Words and photos by Alf Alderson
A couple of weeks ago I decided to take a trip back in time. I bought a rusty old van, threw a sleeping bag, surfboards, wetsuits (and dog) in the back and set off from my home in Pembrokeshire on my first surfari in years, to the Penwith Peninsula in Cornwall.
Sennen was my destination and I wasn’t just looking for waves; I was in search of my stoke.
My first surf trip to Sennen was in 1980, when I was so fixated with surfing I’d have paddled out into the middle of the Thames had I suspected a wave may be on offer. But in recent years I’ve fallen out of love with the sport of wave riding.
Had my stoke for surfing faded forever now I’ve turned 50?
Commercialised; crowded; overhyped; just too damned hip for its own good. That’s how I saw it. On top of which, living in Pembrokeshire scarcely guarantees you quality waves on a regular basis – and without quality waves even the most enthusiastic surfer will eventually grow jaded.
So disenchanted had I become with my surfing life that two years ago I moved to the French Alps, a region not renowned for its waves…
So having returned to the UK for the summer, was that long lost stoke that once fired me up every morning still accessible; or like hair, fitness, hearing and teeth, had it faded forever now I’ve turned 50?
Well, gentle reader, I am pleased to report that I found my stoke before I even got to Sennen, and several miles inland at that – at the Museum of British Surfing in Braunton.
Like any good museum, the Museum of British Surfing keeps its displays simple and fun. There’s a working pinball machine with a surf theme, on which you can waste your money all day (although having once played an identical machine in my local pub the journey back in time it offered for only a quid a go did seem pretty good value); the board collection will absorb anyone even remotely interested in surfing; but the best display of all in my opinion is a block of Waxmate, an old, rock hard surf wax I remember using in the early 80s.
For this is as effective a time machine as the Tardis. Here’s how it works:
You’re invited to sniff said block of wax, which I did; and in an instant I zoomed over thirty years back in time to my early days of wave riding.
I sniffed a block of wax and in an instant I zoomed over thirty years back in time…
Now we all know that smell is the sense that most effectively triggers memory, and apparently this is related to the fact that the part of the brain responsible for processing smells – the olfactory bulb – is next the hippocampus, which is crucial for creating memories (as well as being Greek for ‘seahorse’ which is rather apropos in this particular case).
The aroma from that ancient block of Waxmate immediately released a torrent of unforgettable memories – many of them involved uncomfortable wetsuits, crap boards, cold seas and endless wipeouts, but above all a sense of fun and freedom wafted off that old block of surf wax (which as I recall wasn’t even that good – hard to apply and not especially sticky).
Above all it vividly reminded me of the fun of hanging out at the beach and in the waves with friends, the careless freedom of youth and the hatching of plans to hit the road (even if on one occasion we did that literally, rolling our van on France’s west coast) and surf waves all around the globe, which most of us subsequently did.
On one occasion we literally hit the road, rolling our van…
And as I drifted back to 2015 it occurred to me that my loss of stoke was probably due to those three fundamentals of the surfing experience – fun, freedom and anticipation – having been lost along the way in recent years.
Some of that is down to me – I’ve been fortunate to surf some of the great surf spots on the planet and after two weeks of perfection in the Maldives or Costa Rica it can be hard to fire up much enthusiasm for a cold, wet, onshore day in Britain.
And part of it is down to the over-commercialisation of the sport. You can’t turn the clock back, but I often wonder whether the rash of surf shops and surf schools, 24/7 surf reports, high profile surf competitions, the appropriation of surf culture by the High Street, business and the media and surfing’s gradual drift into conventionality has taken away from the excitement, thrill and sense of purpose we felt thirty years ago as part of a surfing tribe that lived on, if not beyond, the fringes of society.
After all, how can you be part of a ‘tribe’ (Oxford English definition: ‘a social division in a traditional society’) living outside the mainstream when the whole of said society seems to have joined that tribe too?
And it was here that I finally saw the light. Simply do what you did all those years ago when you decided to become a surfer rather than a career monkey – opt out again.
Forget the commercialisation, the hype and the bullshit that are part and parcel of 21st century surfing, because none of it is worth a toss when you’re actually riding a wave.
Who cares whether you ride the right board, wear the right wetsuit or drive the right vehicle as long as you’re catching waves and having fun doing so? Hell, it doesn’t even matter how well you’re riding the waves as long as you’re enjoying it, for as the old adage goes, ‘the surfer having the most fun is the surfer having the most fun’.
Forget the hype and the bullshit of 21st century surfing, because none of it is worth a toss when you’re actually riding a wave
From Braunton I drove on down to Sennen in my newly enlightened state. Here I met up with my surf journo friend Alex Wade, who had also lost his stoke somewhat in recent years due to various surf- and skateboard-related injuries, which has made surfing for him an often uncomfortable experience.
We paddled out together on a warm, sunny afternoon, we caught a few fun waves, we talked, we set the surfing world if not the entire world to rights, we had a laugh and it seemed that our enthusiasm for the sport was slowly creeping back.
I think this is because we simply took what Sennen offered and enjoyed it – fun waves, warm sunshine, good company – isn’t that what surfing, in essence, is all about?
Fun waves, warm sunshine, good company – isn’t that what surfing is all about?
When I set off back to Pembrokeshire four days later Alex was ready to buy a new board and wetsuit for the first time in years. And I was checking the surf forecast and tide tables for when I got home, planning my working day around catching a few waves.
I’ve now been surfing on 18 days out of the last 22. My neck aches, my arms ache, my back aches and my ribs ache. My face is sunburnt and my eyes are bloodshot. I’m behind with my work and the unanswered e mails are piling up.
And y’know what, I couldn’t care less. Cos I got my stoke back…