[The article ‘Human Intelligence Mission’ originally appeared in Volume 239. Subscibe to Wavelength now to never miss an issue.]
If you were going for a leisurely stroll through the Gloucestershire countryside around the spring equinox, you might be surprised to find a convoy of cars, surfboards loosely strapped to their roofs, racing down the narrow country lanes.
Inside each is a surfer, perched on the edge of their seats, clad from head to toe in muddy neoprene and smelling strongly of a river.
Their eyes are trained on the road ahead, ever aware that a single track stand off, or group of cyclists could put an end to their chase and potentially their surfing prospects for that month. Meanwhile, the wave they’re chasing rumbles nonchalantly up the adjacent river, breaking and reforming, oblivious to the swathes of surfers and spectators who have rushed to celebrate her arrival.
For the last three months, I have been joining this convoy, who call each other ‘The Muddy Brothers’, in their search for the perfect ride on The Severn Bore. For the sake of the totally uninitiated, let’s start with some facts about this most beguiling of natural phenomena.
The bore wave is essentially the head of the tide as it moves up the river. It forms because of the large amount of water that, on particularly high tides, is forced through the narrowing between Bristol and Wales. It can be surfed at numerous points along the Severn’s banks, allowing surfers who’ve fallen off the wave, time to get out, jump back in their cars and race to a spot further upstream where they can do it all again.
Contrary to popular belief there are about 25 surfable bores a year – although half of those can end up being in the dark. The frequency and size of bores is greater around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes’- that’s from February to March and August to October. Whilst the wave is technically surfable for around 20 miles, the longest anyone has surfed it continuously is 9.25, a record held by local Steve King, which was achieved in 2006.
Despite what’s suggested by the clips rolled out by the BBC news every year, there’s a lot more to the Severn Bore than a little line of white water with 50 guys riding shoulder to shoulder.
The geography of the landscape through which the wave travels, affects the way it breaks in much in the same way as piers, harbour walls and sand banks affect ocean waves. Throughout it’s journey there are A-frames, little wedges off the banks and long point break style walls, where the wave peels from one river bank to the other, repeatedly reforming after each break. Whilst the possible distance of ride has always been touted as one of the main attractions, the diversity of forms the bore assumes during its course, is also a really exciting element for some of its loyal surfers.
“It will be breaking big in one section,” explains long time bore surfer and enthusiast Stuart Ballard “and then it’ll go round a bend and it’ll go down to about 6 inches. You know if you can make it through that section it will reform and stand up again, so you become an expert at surfing tiny tiny waves.
“We used to joke,” he continues, “that just as you’ve got the Billabong big wave awards, we ought to make specialist small wave awards, you know, check out the tiniest thing I can surf.”
Similar to magicseaweed’s star rating system, each tidal surge is allocated a rating based on its size, with any tide above 10.2m achieving the top 5 stars. However experienced bore surfers are keen to explain that there’s a lot more to it than that. It seems the size and quality of the wave at any given location, relies on more factors than even the most fickle of its ocean counterparts. The water levels, wind, barometer and shape of the river bed, both where the wave is breaking and in the the estuary, all play integral roles. Consequently, becoming a successful bore surfer requires becoming an expert in many different fields.
Just as at the coast, when a stretch of river with a particularly good section of wave is discovered, it is often kept secret, so as to prevent it being flooded with crowds like the more well known spots. Accordingly, I have spent much of my time over the last three months trying to pry information regarding the whereabouts of these spots from long time bore surfers, who over years of searching, studying and trial and error have built up a vastly detailed knowledge of the river and where and how the wave breaks along its banks.
“It’s what I love about it,” said Pete Abell, one such bore fiend. “You’ve got to find the spots and then figure out what water level and size tide they need to work.”
Once found however, these spots are anything but reliable, as Pete explains. “Just as you think you’ve sussed it out, the wave can change for no foreseen reason. I’ve found myself over the last few months sprinting across fields covered by thick carpets of cow pat, only to arrive at a clearing in the dense foliage that lines the river banks to find the wave breaking not at all as it was supposed to.”
Much like scoring any fickle spot, that’s what makes it all the more special when a bore surfer finds themselves gliding across the muddy face of a clean unbroken wave for several miles through the rolling Gloucestershire countryside.
For many years the future of the Severn Bore has been under threat from a series of proposals to harness the river’s tidal power and turn it into electricity. The most recent of these is a proposal for several tidal lagoons which would jut out into the estuary from Wales. As the tide floods into the pools, turbines would spin creating energy, the high water would then be held and gradually released, once again spinning turbines on its way out.
There is much general debate around the plans, with claims they ‘could power every home in Wales’ by the company proposing them, countered by a statement from the charity Citizens’ Advice calling them ‘appalling value for money’. Unsurprisingly, the reaction to the plans has been resoundingly negative from the community of bore surfers, as the pools would almost certainly reduce the size of the tide enough to render the wave unsurfable.
However, accusations of the so called ‘not-in-my-backyard’ attitude were quick to be levelled at the bore surfers opposing the plans, even from within the community. Like much of the surfing fraternity, many bore riders care deeply about environmentalism and by extension support renewable energies and so, according to some, should support these plans by default, even if it means no more bore.
Some from the community were keen to point out that whilst a trade off is always necessary with renewables, in this instance the ecological impacts may be too grave to bear. Bore surfer Neil Law, noted that harvesting the tide’s energy would lead the river to deposit more silt further up stream- basically running the risk of turning the section through which the bore currently travels, into mud flats, or as Neil put it ‘a pretty toxic swamp.’
“My ancestors have walked this land and were in awe of the beauty of the tide” said Steve King in reaction to the proposals. “I want my children and their children to witness this wonder.”
Stuart Ballard also expressed a variety of non-surf related concerns, highlighting the threat to both the migrating fish, who use the tide’s energy to move up stream, and the livelihoods of the fisherman who rely on catching them.
On any official government report, the loss of visiting surfers and spectators may be simply quantified as the loss to the local economy, but for those who currently turn out to experience it, there’s a little more to it than that.
A previous plan for a barrage was scrapped after overwhelming opposition deemed it an economic and ecological disaster and similar opposition to the new plans seems to be beginning to stir. Whether you, the reader and the wider surf community as a whole, would join such an opposition comes down to personal perspective.
Do you think both the loss to the Severn Bore community and the damage to the natural environment are unimportant when compared with the vast amount of renewable energy the project would produce?
Or do you feel that, particularly as ocean surfing becomes increasingly commercialised, we should guard these authentic and passion filled sub cultural pockets of our sport and protect the nature they rely on – even if at first glance they do just look like a group of excitable middle-agers, riding battered old boards down a muddy river in the Midlands.
Words and photos: @lugarts