t’s only five hours and 250 miles from the capital, but it feels like the other side of the world…
“I’m so sorry” my taxi driver says quietly “everywhere is just so… well, it is lunch time I suppose”. It’s midday on an overcast Thursday in July and all around us are vans and lorries failing to get to their destination. Horns honk angrily.
There is a lot to love about living in London, but sitting in a sea of traffic, with exhaust fumes filling the air and tall grey buildings leading up to an equally grey sky isn’t high on the list. So far, my eight mile journey to Paddington Station has taken almost two hours.
This is an all-too every day part of city life that the capital’s tourist office don’t tell you about. I feel like I’m about as far away from a surfing trip as it’s possible to get.
In fact, aside from a small suitcase, it would be impossible for a passer by to know I’m going surfing at all. Having carried a snowboard around the city in rush hour too many times, I’m glad I’m not carting a nine-foot surfboard with me.
Despite the dirge and slow, grinding chaos around me, my mind is elsewhere. This is my first time surfing, so by the time I eventually reach Paddington station where my five hour train journey begins, I’ve replayed every cliché-heavy Hollywood surf film in my head.
I’ve pictured being taught how to stand on a surfboard by everybody from über-stoner Jeff Spicoli to Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character from Blue Juice. There’s a million unanswerable questions buzzing through my head that I know are pointless, but they continue to chip away at my sanity anyway.
As the train pulls away my excitement and the anxiety that nags away at any first-timer slowly fade away as the grey of the city is replaced with the million greens of the country side.
The overcast skies have disappeared and, all of a sudden, it’s the most British of summer days. This is what the tourist office should tell you about.
By early evening, I reach Newquay. The sky is still blue and the air is warm and clean, with just the faintest whiff of fish and chip shops drifting around – something that’s surprisingly inviting.
A short walk from the station, through the town centre that looks a little bit like Wetherspoons-on-Sea, I’m at the Reef Studio, my seafront accommodation for the next two nights.
It’s just a short, 30 second stroll to the Ticket to Ride surf school and the beach that I hope will see me surfing in the next 48 hours. The view over the Cornish coastline as the sun begins to set is every bit as breath taking as I’d hoped it would be. I’m five hours from London, but it feels like the other side of the world.
As the evening turns into night, I walk to my studio apartment to sleep, as the fear and excitement of what lies ahead do battle in my mind.
It’s early on Friday morning, and I find myself rudely awakened by the dustmen. A microwaved croissant and black coffee later, I walk over to the surf school overlooking the sea. I’m greeted by Taffy, one of the Ticket to Ride instructors, and my teacher for the day.
His shoulder length curly hair, baggy camo shorts and high tops make him every inch the kind of person I’d expect to be teaching me to surf – with only a laid back Cali’ accent missing – instead replaced by a slight Welsh lilt.
He sorts me out a wetsuit and a nine foot beginner’s board, and we make our way down the many steps to the beach.
There’s a hard way… and a harder way
Before long we’re on to surfing, albeit from the relative safety of the beach. “There’s a hard way” explains Taffy “and a harder way. Which do you want to try?” Stupidly convincing myself it was logically better to do so, I opt for the harder method of surfing.
I quickly learn that this method of popping up to my feet from a horizontal position involves no little gymnastic skill and the ability to bend into karma sutra style bodily contortions. A few minutes of struggle pass before I opt to try the less hard, but I’m assured, still pretty tricky method.
The second technique, where I go from lying down to kneeling to standing is easier to master. All seems to be going well, but we’re still on the sand. Now it’s time to head into the water.
As soon as the water gets to waist height, I’m hit by a familiar feeling. It’s exactly the same feeling I get when I’m in the mountains and find myself uttering the line “this should be on the NHS”. It’s a feeling of simple pleasure that is unique to being outside, surrounded by nature so massive in scale that you’re completely at its mercy.
This natural ecstasy is soon banished to the back of my mind as a couple of waves break on my head. My eyes are screaming with all the sunblock that’s suddenly washed into them, and I’ve swallowed enough brine to keep the John West factory in business for six months.
My first 20 minutes in the water are hard work. The waves are relentless, continually beating me back towards the beach. Even rudimentary skills learned as a child, like jumping when a wave breaks ahead abandon me.
Luckily, Taffy remains not only patient but encouraging. Time after time I get onto the board, only to be dumped unceremoniously back into the sea. I briefly think back to those traffic jams in central London and wonder if they’re really so bad.
All of a sudden, something clicks. Somewhere between determination, and the encouragement from my mentor I feel like I’ve made progress. I suddenly feel more comfortable.
I’m still a long way from getting to my feet, but now it feels like I’m stumbling in the right direction. Progress is slow, but the battle is turning more and more into a pleasure as we take a break for lunch.
We head to a near by deli favoured by the locals. Sitting in the warm summer sun, eating good food, the neon lights and fake KFC’s of the big city are as far from my mind as they can possibly be.
A good hour for lunch passes before we head back down to the surf. Once again, it’s not long before my eyes are stinging and I accidentally drink enough salty sea water to hold a World Surf League competition in my small intestine, but this time I’m not bothered. Something’s different now.
Giddy on enthusiasm (or mild sunstroke) I climb back on to the board time and time again as wave after wave reminds me who’s really in charge out here. Taffy’s coaching continually goes though my head. A handful of times I momentarily find myself on both feet, only to be dumped swiftly back into the water. There is no illusion – this does not count.
Time after time, I try to piece all of the elements together. “You’re so close now, dude” cries Taffy as I emerge from under the surface of the water for what feels like the thousandth time.
As the afternoon goes on, my enthusiasm and determination is replaced by fatigue. After two and a half hours, progress has peaked, and I’m now on the downward turn. Eventually, I admit defeat. Today, surfing has beaten me.
“You were good out there today” suggests another surf school student, albeit one that’s already much further along the steep learning curve. I accept the compliment but can’t help but feel it was somewhat generous. Showered, sunburnt, and completely exhausted, I head back to my studio. Plans for a late afternoon stroll along the costal path are soon replaced with a much deserved nap.
Sam was measuring me, seeing what I knew, and what I could do
That evening, along with Hayley from Ticket to Ride and a local windsurfer called Jan, we head to The Stable, a pizza restaurant that sits right on the coast. We’re treated to not only good food, but a Cornish sunset that couldn’t be created in Photoshop.
After our meal, we head back into the town centre. As the many hen parties and stag dos are getting ready to drink their collective weight in tequila and cocktails named after unpleasant sounding sexual encounters, I head to bed.
Five hours of surfing today is to be followed up by another four hours tomorrow, under the tuition of Sam Lamiroy of the Lamiroy Academy: Two time British champion and one of the best surfers this island has ever produced. It’s time to sleep.
It’s Saturday, and my final day in Newquay. I take the short walk over to the Ticket to Ride surf school again, and meet Sam, a tall man with an impressive beard, and enough inherent cool to be able to get away with wearing a trucker hat.
We spend a few minutes looking out over the ocean while the tide is in, talking about the sea, how I got on the day before, and how I found the board.
I thought it was just a quick chat to break the ice, but Sam was measuring me, seeing what I knew, and what I could do. He picks me out a new board, still a nine foot beginner board, but slightly more stable than the one I was on previously.
One of the best things about the Lamiroy Academy is the fact that you don’t need to own a board yourself. They have plenty of high-end boards suitable for everybody, from completely green surfers like myself, to seasoned veterans who want to try a board out before they splash out on one.
The ecstasy is immediate and overwhelming
Lamiroy explains that different conditions along with different levels of ability require different boards – a fact that can be pretty exclusive for anybody living more than 20 minutes away from their nearest break. “Maybe, if you’re really good, you have two boards” explains Sam “and you turn up after five hours on a train to find out the conditions don’t suit either of them…?”
Ticket to Ride and the Lamiroy Academy have eliminated this by offering members a whole selection of high-end boards to suit all levels of ability and all kinds of conditions.
Wetsuit on, and board in hand, Sam and I head down to the beach. After a quick session on the sand, we head out to the ocean and immediately Lamiroy wants to see me on the board. I wait for a wave and try to get to my feet awkwardly. Sam watches a couple of attempts and begins to tweak what I’m doing.
“You’re too noisy getting up” he suggests making reference to my chaotic clamber, as opposed to any actual vocal noises I may be making. “Try to get up as quietly as possible”. Back on the board I wait for a wave. When I feel the push against the back of my board, Sam reinforces “quiet fighting, James. Quiet fighting”.
Attempt after attempt, everything gets tweaked with tiny adjustments. Just moving a few centimetres higher or lower on the board has massive effects on my progress. Exactly how much the tiny margins matter in surfing really hits home.
Wave after wave, I get closer to that holy grail of standing on my board. And then my biggest step forward.
I find myself up on two feet. I’m vertical for maybe just a second before I crash down into the waves.
My elation manifests itself in a gurgled “YES!” as I emerge from the ocean. I hear Sam in the distance shouting “That’s it, James, you’re so close now”.
Drunk on this most minor of victories, my next few waves see me dumped unceremoniously into the sea as nature immediately reminds me of my place.
Ever analysing, Sam digs out another piece of advice. “You’re leaning over as you stand up” he tells me. “Imagine the centre of the board is a corridor, and you have to stand up within those walls.”.
The advice repeats on a loop in my head as the next few waves propel me towards the shore. “Quiet fighting… corridor… quiet fighting… corridor” again and again and again.
Time and again I feel waves crash into the tail of my board. One wave hits and I pull my knees, up, contort my body and smoothly as I can, throw my front foot forward just waiting for that familiar tumble into the waves.
“Fight, James. Fight!” bellows Lamiroy. All of a sudden I’m up. I’m up on two feet. The board picks up speed and stabilises underneath me.
I’m surfing. I’m actually surfing. I start counting in my head. I’ve somehow decided three seconds makes even the most ragged looking surf legit. “One… two… three… four… five…”
The ecstasy is immediate and overwhelming. It may not be the most stylish, it’s almost certainly unorthodox, and it’s definitely no more than heading in a straight line towards the beach, but this is surfing.
Take the best Irvine Welsh description of heroin you’ve ever read, times it by a thousand and you’re still not even close. I fall back into the water, and emerge a second later to see Sam with his arms in the air, equally as elated as me.
I rush back out to the waves. A few more falls but then another wave comes that sees me on two feet again.
For the next hour, despite remaining very much at the bottom of the food chain, I feel like the best surfer on the planet. Hell, I feel like the best human being on the planet.
I get up maybe four or five more times before my afternoons surfing draws to an end. With a lunchtime train back to London to catch, we have to stop. I get one more wave before Sam suggests “maybe that’s a good one to end it on”.
I feel like I’m flying as we walk back to the Ticket to Ride surf school. On the way, Sam tells me the story of how he very nearly missed his own wedding because he wanted to get one more good wave, and lets me in on his own theory about surfing that involves a convincing combination of meta-physics and Eastern philosophy.
My body is exhausted, but my mind is racing, high on achievement, excitement, and barely earned pride. I shower the salt water off one last time, get changed, and reluctantly say my goodbyes.
I wearily climb on board the train bound for London, my elation slowly being replaced by the thought of the long, five hour journey ahead of me. I spend my time planning countless surf trips. I promise myself I’ll be back soon. After all, who wouldn’t want to escape the city for this feeling? To be in the sea. To surf.