Forget all the posturing and pseudo-spiritual chat. Two new styles of surfing will have you laughing so hard your mouth will fill up with water.
Surfing, for all its countercultural, free-spirited associations, can actually be quite a serious business, writes Duncan Craig. Solitary, too. Usually, it’s not until I’m fished out by the lifeguards that I get any sort of decent social interaction.
Yet here I am, squeezed together with a group of like-minded others, laughing so hard that there’s a real risk my wetsuit will end up drenched inside as well as out.
I’ve flown down to Newquay for the day to try out two new offshoots of the sport: surf rafting – essentially whitewater rafting without the river; and monster stand-up paddleboard surfing, a pastime so new, it’s yet to develop the acronym it so patently needs. Think kite surfing, or Kitesurfen as I hear it’s popularly known in Germany, and how much fun that is. Well, double the board in size, then double it again and combine it with banana boating and you’ll get an idea of what monster stand-up paddleboard surfing is all about.
The monster, to be clear, refers to the oversized board that’s used – so big, Sam Starkie recently managed to get a party of 30 schoolchildren standing up on one. Briefly. Sam runs Newquay Watersports Centre, an adventure company pioneering both of these absurdly enjoyable watersports.
“Don’t get me wrong, we love conventional surfing,” he says as we carry one of the specially designed open-backed rubber rafts from the company’s harbour base down to the sandy water line. “But it’s not particularly sociable. We realised there was an appetite for more of a group experience.”
Our group comprises Sam, surfing tutors Adam and Danny, Morgan – the 16-year-old son of one of the other instructors, whose Kevin-the-teenager levels of enthusiasm are to be the source of much of the day’s banter – and me.
We’re kitted out with wetsuits, buoyancy aids and helmets, given a quick briefing (“You will fall in” is the general thrust), then we’re paddling out of the high-walled harbour and along the rocky coast.
Sam points out fulmars, nesting kittiwakes, old lifeboat slipways, smugglers’ holes. It’s a fascinating stretch, but we’re here for something altogether more gnarly.
Surfers eye us suspiciously as we paddle into position. They do, indeed, look serious. And territorial. There’s that familiar lull, then suddenly Sam is shouting, oddly: “Hammer time.” All five of us (well, four and a half) pump away for dear life. Short, lung-busting strokes. We can’t see the wave Sam’s spotted, but we soon feel it, picking us up, sending the boat racing down its face and propelling everyone into the spongy middle of the boat, yelping and spluttering.
“Everyone on the left,” Sam shouts as he tries to correct a turn with his makeshift paddle-rudder. We bundle over, lose Adam overboard, then Morgan, and then we’re completely out of control, spinning towards the shore.
When the spray settles, we assess the damage: Adam and Morgan are bobbing around 40ft back, smiling broadly and clutching their paddles, and the surfers have dispersed at what can only be described as “great white” pace.
Getting back out is almost as much fun – no duck dives for us, just a full-on frontal assault. We reach the surf zone and catch our breath. “Oh, yes,” Sam says at length. “Here comes a lump.”
Duncan (in red helmet, left), and team paddle back to the beach on the surf raft
And so it continues, until our arms and cores ache (this could be marketed as an elaborate abs workout) and we’re ravenous. We steer back into the harbour, refuel on crepes and the best coffee in town at the retro Citroën-van cafe opposite the office, then grab the giant stand-up paddleboard. It takes four of us to lift it.
A small crowd gathers on the harbour wall as we paddle out; we’re not just a novelty, we’re a spectacle. We stagger round like labradors on an ice rink and fall in the water with comic regularity. We’re just a well-aimed smartphone away from going viral.
The now incoming tide and a brisk offshore wind are combining to generate some trademark Newquay rollers. They’re quite fetching from a distance. Up close, they’re rather more fearsome, and we’re made to pay with some spectacular early wipeouts.
We mix up our positions on the board for variety: I get to fall off at the front, the middle and the back. But slowly, remarkably, we begin to crack it.
This culminates in a 20-second ride that sees us cut a swathe through the conventional surfers, like an oil tanker through a flotilla of yachts. We slide up the beach, the keel fin digging into the sand, and step off like royalty.
It’s possibly the most dignified way I’ve ever made landfall. Or at least it would be if we weren’t prancing around the beach, punching the air and whooping.