Move over Hawaii – Wales' Gower peninsula is a bracing spot for an all-girls' surfing safari
Surrounded by buckets and spades, rubber rings, sticks of rock and other British seaside paraphernalia, I gulped milky tea from a Styrofoam cup.
My clammy wetsuit was accurately living up to its name, sealing the icy seawater close to my skin. This was far from the glamorous image of surfing being sold on the London catwalks; Chanel, Gucci – they all want to be a part of the surfing chic that is sweeping the nation. But it takes standing on a windswept beach in the rain, being held under tumultuous waves and standing on a waist-high shorebreak to be a true surfing chica. And that’s what I, and 14 other female wannabe-surfers, had come to Wales’ Gower Peninsula to pose as for the weekend.
Where the best in British waves pummel a coastline that gave rise to many of the UK’s surfing legends (and, yes, we do have a couple), we found ourselves neoprene-clad and shivering under grey skies, sporting bright-yellow foam boards the size of canoes. Well, you have to start somewhere, and frankly it’s best to get this bit over with in the seclusion of Wales, before you uncover your talents in the likes of Hawaii or Australia.
Tailing Swansea, the Gower Peninsula has everything to cater for the first-time surfer – a smattering of bays that catch the swell to varying degrees, a welcoming surfing community and a proficient surf school. Mixed in with a vibrant city, jaw-dropping scenery and a rich history, it leaves only one reason to take your wave-quest further afield – to escape the rain.
Even if you’re not sold on the surfing experience there’s a whole range of green tourism activities to satisfy anyone with a nose for the outdoors. The Gower Way follows wild beaches, thick forest and sprawling farmland for 56km, winding past Norman castles, Celtic churches and staggering cliffs garnished by shipwrecks. Exploring between the Mumbles Mile and the dunes of Three Cliffs Bay, I encountered a surfer-strewn ocean at Langland, secluded smugglers’ coves, crumbling castle relics and uplands richly carpeted with spring flora. In the village stores I was treated like a neighbour and the cafés were as welcoming as my Grandma’s house, serving home-baked delicacies cooked to finely tuned family recipes.
But I had come here for the surf, which is why I found myself shivering on the sands of Caswell Bay. Simon Jayham, owner of the GSD surf school, chose Caswell as an ideal base because the waves here are usually small enough for beginners. On cue we were greeted by Smurf-surf, only just big enough to get our Swell boards moving and perfect for establishing some confidence in the water. If we’d arrived on the second day, when a low tide exposed a crunching shorebreak, our merry tribe might have been reduced to tears by lunchtime.
Understanding the changing conditions of the ocean is a fundamental skill in surfing, and Simon drummed in the basics about wave behaviour and the dangers of tidal flows while we were still on dry land. In the epic surfing movie Endless Summer II Bruce Brown said: “Surfers are travellers and so are the waves they ride,” but as a reasonably accomplished traveller I had never once encountered a terrain as complex as the sea. The only ocean navigation I successfully mastered was out towards unknown horizons or under to lesser-known sandbars.
Having already dabbled in the waves of Australia, I was undercover as a beginner on the women-only weekend. However, it catered well for varying abilities and gave me a chance to resurrect my water-nerves, which had been crushed under more powerful waves in the past. With people of all ages and origins riding the waves these days it’s no secret that surfing is no longer exclusive to young ‘grommets’, and now there is an even higher percentage of females taking up surfing than men. For this reason GSD boasts the reigning British female surfing champion and top British female surf coach, Tracy Boxall, to teach the girls the art of surfing. Surprised to be met by a suntan and an Aussie drawl, misplaced in a scene that so accurately epitomised British surfing, I soon learned that, although Tracy surfs for Britain, she was brought up on the more hospitable coast of Western Australia.
Tracy might have landed an enviable job on the beach but, as with the skill of wave-riding itself, to execute it to any level of success is no mean feat; surfing can be a humbling and frustrating learning curve even on sun-drenched shores. Donning a rubber suit in the rain is the easy part; the hard part is combining the precise skills of coordination, balance, timing and stamina when being approached by a moving wall of water. Thanks to the latter, much of the first day was spent examining the sandy depths of Caswell from beneath the waves. In the near-Arctic conditions I would have predicted a chorus of girlie whines, but our excitement and enthusiasm was as stubborn as the grey horizon despite the fact that only seconds were spent with knees or feet in contact with the right side of the board.
Climbing back into soggy wetsuits on the second morning the tone was only slightly less jovial. Admittedly a couple of fellow surfettes had dropped out and an insane level of dedication was required to dress up in rubber hats, boots and gloves on the rain-drowned beach. My arms and legs were stiffer than those of the Tin Man and even the thorough warm-up failed to revive their functioning beyond virtually useless. At least Tracy was amused as we hobbled down the beach like a group of injured penguins.
My physical state was delicate, to say the least, but the instructors still thought it was a good idea to paddle my spaghetti arms ‘out the back’ to try and catch some ‘green waves’ (before they break into white-water). It had seemed like a fine idea over dinner the evening before, when I had mistakenly anticipated that food, a hot bath and a good night’s sleep in a luxury hotel would replenish my energy supply.
Getting out beyond the breakers isn’t easy with a disobedient nine-foot plank, and when I finally got there via several salty washing-machine cycles I felt as if I’d been shipwrecked. Simon was there waiting and failed to acknowledge me as a feeble and half-drowned damsel as he pointed to a wave-shaped lump on the horizon moving rapidly closer and ordered: “Paddle for this one!” Had I been alone I would have found time to panic. Or at least posed as a paralysed turtle for long enough to get my breath back. “Quick – it’s a lefthander. Paddle, paddle, paddle!” Somehow I landed on my feet and was zooming towards the beach, possessed by an immense rush of exhilaration. I was surfing! It might have been one of the shorter episodes in the history of riding waves but it left me hooting like an excited three-year-old. Addicted, I turned to face the series of soul-destroying dunkings which would get me on the way back out to where I could catch my next wave.
The author travelled with First Great Western, which runs frequent train services between London Paddington and Swansea www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk
See the Visit Wales website for more information about surfing in Wales