Surf UK

The Red Bull Surf Safari hit the coasts of western Britain in the autumn to a mixed and often confused response from public and participants alike. We went along to see what all the fuss was about and to chuck a few cans of Red Bull into a few glasses of vodka – and thence down our necks.

Words Alf Alderson
Pics Estpix

Imagine the following, if you will, and then tell me that it’s not the ultimate way to do a surf trip:

You’re awoken to the ysound of a large diesel engine kicking into life, but you roll over and fall asleep again safe in the knowledge that the luxury transport being driven by that engine is taking you to another break because the one you’re parked at isn’t working.

Fifteen minutes later ou bump to a halt at Spot B, drag yourself out of your bunk and check the surf. Unfortunately nothing in life is perfect and it’s flat, but at least you can wander downstairs to the galley to make yourself some breakfast and maybe watch a video or two whilst a decision is made on what to do next.

This neat little scenario was part of everyday life on the Red Bull Surf Safari of Ireland, Wales and England last autumn, and whilst most of those enjoying the lifestyle of rock stars on tour were pro surfers and media types who tend to take this sort of thing rather too much for granted, there were a few ordinary surfers tagging along. For one of the concepts behind the Red Bull tour was that these ‘ordinary’ surfers should get a chance to surf the best waves with the best surfers and literally come along for the ride (see box 1). Admittedly they had to have the skills to win a contest first, but it’s a good opportunity – and a unique idea – for those with the talent.

Bundoran in Ireland was the first port of call for the tour, with the media circus rolling into Tullan Strand to find a clean but small peak breaking in calm, sunny conditions. Nothing earth-shattering, but it would at least make for some nice photos. Unfortunately there was no sign of the pro surfers accompanying the tour (Shane and Gavin Beschen, Dino Andino, Justin Matteson, Sam Lamiroy and Conan Hayes, along with eventmeister Derek Hynd and 16-year-old Aussie grom Stevie Noble who had won a similar event in Oz and was here as part of his prize).

An unfortunate oversight on the tour bus – running out of fuel – had caused a delay which meant that the swell was all but dead by the time the stars arrived. The wave maestros were not amused, especially when they discovered that the previous two weeks has been classic, and things were to get little better over the next few days as surf conditions went from bad to hideous (well, would you want to surf a 1’ onshore beach break?) and the buses trundled across to Northern Ireland in search of surf action.

Second stop Portrush almost came up with the goods in the form of a bizarre peat brown close-out barrel at nearby Port Ballantrae, but despite local surf entrepreneur and all-round good guy Andy Hill being almost prepared to sacrifice a local grommet to appease the surf gods, the waves still weren’t quite playing ball.

By this point, three days into an eleven day tour and no waves yet, and the next stop being Tynemouth which also promised to be flat, things were looking grim. The Beschen bros. and Mr. Andino were looking even grimmer, and I’m sorry, but I have to have a bitch here. Sure, it’s a pain in the arse when you go on a surf trip and don’t get any waves, and they were also pissed off, apparently, at the fact that they’d paid to get themselves out to the UK and were living on pretty minimal expenses from Red Bull

But hey guys, what about a little consideration for the people who help you to earn your living from surfing – the ordinary man and woman in the surf? These guys were never to be seen in the evenings mixing with the locals when everyone else was partying, totally ignored the winner of the Bundoran contest, Kieran Haresnape, who had, as he said “the misfortune to be travelling with them”. They basically lived in their own little self-enclosed world, which did nothing at all to endear them to the few people they met along the way.

As one of the cameramen covering the event said, “A black cloud lifted from the whole thing on the day they left” (after the Irish leg of the tour). Poor show all round, we reckon. To an extent the guys made up for this in the water – which we’re about to come to – but, y’know, being a professional surfer these days is also about what you do out of the water

So, with the prospects for the second leg of the tour across the Irish Sea looking blacker than Black Middens, the backers Red Bull made a brave move and decided to cancel Tynemouth and head back to Bundoran in the knowledge that a good swell was on the way. This was a difficult decision in that a whole contest and party had been organised for Tynemouth and a lot of people were gonna be well pissed off with a no-show, but on the other hand one of the main premises behind the ‘surf safari’ was that it should go where the surf was.

As Derek Hynd said “It’s meant to be a very free-flowing event – it’s time to experiment. The undertaking to move to where the swell is best was really solid and the backers were very malleable – they’ve really seen the need to search for surf”. Personally I applauded the decision (although I hope the organisers in Tynemouth were given some sort of compensation for their work) and feel that this is a move in the right direction – if you’re going to have a surf contest it surely makes sense to travel for the best waves rather than have the world’s top surfers scrabbling around in crappy surf at a fixed contest site.

So the show rolled back across the green and sun dappled countryside of Londonderry and Donegal. Coming along for the ride were joint contest winners and brothers Alistair and Andrew Meenie from Portrush who had competed in poor conditions to beat Kieran Haresnape but would shortly be paddling out with the pros into clean head high peaks at Tullan Strand – at last. I paddled out with them too, to regularly have fans of spray thrown in my face (perhaps as advance payback for the comments above…) as the Beschens, Dino, Justin, Stevie and Derek ripped the waves apart, no doubt relieved to at last be doing what they were here for. Not perfect surf by any means, but the swell was building and it looked good for the next day.

It wasn’t though – good, that it. It was fucking classic. This was where, thinking about it, the contest concept of the tour kind of fell apart as all and sundry rushed around Bundoran and vicinity in search of the best waves on which the pros could do their stuff. In fact there wasn’t to be any contest for the locals – no need as it had been held in two-foot onshore waves a few days before, so the next couple of days were just a chance for everyone who could get into the water to enjoy Ireland at its very best.

Which consisted at this point of a solid swell, sunshine, not a breath of wind, and as photog Ester Spears said, a Monday morning with a “perfect exhibition of barrel riding” from Shane and Dino at a hollow-as-you-want-it reef break which I have no intention of naming here. The guys would take off and be behind a clear, sparkling wall of water before they got to the bottom of the wave – blast out the end, throw in a gouging cuttie only a few yards away from a rock shelf for good measure then paddle out for a repeat performance.

Surfers and onlookers were stoked and at last the California boys had a smile on their face and were talking to the ‘ordinary’ people. Back to The Peak at Bundoran which was well overhead on the sets and we and they now knew why we were in Ireland. Thank you Red Bull for not forcing us to go to England.

The next day got even better and saw two huge buses full of surfers and hangers-on tearing up and down the coast enjoying totally classic waves. Derek came out of the water after one session declaring himself to be “on a different plane” and Gavin Beschen claimed to have had one of the best waves of his life.

South African hottie Byron Howarth had joined the tour by now from France and said “I rocked up expecting maybe a couple of peaks and that the water was going to be freezing and found the best cold water left I’ve ever surfed. Me and Justin were out together getting barrel for barrel – I’d paddle out and he’d get a barrel; he’d paddle out and I’d get a barrel. The peak would throw out into stand-up tubes – the only difference between that and Indo was the water temperature and the length of the rides – it was a world class wave”.

This, in fact, was where Derek’s concept (see box 2) for the tour finally clicked into place. Although he claimed that this tour “is not associated with the IS Tour” (interestingly RD Bull’s PR people claimed it was), for him it was at the very least about trying out his new scoring system with world class surfers in world class waves, and here he had both. “Ireland was incredible – we trialled a new competitive scoring system for the first time. It was a stunning success. Shane Beschen, in a normal contest, would have scored three tens with unbelievable barrels but actually got thirty point bonuses for each of those rides, so he scored forty out of forty, a total of 120 out of 120 in a situation where depth of take-off, lateness of take-off and artistic interpretation inside the barrel all scored massively”.

Since one of those barrel rides was claimed to be eight seconds long you can get some idea of where Derek – and for that matter Shane – were coming from.

The only problem when you have waves of this calibre is finding something to match them when you move on to your next port of call – and since this was Langland Bay the chances of this were not good. Although there were some waves at Langland and a good deal of media interest – which is what Red Bull were obviously after – it’s not a destination that many would have chosen for showcasing a potential new surfing event. Brown water and suburban surroundings coupled with surf of dubious quality and consistency don’t make for the best of locations, but this is where the compromise between scoring quality waves in classic surroundings and getting a return on your investment have to be weighed against each other. And as Derek pointed out, “We’ve still been pretty fortunate – we’ve had waves and I think the contest was a success with the locals”.

The much reduced pro contingent of Byron Howarth and Justin Matteson also enjoyed the vibe and got on well with the locals, and we even had a local winner of the contest in the form of Nick ‘Swinno’ Swinnerton who now travelled on to Cornwall, whilst the Meenie brothers bid us farewell but at least had the consolation of going home to better waves than we were likely to get over the next few days.

Indeed, final leg of the tour in Cornwall was more party than surf. Howling autumnal gales, driving rain and a messy swell saw things draw to a close in rather less style than everyone would have liked – there again, part of the concept of the Red Bull tour was to party big time, so they’d achieved that as well.

The winner of the surf contest here was Garth Llewellyn, who, being a true gentleman, chose to take the defeated Swinno with him to Jeffrey’s – lucky men, although having seen life at the Hynd household where they may well be billetted one can’t help asking “Will they survive?”.

And as for the Red Bull Surf Safari – will that survive? Well, at the time of writing the organisers couldn’t have been keener on following up on it next year, and Derek Hynd was positive – “the spirit in British surfing is wonderful, and everyone’s so keen, so there’s no reason why we wouldn’t come back. Having said that, it’s not always easy to allocate time and resources, especially with all the contests around the world these days”.

So who knows, it may be worth keeping your eyes open for free cans of energy drink and a team of top pros at a beach near you next autumn.