Welcome to Bournemouth: The California of the South Coast

A classic resort town from the Victorian days, Bournemouth on the south coast of England is tucked away between the shelter of Swanage and the Isle of Wight.

Bournemouth is a vibrant cosmopolitan town situated directly to the east of what is known as the ‘Jurassic Coast’; an idyllic 95 mile stretch of the unspoilt coastline famous for providing a complete geological record of the Jurassic period.

Settled between the two older seaside resorts of Weymouth and Brighton, Bournemouth became famous for its iconic beach huts and seven miles of beaches that overlook Poole Bay and the Isle of Wight.

Although famous for tourism it was not until 1838 that the first two hotels opened in Bournemouth, the Royal Bath Hotel and what was the Pier Hotel (where the Pavilion is now). With the evolution of the railway Bournemouth quickly became a destination for affluent holidaymakers, much like it still is today.

After the completion of the ‘Winter Gardens’ in 1880 that led to the shoreline, Bournemouth soon built its seven miles of beach. Like the south east resorts the shore was originally covered in smooth pebbles (as Brighton still is).

Thankfully our Victorian counterparts saw sense and replaced these pebbles with glorious golden sand and the subsequent groynes to stop it drifting back into the sea. Completed in 1885, the ‘Victorian’ style Pier is the most important thing here, as over the years has it become the quintessential part of the local surfing community and even had its image embedded on the Wessex Surf Club’s original logo.


Bournemouth is steeped in history when it comes to surfing in the UK. With Bournemouth first being surfed early in the 60’s by quite a few ‘radical dudes,’ the whole of the Dorset coast was then explored for new waves (which there were plenty of). One of these radicals was Bob Grove who in 1964 started Wessex Surf Club, one of the first recognised surf clubs in the UK.

Contrary to popular belief Bournemouth pier is actually quite a consistent break

The club competed in the South Coast Surfing Championships every year from its start in the early 70’s, with Wessex Surf Club’s own Roger Preston winning the second official South Coast Championship in 1974 and local legend Guy Penwarden winning the event five times between 1975 and 1984. Other Wessex winners were Nick Castle in 1986 and Derek Deer in 1990. These days, Penwarden and Deer are still in the water whenever a decent swell arrives, but now they have their sons or nephews in the line-up as well.

Historically non-locals have always viewed Bournemouth as inconsistent, flat or just plain slop, and more often than not with good reason. But for a long time it was one of the UK’s best kept secrets, with nearby Jurassic reefs and Swanage sheltered spots giving good consistent swells with waves that were good and uncrowded. Still underestimated by many in the UK, Bournemouth has quickly grown into a surfing epicentre attracting all kinds of surfers to its already busy line-up. But from these crowds a lot of great surfers have risen to bigger and brighter things.

The Crew

Due to the shelter that the Pier offers, Bournemouth attracts surfers from all over the South Coast, especially on those big south swells. So most of the time we have surfers of all ages and abilities showing their faces on a regular basis. However, one thing that you can always be sure of is the high level of surfing from generations of stand-out rippers.

The older crew really forged the way for the local scene and set the patterns for years to come. I have already spoken about the Guy and Derek in the early days of the Wessex who helped form the early foundations of the local scene (Not forgetting Dave ‘carpet’ Sturgess and ‘Big’ Rich Smith).

Gordon Fontaine

This bunch of codgers can still out surf the majority of the line-up and have inspired generations of surfers, local surfers like Gary Greenwood and Eddy the Fish. With the level already set, it took rippers like Lee Hammond and Si Furley (K-Bay Surfboards) to carry the flag and compete at an ASP level.

Then there is Terry Crump who has always set the line-up on fire. Terry has always been one to let his surfing do the talking, no matter what country he is in. Having local talent like Terry and Andy Gilham (now living in NZ) raising the bar helped inspire local photographers and filmmakers. Two names to note here are Gary Knights and Tim Wreyford.

Gary has devoted his life to surfing and documenting surf, whilst Tim, after making the local scene movie Slop, followed his dream to Australia and forged a career as a professional surf filmmaker working with top pro surfers like Tom Carroll. Then there are the 90s kids who started surfing through the turn of the century. Now in his mid-twenties Tristan Mather has already forged a place in the Bournemouth archives by achieving 18th in the European ASP longboard ratings.

Terry Crump

Mike ‘Twinkle Toes’ Winter is always dancing around the line-up with grace and style and Gayson Alderman will always be on your shoulder. From the shores of Jersey Mike Walcroft is another ripper who has helped the groms push the level of their surfing, groms like Miles Lee Hargreaves who is now competing on an international level with the backing of the entire Bournemouth surfing community. Then we have the French Foreign Legion who recently came to town and blew everything out of the water. Gordon Fontaine has been a revelation to the local scene with his aerial exploits and general surfing shenanigans.

Probably one of the most underrated surfers in the UK Gordon regularly takes podium places on the UK tour and recently made the quarters in a five star WQS event in France. Through setting up his local coaching school LOAR Visions a new age of surfers are in the right hands; guys like Elliot Mills, Rory Morgan, the Johnson brothers and many more. But be warned, if I see another air reverse attempt I am gonna cause havoc!

The Wave and Conditions

Historically there would have been a few spots to describe here, but after dredging the sand around the Southbourne groynes and chopping the end of Boscombe Pier off, the council has really managed to destroy our local banks. We all hoped that the artificial reef would be the answer to our prayers, but no doubt you know how badly that went wrong.

So, I’m left with just one spot, but contrary to popular belief Bournemouth pier is actually quite a consistent break. It will be crowded in any conditions and through most stages of our unique tides (the springs and neaps are partially dictated by the geographical location of the Isle of Wight).

The rip alongside the pier makes it an easy paddle out even on the bigger, better days, so don’t be surprised to see some idiot paddling about in the line-up like they are trying to dance to dub-step. With only one or two main peaks either side of the pier the crowds are always condensed, so always be prepared for shoulder hoppers, idiots that do not understand wave etiquette and at least one out-of-control goat boat.

Mike Winter

Traditionally the winter is best, with long range south-westerlies accompanied by their prevailing winds. This is when the east side of the pier can be such a good spot, offering protection against the wind and giving punchy inside lefts and a longer mellow right. During January and February it’s not uncommon to see good consistent 3-4 ft clean swells arrive to stoke the locals. We are also blessed with waves when the easterly swells push up the Channel, offering both rights and lefts and, on bigger swells, a point breaking off the end of the pier giving 50 metre-plus rides.

During the summer, we pick up a lot of localised wind swells, well… ok… slop. But this keeps us going through those ‘flat spells’ that the forecasting websites consistently predict. This is when local knowledge comes into effect and there is the chance of a quiet, clean wave.

Pros and Cons

When it’s cooking on the south coast the Pier does generally get a bit quieter, with most locals searching nearby reefs for that extra bit of size and power. At the same time the artificial reef might kick up a shallow wedge to keep the spongers entertained and out the way. But, the main positive of surfing Bournemouth has to be the topless beach during the summer, oh and the wind protection that the Pier offers.

Gordon Fontaine in Bournemouth

In terms of numbers it’s not unusual to count anything up to 100 people on a good 2-3ft summer slop session, maybe a tad less during the winter. This leads to a mix of ability and different water crafts which will always result in someone getting upset and or shouted at. On the upside it really makes the rippers stand up and be counted as they have to fight for every wave.

Being the south coast’s answer to the California (wishful I know,) tourism is the key to our community. So if you are a surfer that can’t escape the family on those flat days, Bournemouth always has something to offer, whether it’s the Noddy Train, aquatic centre or a bit of retail therapy. And if it all gets too much, we also have our own airport with cheap flights out to the Canaries.

Words Richie Inskip Photos Gary Knights

This article was originally published in Wavelength issue 218. Be the first to get our articles in print and online by subscribing here.

  • Christopher

    Just a heads up. It’s nothing like California. It’s a town with a massive drink and drugs problem. There is absolutely nothing to do when down at the seafront……..

    • Alex Johnston

      I agree with the disagreement on the Cali comparison but there is plenty to down at the seafront 🙂