Easy Jet

NORTHERN EXPOSURE (Easy Jet in-flight magazine May 2008)

Want to find the best surf around? Head to northern Britain for hot surf and cold waters says Alf Alderson.

Ok, so it’s not Hawaii…nor is it Mundaka in Northern Spain or Anchor Point in Morocco, both well established warm and sunny surf destinations that are easily reached with EasyJet. But northern Britain is slowly establishing itself as one of the best destinations in the world for surfers who like challenging waves – and who don’t mind pouring themselves into a thick wetsuit in return for the adrenaline rush.

It’s 8am on a cold December morning in 2007, and surfers Gabe Davies and Richie Fitzgerald are checking out the waves at Mullaghmore Head in Co. Sligo. To describe them as massive is an understatement. “We knew from the weather charts that the biggest swell in years would hit today,” Davies later tells me, “but to be honest this was just off the scale”.

Conservative estimates put the wave faces at 50 ft at the peak of the swell, which was when Davies and Fitzgerald were to be found out among it all.“I have to admit I was terrified at the thought of heading into a 14-metre swell,” said Gabe. “I’ve surfed huge waves before but these were the next level up. The mountains I thought I had been riding before were molehills in comparison.”

But ride them they did, to become – for now – the conquerors of Europe’s largest ever waves. Of course for the average surfer this kind of thing is out of the question, but for lesser mortals on lesser swells the coastline around Mullaghmore Head can provide surf to suit everyone.

There’s an almost infinite variety of beach, reef and point breaks that eight-times world champion Kelly Slater reckons is world class, and if it’s flat – well, there’s always the Guinness and the craic. What’s not to like…?

Mullaghmore Head is clearly ‘experts only’ territory, but for beginners a beach break such as Tullan Strand near Bundoran is a great option, with surf lessons available locally (www.bundoransurfco.com), whilst more experienced surfers will find fantastic reef breaks at Easkey.

The nearest EasyJet service is Belfast, about two hours drive from the Co. Sligo coast.

(See the monster wave action in the new film ‘Waveriders’, which recently beat the likes of ‘There Will Be Blood’ for the Audience Award at the Dublin International Film Festival).

Just a month ago, Thurso on Scotland’s north coast hosted the world’s coldest and most northerly professional surf contest. In case you were in any doubt about the quality of the steel blue waves that break over the flagstone shelves off this distant coastline, pro surfer Love Hodel (well, he is Hawaiian) says that one of the breaks, Thurso East, “Is pretty damn perfect”.

It clearly helps to surf these waters if the cold doesn’t phase you too much, since water temperatures can dip as low as 5-6 degrees centigrade, the wind can be laced with sleet or snow in winter and sunshine is usually in scant supply – which no doubt helped British pro Russ Winter win the event against Aussies, Yanks and Brazilians a couple of years ago. What a bunch of wusses…

It also helps if you have the ability to take off on waves that rear up and break in a fraction of a second onto shallow rock shelves which can easily break limbs and boards if things go wrong.

Which means that for your average surfer this can be pretty daunting stuff. But there are other, less daunting options too, such as the lovely river mouth break at Melvich or the beach breaks on the golden sands of Dunnet Bay, whilst if you head west into Sutherland you’re guaranteed to get some of the loveliest beaches in Britain all to yourself.

Lessons are available on Thurso Beach from Tempest Surf Shop (www.tempestsxurf.co.uk) which also hires boards and has a surf café, or go and check out the experts in action just a few yards offshore on the shallow, dredging reefs at nearby Brimms Ness.

The nearest EasyJet service is to Inverness, two-three hours south of Thurso.

Yorkshiremen like to think they were born in God’s Own County. I have to say that I find it hard to disagree with this – not because I’m a native of the county myself, but because as a surfer it can often be surf paradise as long as you don’t mind your paradises cold (but with great ale).

There are beach, point and reef break sets up all the way from Cayton Bay near Scarborough to Cleveland – and when the sun is shining they could grace the cover of any surf magazine in the world. Fair enough, the sun doesn’t shine that often, but even so…

According to former British Champion Gary Rogers, co-owner of Saltburn Surf Shop “There’s a great diversity of breaks in this area which really are as good as anything in the world when they’re working”.  Spots such as Staithes now have surfers making day trips all the way from Cornwall to ride the fast, barrelling walls of water that crack across the flagstone reefs in front of the picturesque harbour. How ironic that it was here that Captain Cook learnt his trade before sailing across the world to ‘discover’ surfing in Hawaii…

Staithes and the numerous ‘semi-secret’ reef breaks along this stretch of coast are expert only territory, but head to Saltburn-on-Sea and you’ll be in one of the best places in Britain to learn to surf. The atmosphere in the water and on the beach is warm and friendly and provides a great introduction to the sport for those who don’t need palm trees and tropical breezes to enhance their surf experience.

And as the locals say, if you can surf well here in a full wetsuit and cold water, then everywhere else in the world is easy…

Beginners should high tail it for surf hire and lessons at Saltburn Surf Shop (www.saltburnsurfcam.com) by the pier – they’ve been sorting out surfers for over 25 years and what they don’t know about the local surf scene ain’t worth knowing.

More experienced surfers will find a challenging array of breaks all along the coast, with Cayton Bay having plenty of variety and the reefs at Staithes providing a major adrenaline fix, although they can get crowded.

The nearest EasyJet service is to Newcastle, about 1.5 hours to the north.

If you really must have warmer waters in which to surf, the obvious spot to head for is SW England, where you can sometimes surf in boardshorts on the sunniest summer days.

Newquay is as crowded as hell but has all the facilities you’ll ever need, whilst if you want something more mellow try Sennen Cove near Land’s End, which is almost Caribbean in appearance. Former European longboard champion Sam Bleakley says:  “The local surf scene at Sennen is a pleasure to be around”.

Or head north for the long stretch of golden sands and blue-green waves at Woolacombe Bay in North Devon. Top British surf photographer Ester Spears described the area as having “Fabulous beaches and great waves that work on a variety of conditions”.

And come this autumn there’ll be Europe’s first artificial surf reef at Bournemouth.

Alf Alderson is the author of ‘Surf UK’ – the definitive guide to surfing in Britain – and the award winning ‘Surfing – A Beginner’s Guide’, both available from John Wiley (www.wiley.com)