What drew us to North Devon, other than having nowhere else to go, was the surf.
Since our year in Central America we still think of ourselves as surfers. Yes, it’s true that barring a couple of weeks in Bali in 2008 and a very occasional session here and there in Cornwall or Portugal, we haven’t really surfed properly in 15 years. But it’s like riding a bike right? And so, once we get down to Devon, boards loaded on the top of the car, many readings of the swell reports en route, heated discussions about pressure systems and fin types, we are ready to wind back the clock and dive back into a life on the waves.
A storm system battered the South West on the Friday a few days before our arrival and our go-to forecaster Magic Seaweed is showing that there is still going to be some solid swell on on our first morning. It’s a little big for Menna’s first day, but I’m itching to paddle out.
The sun’s shining. I wax up my trusty 6’4” squash tail thruster, attach the leash and walk into the sea. I bob over the first few lines of white water then start to paddle out to the line-up with strong powerful strokes. My shoulders wake up, instantly responding to the demands with some innate muscle memory. I navigate a large incoming set without too much difficulty, timing my duck dives to slip smoothly beneath the breaks. The cold water hits my face like an invigorating tonic. The waves are coming in neat clean lines, about six feet high and barrelling slightly. It‘s big, but nothing compared to Puerto Escondido in 2005 – or that gnarly reef break we surfed in Panama. Getting out back, I feel my heart rate is nicely elevated, lungs are working well, there is blood coursing through my muscles. There are about 15 surfers clustered around the peak. Fellow pros. They look at me and recognise one of their kind.
I float on my board and wait. It’s not long until the next set, and I watch the guys position themselves and then drop in smoothly on wave after wave. It’s clear they know this break well. Then my chance comes. The last wave of the set breaks late and the peak has shifted slightly to the left, catching everyone out of position, except for me out on the edge of the pack. I paddle hard for it, feeling the tail of my surfboard lift, getting my chest down and accelerating my strokes just as the wave ramps. Then there it is: the glide, that most amazing sensation as my speed matches the wave speed and then we are planing together. I am high on the face of the wave and bang in the pocket, the wave face is crumbling right next to me. I explode to my feet and I’m off, left rail wedged into a green wall that swells and builds in front of my board. The ride picks up in pace as I take a sharp diagonal down the wave face and then a sweeping bottom turn. Up to the top and it’s time for a cutback. My board carves a tight S shape to turn back towards the break and refind the pocket, which I’ve now outpaced.
On and on the wave runs and I’m drawing beautiful lines. My fins carve a white signature into the green face for all to see. It’s a moment of pure harmony between man and ocean. The tears in my eyes are only half from the wind.
And then a soft fade back to reality. This is a composite of several daydreams I’ve been having on the way to Devon, and they have carried me happily right up to this moment. This moment now. My surfboard under my arm, a hero’s pose, standing calm and ready at the water’s edge
The sun’s shining. I wax up my trusty 6’4” squash tail thruster, attach the leash and walk into the sea. I bob over the first few lines of white water then start to paddle out to the line-up with strokes that feel rather laboured and ineffective. A big set comes in and I remember the adrenaline shot of fear as a huge slab rumbles towards you. I remember how huge a wave looks from your low vantage point at its base. I remember the feeling of impact that resembles nothing so much as a ton of liquid cement being poured on your back from height. There are relentless white walls lined up angrily in front of you, and you need to pass through them all before you find yourself in deep calm waters. Inefficient duck-dives rob you of air and leave you floundering in foam before the next wave crashes right on top of you. Poor paddle technique means you lose meters of progress with every wave you pass.
And so it happens today. I get caught in the impact zone for a long time, shoulders quickly weakened, lungs on fire, salt water in my stomach. For several waves I have to ditch my board entirely and just dive under, feeling the leash on my ankle yanking frantically as my abandoned board gets smashed around on the surface. Finally there’s a gap between sets and I’m able to limp my way out back, gasping and red faced.
I float on my board and wait. It’s not long until the next set, and I watch the guys position themselves and then drop in smoothly on wave after wave. It’s clear they know this break well. I’ve no heart to go after anything myself, I’m exhausted already. I try to get my breathing back to acceptable levels and slip into a reverie. I don’t notice that everyone has suddenly started paddling fast for the horizon. The clean-up set has arrived, a group of monster waves that are far larger and therefore break far deeper than the rest. One by one everyone makes it over the crest of the first roller, but I’m caught inside again and I take the full impact of the first big wave and then its companions. I am dragged deep under and spun around flailing, emerging for a frantic breath before getting hit by the next. And the next. I get swept far enough towards shore that once the super set has finished, I’m way out of place again and have to do another weary paddle back out.
As I reach the line up again I see a beautiful wave coming through. The peak has shifted slightly to the left, catching everyone out of position, except one lad. He paddles hard for it, feeling the tail of his surfboard lift, getting his chest down and accelerating his strokes just as the wave ramps. I am totally in his way. He is forced to pull out at the last moment and he mouths something at me which I can’t hear. I limp my way to the edge of the pack. There are about 15 surfers clustered around the peak and they look like pros. When they look at me it is clear that I am not one of their kind.
But I will be.