs, and they have kids in the sea constantly.

“At the moment, the only kids who are getting coaching are the ones who can afford it.”
Oli Adams

O: At the moment, I’m trying to get my kids into surfing (they’re four and six), and to get them interested to go in the water any time but August or July is really hard, but in these hot countries, the kids just get the bug and keep it going year round.

N: I don’t think there’s a pathway now for British kids to be a professional surfer. If you want to be a footballer, you can go and join the club, go into their academy, get with the best coaches – surfing in England doesn’t have that.

Where can you go here if you want to get into a circuit that leads to Europe then onto one that leads to the world? We don’t have that pathway.

J: Yeah, the surf clubs are just starting to become prevalent. Bude only got one two years ago. It’s got hundreds of members now.

S: That’s where surfing GB has done a really good job.

J: It has, but I didn’t go to the world juniors because I couldn’t afford it. It’s unfunded. I got really annoyed because I was top seed for the British team for the last two years of my under 18’s, and I told them I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford it, and they’re just like, “Okay, fine. We’ll just get the next person”.

S: That undermines the credibility of British surfing.

J: They should have a funded programme where they go to the top kids in the clubs and fund them.

N: Then there’s the desire as well. Kids will say they want to be in that group because then they can get a day off school and then they can go to the academy, and then when they get out of that group, they can be funded and go to Europe.

S: But where does that funding come from?

O: It has to come from Sport England. At the moment, the only kids who are getting coaching are the ones who can afford it. If you were getting paid by the British Surf Association then your coaching would change. If you rely on private funding from the pupils that your teaching then your team talk to them is going to be a lot softer.

Oli Adams making paper.

Oli Adams making paper.

WL: And so, Nigel, you’re president of Surfing GB. This UK sport funding, is it coming?

N: To get it you have to be recognised as the national governing body, and we haven’t got that.

WL: Well how do you go about being recognised as that?

N: Well at the moment, all I can say is Scotland and Wales are focused on their own needs and goals, so it’s made it very difficult to agree on a whole GB structure to move forward. But the work continues.

S: And national governing body means the whole country.

N: Yes, and unfortunately our countries split up into four nations. But we are busy working on an exciting avenue which, if it comes to fruition, would be a big moment in British surf history.

WL: And is national funding something that France, a country who obviously has had a lot better competitive success than us, has got?

J: Yes, and I’m pretty sure that they have a proper stage developmental programme which is completely funded, and it makes a massive difference.

N: And it’s in their national curriculum at school. If you become a French squad member then I think you get one day a week off school where you can go to squad training.

J: And when they’re away they also get schooling.

S: As a result, it’s become more professional. The surfers now are athletes, and if you look at any proper performance athletic endeavour the younger you can start developing the better. In my day and your day, we were just good at surfing, and we found our way to a certain level. That levels now gone to the next place where you’ve got the likes of Toledo and Fanning who train so specifically and so accurately building on a foundation that they’ve got from such a young age through proper guidance.

It’s almost impossible to come to it as a super talented, raw 14-year-old and do that well.

N: Our surfers have developed mainly through their own pure ability, but think how much better they would be if we had infrastructure like the rest of the world. Our infrastructure to support our surfers has been a shambles for the last 30 years.

O: Everyone who’s done the WQS has done it on their own. When I set out to do it, I had to learn everything. I had no one to even get advice off. I turned up at every location, and I couldn’t even hire a car because I was too young. I didn’t really ever know where I was going. Had to spend the whole cost on my own back, because I had no one to split it with. You’re staying in a crap place to keep it cheap, and all of that, it really has an effect.

J: I completely agree with that. I feel it when I’m bumbling around Europe in my van seeing someone you’re coming up against who’s staying in a fully paid for Chalet.

O: And they’re all travelling around as a team. I used to have to hitchhike to get to the contests. The team buses were always going past, and I’d put my thumb out, and they would never pick me up.

WL: I think it reflects really badly on us that some of the top surfers in this country are making no money from surfing whatsoever because they’ve been deemed not marketable enough to make the money they need through sponsorship. Then they turn up and do really well at the British or English nationals, and they don’t even take home any money from that.

N: It’s apathy by people who run the national events. To my mind, it makes me sick when I see the British surfing titles on, and there’s a flag up, a fucking shitty piece of board with the heats written on it, and a bloke with a fucking megaphone calling out the heats. That’s if you’re lucky.

That hasn’t changed since I was surfing in the English and the British. It’s pathetic. And the prize money, believe me, it gives me goose bumps talking about it. I could stand on a podium and someone could go, “There you go son, you’re the fucking British champion”. You should be absolutely buzzing off your tits, and they should be giving you a cheque for five grand.

S: Especially when the industry in the country makes tens of millions of pounds.

N: What other national British sport would you be British champion and you’d be lucky to get five hundred quid? To me that’s an insult to the sport.

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Jobe at Work. Photo Luke Gartside

Another problem is that other sports have hundreds of thousands of member whereas Surfing GB only has 1200. When we go to those funding people, they look at that and say, “Well, do we want to spend a hundred grand when they’ve only got 1200 members?”

WL: We don’t have the same fans either. From my experience of writing about it, a lot of the time regular British surfers don’t really seem to care that we don’t have surfers at the top.

N: No, they don’t. Most surfers couldn’t care less about the BSA, or the World Surf League, or Jobe surfing in the English or the British. They just want to go surfing.

“The minute youre a public company, youre not answerable to the integrity of the scene or the diehard surfer.”
Sam Lamiroy

WL: Who is the best British surfer we’ve ever had, in your own personal subjective definition of what makes someone the best?

J: I’d 100% say Russ Winter. From a competitive point of view, you have to say Russ, and for me because I thrive off athleticism and success.

O: For me, I couldn’t pick one person. There are so many people who are good in different areas. Every top guy I admire for different things. I think mentally, Russ had the edge over everyone. It came completely from that attitude of just wanting to smash everybody.

N: You know, we all know Russell, and I’ve actually never met anyone who’s got so much disbelief in themselves in my life.

S: It’s the inferiority complex.

O: He used it to his advantage internationally, because no one on that scene knew him well enough to know the inner Russ. They just saw this angry bull dog, and that intimidated them, obviously. It’s intimidated me in the past as well before I really knew him.

When I was younger and I didn’t know him that well, I thought, “God, this guy is insane. I don’t even want to beat him because I’m scared about what will happen”.

N: If you could reproduce that hunger that he had and sell it, everybody would buy it.

S: On a big wave, the lines he draws aren’t perfect. They should be refined – and this is back to that about early coaching and technique. But I’ve never seen someone go quite that fast and have that level of acceleration, that instant get-up-and-go.

And I’m not saying he’s not good in big waves. He did fantastically at Bells, and I absolutely don’t want to take away from what he’s done on quality waves. But I don’t think that magic spark entirely resides in his demeanour and his attitude and desire. I think that magic spark is in the firing of the nodes in his muscles. The gift of that, I never had it.

O: When he was at his peak in one to three-foot beach breaks…

S: Oh, he was the best in the world.

N: That’s why he liked it here so much. I think Russ’ downfall was that he didn’t analyse his surfing enough, and he would try to do everything that he did on a three-foot wave everywhere else, and on the same board as well. He’d say, “This is my favourite board, and I don’t want to change it”. And I’d say, “Russ, you have to learn and open up”. But he wouldn’t accept it.

Sam Lamiroy, back in the days of long boardies and 35mm film.

Sam Lamiroy, back in the days of long boardies and 35mm film.

WL: Is there anyone else in the conversation?

S: Someone like Ben Skinner. We’re all shortboarders, so when we’re talking about world-class surfers, we instantly default to shortboarding. But in longboarding, Ben Skinner is one of the best in the world. Obviously, longboarding has fragmented into the loggers, the throw back duct tape thing, or progressive longboarding, which is where Ben falls in. But when you see him on a board, there’s no question.

Whether it’s on a flow rider, a longboard, or a shortboard, as a waterman he’s easily one of the best.

N: It’s a hard thing to define what makes someone the best.

J: Yeah, exactly, because you have to mention Reubyn [Ash] as well. At one stage, without a shadow of a doubt, he was the best aerialist in Europe. And talent wise he is one of the top surfers in the UK.

Russ had the pure hunger, and Reubyn had the raw talent.

“I told them I couldn’t go because I couldnt afford it, and they’re just like, Okay, fine. We’ll just get the next person.”
Jobe Harriss

S: There’s a few. You can go with the obvious ones like Spencer [Hagreaves], or Grishka. They all were European champions, and Spencer won the Pro Juniors.

O: Before that 90’s push of a lot of money to France, the UK was the top surfing nation in Europe.

N: Well, we surfed in the World Games, and we got third in the world. Now it annoys me when they say we’ve done well when we’ve come 14th or 12th, and I just think don’t fucking celebrate that.

O: I don’t know why they write that.

N: That’s where the goals are wrong and the need for honesty comes in. Now, a lot of young children get rewarded because they turn up. To me, that sends out the wrong message. You need to be rewarded for winning things and getting in the final.

J: I think the honesty is really important. Because surfing’s so small in the UK, it’s quite insular, and so I feel like if people were honest then you might put yourself in a position where you get penalised for being honest.

Sometimes I don’t think the British judging is a parallel to what the WSL is. It’s getting better, but I feel like if I’m honest about British judging I’ll potentially be scored down.

N: Oh, you undoubtedly will.

J: Yeah, so that’s why it’s so hard, to be honest. There was a time with the British judges, for example, where air reverses suddenly stopped getting scored because they don’t see the technicalities of airs.

S: The whole thing comes back to the same thing: if you want the best judges, you need money. I was always frustrated by the lack of accountability. I was always a fan of putting a camera and audio in a judging booth because there were certain head judges whom I was sure I was getting lower scores from. I’d know from all my years of surfing that my last turn was hard and solid, that it should have been a six and not a four.

O: I find the scene here’s so small and everyone knows each other so well, including the judges and the surfers. It’s so nice when you go to the QS and you don’t know the judges. There are so many surfers from so many different places, you feel like each heat is judged so much more for the heat rather than on other things, and that’s a really nice feeling.

WL: What do we think is going to happen in the future for British surfing? Can you see any surfers coming up now who are going to have great international success in either the competition or the media realm?

S: Personally, I think the next world title contender is going to come from the kids of the professional surfers of now – from Oli, from Russ, from Stokesy (if he starts reproducing), from Ben Baird, from Skindog. It’s from that generation where they’ve grown up in a kind of professional surfing environment. They know about the training, the heat strategy, the equipment, the tactical side of it.

We’re getting our kids into the water early, and we know what we’re looking at.

N: But it will just happen the same as it has for our generations if they haven’t got a good pathway to follow. It will be fragmented until there becomes a good pathway.

WL: Can sponsorship funding provide that pathway, though?

J: I think so. Take Leo Fiorvanti for example. You could say he was in the same position as us, if not worse. Coming from Italy, they don’t get the quality of waves. But he has at a young age got massive backing from Quiksilver and Red Bull, and he had every opportunity and all these programmes, and I think that’s about to happen with [UK grom] Stan Norman.

O: He’s the Jeremy Flores of his generation. At a really young age, he was taken, and he was really good for his age. But if he had just been left to do his own thing, there is no way he’d be where he is now. And if Stan gets that backing now, and he goes on in the next couple of years the way he’s going now, I think he could do really well.

J: Because he’s British and it’s a unique market.

N: But the amount of business that is generated in the UK is relatively small compared to the rest of Europe. And because they already fund the French guys, sponsored English groms surfing in France are no good to their sponsors whatsoever. The companies will tell them to get back to England and surf in England. That’s what we sponsor you for. That’s what we want you to do.

O: And I think that’s what happened to Reubyn. He was trying to go to other countries and his sponsors kept telling him no we just want you to stay at home.

N: “We’ve got our own team here, we don’t need you here”, and that as an individual stumps your development.

S: Governing bodies and Sport England is one conversation. It’s about the betterment of sport as a nation, and that sport lifting the nation’s morale. It’s for health, and it’s got these deep-reaching repercussions through general society in the country, and that’s kind of the principal. But this is personal sponsorship which is not a charity. It’s a commercial endeavour. For example, Nigel, if you’re going to give someone a surfboard, and that surfboard has cost you X amount, that’s X amount you’ve got to take out of your pocket.

N: To me, if I sponsor somebody, I want to sponsor them for the development of that person. I try to teach them to give me intelligent feedback because I want to know what they liked about it in detail, and that enhances me as a shaper, and I can then shape boards that will fit you as a person. If I get a picture in the magazine or anything then that’s great. That’s a bonus. I’m happy with that. I just want you to present my brand professionally, and if you go and win the English on it and stuff, great, I’m happy with that.

I like to think that then you’re part of the party because then you’ve helped the surfer get there.