Hanging Ten for Pieces of Eight
Adventures Surfing in Cornwall, England
Pirates may be the most convenient scapegoat, but the truth is I marooned myself in Penzance. In fact, I reached the Penwith Peninsula by train, not aboard a tall ship. Besides, the loud, bass-heavy music streaming out of the Admiral Benbow told me I probably wouldn’t fit in with the buccaneer set anyway. Yes, my compass pointed back out to sea, but the treasure I sought had little monetary value.
I had chosen Penzance as the location for my first surfing lesson. Oddly enough, a long-held desire to learn what I could of a Hawaiian tradition led me to the medieval port town. Willing to take a chance on the September water temperature of the North Atlantic, I made arrangements to be picked up at my guest house by an instructor from Global Boarders early the following morning. If he was disappointed to lead an individual rather than a small group through the basics of wave riding, it did not show. Chris Brown, who turned up wearing a crimson red Rip Curl baseball hat, dark sunglasses, and sandals, seemed quite happy to be heading out with me on a cloudless day in early fall. A smile spread across his face as he rolled down the windows and turned up the radio, charting a northward course across the peninsula.
“I don’t want to spend too much time nattering on the beach when it’s gorgeous out,” he informed me soon after we pulled into the car park at Gwithian beach. Just the sort of attitude a novice needs to hear. Stacking a pair of bright yellow longboards alongside our white Mercedes van, we climbed into stretchy neoprene wetsuits—a necessity for most northern hemisphere surfers—and headed towards the long, wide expanse of sand curving around St. Ives’s Bay.
Chris guessed there were over 50 surf schools around the country. Even if he exaggerated this figure somewhat, there is certainly no shortage of options for the independent traveler looking to go from a kook, or beginner, to a semi-pro during a single visit to westernmost England. (That may be overstating the proficiency anyone is likely to acquire in a week or less, but it is possible to learn how to repeatedly ride to shore on both feet in just two or three lessons—conditions permitting of course.) “I don’t want to set the bar too high,” I told Chris as we paddled past the breakers for the first time. “Oh, we always set the bar too high in surfing. You’ll stand by the end of the day,” he assured me.
Fortunately for the equivocating non-surfer, the prerequisites are few: confident swimming skills, a fondness and appreciation for the ocean, and a willingness to learn. Before anyone gets their feet wet, schools such as Global Boarders spend time with their students going over beach safety, familiarizing everyone with their whereabouts, and emphasizing the importance of listening to instructions when given. I definitely perked up when he mentioned mako sharks. As it happens, they prefer seals over surfers, and to my relief I did not spot any amphibious mammals in the water that day.
Referring to our location on Gwithian and perhaps anticipating a worst-case scenario question, Chris pointed out the rescue personnel in the immediate area. “The lifeguards are up there, and they have an outpost over there,” he informed me, gesturing down the beach. “And I’m a lifeguard as well, so… there are lifeguards everywhere.” Not to mention quite a few other surfers on average, particularly during the high season when he says he has seen as many as 500 boarders bobbing in the sea at a single break.
The advantage of visiting Cornwall during the spring or the fall is that the waves tend to be larger and the competition for them considerably smaller. This is particularly helpful for people who need a good hour or so of embarrassing wipeouts before they start to get the hang of it. “My job is to tell you what you’re doing wrong,” Chris explained, as I sheepishly swam back from another unsuccessful ride. “It might be something so small like your eyes are looking the wrong way. Now here we go,” he said, shoving the back of my board for some extra momentum. “The pressure’s on.”
After several hours in the water your arms will tire of surfing before your spirit does. Nevertheless, comfortable accommodations are as necessary as enthusiasm for the sport. Cheap and cheerful options abound. Penzance itself has a veritable fleet of guest houses, most with quite reasonable rates. I opted for £20 per night at Chy Carne (25 Morrab Road), a short walk uphill from the city center. Honeydew, closer to the train station on Leskinnick Street, and Penzance Backpackers (The Blue Dolphin) a bit further from the action on Alexandra Road, are good bets as well. Most area schools also offer surf holidays of varying lengths that include accommodation plus rail or bus transfers.
A final piece of advice: if you intend to acquire a little cred before returning home, resist the temptation to sleep in on day two and head right back to the beach. Sore as you might be, the water will feel warmer, the good waves will be easier to spot, and the local scrumpy cider will taste that much sweeter when you are back on dry land. But do not take my word for it; just ask a surfer. Or, if you meet one, a pirate.