Learning To Sandboard | We Try The Alternative To Snowboarding On The Sand Dunes Of Devon
The climate is changing, the snow is melting... so is sandboarding the future?
The snow is melting. If you’re a snowboarder in Britain, this is not good news. The last three winter seasons in Europe haven’t really stuttered to life until well into January. Glaciers in Europe, such as the ones in Tignes and Chamonix in France, and Hintertux in Austria are reportedly visibly getting smaller and smaller as each year passes.
Of course, this is the worst fear of those of us that enjoy nothing more than sliding sideways down a mountain, and maybe I’m wrong. But what if this bleak projection turns out to be true? If snowboarding is on the edge of extinction, what can fill the hole in our hearts that it currently occupies? Where else can we get a fix of sliding sideways down a hill. The answer lies in sandboarding.
If you imagine boardsports as a family, with surfing as a noble elder statesman, sandboarding would be considered by some as the runt of the litter. Few have heard about it. Those that have almost certainly don't know anything about it. There is no industry, no governing body, virtually no media coverage, no real scene to speak of. And this is the future?
I head down to Braunton Burrows in North Cornwall, home of the UK’s largest sand dunes. There, I meet up with Alex Bird, one of the UK’s leading sandboarders to give this largely unheard of sport a go myself. It feels exciting to be trying a boardsport that can be done outdoors in Britain. One that, unlike surfing, doesn't rely on the perfect combination of unlikely meteorological factors to be able to do.
I’ve often found myself feeling envious of mountain bikers making the most of the British countryside while I’ve been left to tuck my snowboard under my arm and head to an indoor snowdome to get a few laps in. I allow myself a smile at the thought of sliding sideways outdoors, right here, at home in the UK.
Alex and I are joined by Nigel Brown from Barefoot Surf School for a taster session on sand. Before I’ve so much as set eyes on a board, I’m struck by how other-worldly the landscape is. The sand dunes at Braunton are gigantic. “The largest in England" Nigel assures me. In fact, at 3120 hectares , they’re comparable in size to Mount Vesuvius in Italy.
In fact, they’re intimidatingly big. Two dunes face each other, forming a kind of large, poorly shaped half pipe. I have visions of dropping in and riding up the opposite wall. In time I would realise these visions would go no further than the wilds of my imagination.
“So, where’s the chair lift" I ask, half joking as I peered to the top of one steep dune. There is no lift. There’s a big pile of sand and little else. It’s you, the board, the sand and gravity. That’s it. That’s all.
Verbier, this is not.
“It might be easier if we walk up this way" says Alex, pointing to a longer but less arduous route to the summit. I trudge up the dune, while Alex and Nigel scamper ahead, seemingly masters of a mysterious technique that stops the sand from shifting around every footstep as it does for me.
The views from the top are breathtaking, albeit helped by the fact that we happen to be blessed with blue skies and as much sunshine as a winter afternoon in February can muster. If I was on a mountain with a snowboard strapped to my feet, these would be dream conditions.
Brown points out an olive green vehicle passing by in the distance. “The military use these dunes, just because there’s nothing else like them on this scale in the UK. They use them for their games, or whatever they call them." I suggest that people in said olive green vehicle would probably like to have them known as ‘manoeuvres’. “Whatever they are, they seem to have a lot of fun," he replies, cheekily.
Aside from our friends in the military, the dunes, while open to the public, are out of bounds to all vehicles. However, an exception had been made today as Alex had been filming a video with Jeep earlier this morning. As a result, the sides of the dunes were a little rutted, similar to a piste being moguled by skiers towards the end of the day on the mountain. Alex assures me a few ruts won’t affect my performance. I admire his confidence in my ability, if not fully buying it myself.
Nigel had brought an armful of sandboards up the dune with him. I was expecting metre-and-a-half long powderboards, with swallow tails cut out of the back, just like you’d see snowboarders such as Jeremy Jones riding as he hoons down a couloir in the Alaskan backcountry.
In reality sandboards are much shorter, about a metre long, shaped like a Magnum ice-cream stick, and are a few centimetres thick. The shorter size reduces surface friction, making the boards glide down the rough sand of the dunes easier. They also don’t have a metal edge like a snowboard does. Instead, the wood of the board just finishes.
Like a snowboard, they have bindings, but the ones used have more in common with the kind found on a kite board. “When I was riding behind the Jeep earlier, I was on my snowboard," Alex explains “but we find that beginners don’t tend to like being strapped in, so we use these shorter boards, with bindings you can step right out of when you fall."
I risk impertinence by suggesting that anybody with a bit of old kitchen worktop and good-to-firm woodwork skills could craft one in their garage. “Most people do buy them," replies Nigel batting the question away with the deft touch of a politician before admitting “virtually everybody in Australia has one somewhere in the house, gathering dust in the garage or attic. They buy them, use them once and get a bit bored of them."
"I thump into the dune, eating a mouthful of sand in the process"
After asking if I was regular or goofy, Alex picks me out a board, and liberally rubs a stick of wax on the bottom. “It’s all about leaning back," he tells me. “Start off low, and keep your weight on your back foot." He straps on a board, and demonstrates how it should be done, gliding down the dune with ease.
Because the boards we’re using don’t have edges, they’re impossible to turn unlike a snowboard. As such, every run is a riotous blast, directly down the fall line of the dune. The result is a ride that maybe lacks the style and grace of a sweeping snowboard or even surf line, but is more akin to a smash-mouth hill bomb. This is 17 seconds of thrash-metal, as opposed to a seven minute concerto.
Of course, Alex is a world renowned sandboarder, so is bound to make it look easy, but I’m struck by just how simple it appears. “I’ve snowboarded in powder. I’ve wakeboarded. This is the same kind of deal," I tell myself. My confidence high, I strap into the board, shuffle to my feet, and begin to set off.
The sand proves sticky, and initially I only inch slowly down. “That’s it, back foot," shouts Nigel. I’ve picked up a little speed. “Now start to stand higher," comes the cry from the top of the dune. Now I’m motoring. Gliding over the choppy sand. I’m doing this. I’m sandboarding. My first attempt. I’m a natural. This is easy. I'm...
The thud, as my misplaced confidence is replaced with the inevitable fall, is jarring. I thump into the dune, eating a mouthful of sand in the process. Summoning the grace of a toddler in a ball-pit, I rolled around on the floor in a bid to find my feet. I’d reached the bottom of the dune, but not in the fashion I’d have liked.
I hike the dune again and again, ready to iron out the hefty creases in my technique. Both Alex and Nigel are patient, and give me pointers of what to do on my next run. Each attempt is an improvement. If I initially thought I’d be doing tricks within ten minutes, I’d been firmly put in my place. My enthusiasm was high, but my energy was being sapped with a fifth and sixth climb to the top of the monstrous sand dune. I regret the quip about the chair lift.
"I looked as elegant as a bulldog at the ballet"
The pockets of my jeans and my trainers are now full of sand that would later take weeks to fully get rid of. My time with Alex and Nigel was drawing to a close, so I was determined to get a good run in.
Several times I promise myself “this is the last go", before fluffing my lines and hiking back to the top. And then, just at the point of giving up, it happens. I may have looked as elegant as a bulldog at the ballet, but I cruise down the dune in one, even stepping off nonchalantly at the bottom. “That’s it. It’s just about getting that technique right," says Alex, by way of a pat on the back.
Exhilarated, but exhausted, I head to the nearby Barnstaple train station. The long journey home gives me time to contemplate sandboarding.
I’d had a lot of fun, and in the company of two of the best sandboarders the country has to offer. It’s a thoroughly entertaining way to spend an afternoon. However, I can also sympathise with those Aussies that have sandboards lying around, redundant after a single day’s use. I’m not convinced sandboarding has the staying power to be considered a true alternative, or even a replacement for snowboarding.
Sandboarding, however, is undoubtedly fun, and enjoyable, if somewhat lacking in longevity. But it’s also here. It’s something we can do at home, in Britain. And no, maybe it’s not going to overtake snowboarding in the next few years. Maybe not the next few decades either, but it feels wrong to think of sandboarding as a rival. It’s just another way to have fun sliding sideways down a hill. More importantly, it's one that’s only a train ride away.
Do It Yourself
A train from London to Barnstaple, stopping at Exeter St. Davids takes three and a half hours, and costs £84.80 return, when bought in advance with Great Western Railways.
A two hour sandboarding lesson with Barefoot Surf School costs £30.00 per person, which includes board rental and safety equipment.