When spring has properly sprung, the ocean curious Briton’s conscience turns instinctively down and left, towards the granite index finger fringed in foaming surf known as the South West Peninsula.
Scotland has some of the very finest reef breaks in Europe say those who claim to know, but for the majority of folk seeking a surf trip in relatively mild brine and climes, with waves of all kinds for all comers and a sprinkling surf culture, there is but one direction of travel.
These are of course troubled, fractured times. A deep division exists among us, a schism that has split families, colleagues, friends. For some it’s a question of identity, for others, more pragmatic or economic.
Yes, that’s right: whether to take M3/A303 (possible cut across to Taunton rather than all the way to Exeter) or M4, M5.
That debate rages on.
Whichever route you take and wherever you stop along the way, be it Sedgemoor, Taunton Deane, Gordano (?!?) and whether you’re kipping in your car or van, camping in a field hoping to perform fingering next to a patch of cider sick, or renting an Air B&B owned by absentee landlords from Esher pricing locals out of the housing market, you’re probably in for an elluva good time.
But, like any travel adventure, there are potential pitfalls both littoral and terrestrial. Let us examine them, then.
Pasty Before Paddling out?
Every region, every people has its gift bestowed upon humanity. The Arabs gave us numbers and the scientific method. The Chinese gave us printing and beer. The Cornish (or Devonians) gave us the pasty*.
And so you find yourself hungry, less than an hour before low water, and want a culturally sensitive snack that supports the local economy.
If you were to design the ideal oesophagus reflux food, the perfect heartburn fuel, the pasty would surely be it. If, after ingesting that weighty lump of pastry-encased fatty carbs by the third duckdive, your pasty is not the swallowed-whole gazelle to your python, you’re probably cyborg.
*Actually it may well have been the French/Londoners, but let’s not get bogged down.
To understand how good the surf might be in the SW (or anywhere for that matter, but particularly the SW) is to understand the difference between weather and climate. The surf isn’t good, as in now, as a matter of status, but it will be good at some point.**
Thus it is important to maintain realistic goals to avoid disappointment. If you want beachbreak pockets in the 1-3ft range, great. Whitewash to ride perpendicular to for a long way, on a surf school foamie? Ideal. If you want to get away from the pack, do a few rock dances and surf an uneven, if perhaps not exceptionally slabby reef, you’re (probably) in too, if you know where to look.
Otherwise, don’t be that guy/gal who maintains a perpetual state of I’m-too-rad-for-this disappointment. It ain’t the Bukit. It ain’t West oz. Don’t compare it to other places, love it just the way it is.
“Going for a ‘quick splash’ in the SW means taking into account the curvature of the Earth’s surface”
You Seem… Distant
‘From A Distance’ went Cliff Richard’s 1990 love letter to SW surf checking, as he fondly described the nature of his vantage point when looking upon peninsula shred.
The surf is indeed generally far, far away.
We’re not talking about the drive down, now, but the overall distance travelled from vehicle/front door to the actual lineup.
There’s the epic sojourn down to the water’s edge at low tide, which might comprise an initial dune or cliff descent, brief strip of dry sand, then-to-the-horizon wet stuff. From there, on say a 2-3ft day, it might still be a further 400m paddle to the lineup.
At which point, you’ll be forgiven for a feeling a little big like Odysseus when he finally identifies himself to Penelope having hung twelve household maids and mutilated and killed the goatherd Melanthius at Ithaca in the final chapter of the Odyssey. It’s been… emotional.
Going for a ‘quick splash’ in the SW means taking into account the curvature of the Earth’s surface. Thus the run down the beach is much more of a marathon than a sprint.
On cooler days/months, make sure you’ve enough left in the metabolic tank to make it back to the car, rather than perish from exposure halfway up the world’s widest beach.
“You’ll be forgiven for a feeling a little big like Odysseus when he finally identifies himself to Penelope having hung twelve household maids and mutilated and killed the goatherd Melanthius at Ithaca”
Perhaps the only thing worse than expiring around the mid-water mark post-surf, is surviving the long yomp back to your vehicle, only to realise that the parking charges accrued during your lengthy absence equates to around £9/wave.
But that’s cool. The National Trust are bidding for another Rembrandt at Sotheby’s, so money well spent and all that.
Despite the modern boffin’s computational prowess, even today’s forecasts are often wrong, and thus best taken as a slightly optimistic guide, rather than a matter of fact. The short fallings of the current models are perhaps accentuated in the SW more than elsewhere.
“It’s almost never bigger and less windy, but quite often smaller and windier…”
The surf is very rarely bigger than forecast and winds rarely lighter, compared to how often its windier and smaller. In fact, it’s almost never bigger and less windy, ever, and almost always smaller and windier.
Generally speaking, the SW surf is slow to build and quick to die, and one of the immutable laws of the universe, a force more certain than gravity itself dictates that the much feted ‘long period pulse’ alleged to be arriving mid-afternoon will reluctantly start to fill in some 11 minutes before dusk, at the very very earliest.
Meanwhile, the wind much more likely to veer (go clockwise) than back (anti-clockwise)… or something like that. So keep a beady eye on it, but don’t…
The point of diminishing returns in a SW surf check goose chase is very shortly after clicking in the seat belt. Sure, sure, banks are banks and thus fickle, and “apparently there’s a real good right up at ….” etc etc, but at the same time, if conditions are good/bang av/shite they’re probably kinda similar-ish everywhere (for the now).
Up to a certain point, coast-wide kinda constants like the period and power of the swell, size of the tide and atmospheric conditions might be much more likely the governing factor between a good and crap sesh, rather than radical differences in the banks.
You probably ain’t gonna find Mick’s Snake, or anybody else’s by burning up petty. Identify a sorta bank in advance, surf there.
Don’t be that drove-around-exasperated guy or gal.
No matter how bad your trip is, no matter what you get served it terms of weather, wind, waves, traffic, parking or food, do try to be nice.
Be appreciative. You’re on a surf trip. Surfing is fun.
Remember, things could be worse, much worse. You could be this guy…