Little did you know it but Cornwall is responsible for driving forward one of the biggest Aussie sports outside of the southern hemisphere. We got the chance to speak to the president of both the UKSRL and Perranporth Surf Lifesaving Club and one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the sport in the UK. Peter was all to happy to share some of his insights, anecdotes and predictions moving into the 2015 season.
What is surf rowing and when did you first come into contact with it?
Well, I jumped in the surfboat back in the beginning of the 70’s when I was around 17; we got hold of a really old surfboat here at Perranporth, I’m not sure where it came from. It was a clinker built boat called the Gladys Bell, very heavy, so we sort of rode that off the beach here – that’s where my colleague Nick Beringer started to learn his sweeping skills. In about 1974/75, an Australian champion crew from Sydney came over and gave us their boat – this was a real stepping stone for us.
So back in 70’s when you started, how long had it been going?
Only a few years, it was literally the beginning. So the first one came in to club in well at Atlantic College UWC up in South Wales. It was very much an international college and through some connection with Australia, they managed to get a boat there originally. Over time boats popped up at Porthtowan, Perranporth and Bude – in fact, the one at Bude is now in the Maritime Museum in Falmouth.
The early years were frustrating as there weren’t many people driving the sport forwards. We were just racing ourselves once a year and eventually we all clubbed together and set up weekly Twilight events all over Cornwall which became very popular. Eventually, after advertising in some of the rowing clubs, the summer series that we see today was born.
Has anything lifted the profile of the sport?
We were approached regarding the final scene in the Robin Hood film by Ridley Scott. The guy who was managing the rowing scenes contacted us and said, “Can you find us rowers for this film?” – following this we were inundated by rowers! The boats that they made were specially built; like surfboats but much bigger. It’s still needed someone to stand at the back with the big sweeper oar and steer it.
It was funny, you had all these stuntmen trying to row these boats out, turning around and start trying to surf them back in. And the stunt man was saying, “You’re are all mad!” – We gained a lot of interest from the Welsh – primarily because of that.
What are the world championships like? Do the Australians venture into the Northern hemisphere to race?
Some of the Aussies do come and some don’t. They can be quite frustrating. We went out to the world championships in Biarritz last September and then the ones who bothered to get there were great. They were really enthusiastic and got to race against the French and Germans that were there too. We were trying to get the Italians and the Dutch to come, but I think they were just a bit busy.
The next one is in Holland, in 2016. I have to say that every time I’ve been to Holland, it’s been a windy, windy place to row. There is often big surf and on occasions we’ve had to take it to another venue and get shelter. It’s a difficult a place to row as it’s quite exposed along the coast
Is the surf sometimes too big for competition?
Yeah, I have a lot of difficulty with that personally because I’m usually the one who’s organising the competition. It’s like any sport; you can’t play the sport to the weaker person, because naturally, the better ones don’t develop. By the same token, you can’t put the weakest people into an elite situation where only the very best can cope. So we’ve got to try and find a happy compromise, and most people are quite understanding. We’re very conscious of not putting people into situations that would drive them away. And if some of the more experienced ones moan about it, you just tell them that’s the way it’s got to be. You need to avoid the peer group, testosterone fuelled, decisions on a dangerous day.
Honestly, it takes three years to figure out how to row a surf boat and I’ve got some new crews coming out this winter, so I say to them, “This first year, you are going to be black and blue because first, you’re just trying to learn and develop a library of experience. And in the second year, you’re back, you’re fitter and stronger and you’re starting to enjoy it. And in the third year, you’ll have it mastered.”
Are there often injuries in the sport? What’s the most common?
You tend to see a few broken noses and fingers and it’s not often more serious than that. But when the boat rolls over, everything just stops, so you just get out and start swimming – usually it’s not too bad.
People do get a bit bruised and bashed because they don’t know instinctively what to do in a certain situation, but once you got that library of experience, you’ll know exactly what to do. It’s always better to have people coming out of training sessions smiling, and not grimacing, you know?
We recently wrote a post about how sports complement each other – What sports do surf rowers also tend to do?
A lot of the rowers are rugby players or hockey players in the winter. Both sports mean you’re used to getting bruised and bashed; if you can’t take that, you won’t last in a surfboat very long.
I don’t know if you know Matt Begley, he used to play rugby for Glasgow Warriors and when he retired from rugby he needed something sporty to vent his aggression. Someone encouraged him to come surfboat rowing, and so he started doing that and then when we started competing, his rugby head helped him out immensely. He loves it – and he’s a really good rower now.
Have you ever rowed the boat inland?
A couple years ago we did as we rode from Fort William to Inverness along the Caledonian Canal. We rode past Ben Nevis and one of the rowers stopped and said “Look at that, look at that! You can see the top of Ben Nevis.” You don’t ever, ever see the top of Ben Nevis. That is so rare.” We literally surfed our way down a Loch Ness, and there were lots of people saying, “What are you doing? What are you doing?”. It was a really lovely trip. We’ve also taken the boat to Ireland and Northern Spain, you just need some little trips every now and then – it’s good to have those memories.
What’s the most crucial attribute of a surf rower?
We had one guy, he was a brilliant rower but one afternoon I was doing a swim-test and I said, “Jump out of the boat. Just swim out…”. He jumped out of the boat and then he realised he couldn’t swim and I said, “Why would you jump out of the boat?! And second, why didn’t you tell us you couldn’t swim?!”. He was having so much fun rowing and didn’t want to stop, and although he tried to learn to swim and he just couldn’t get it.
He was completely trusting in us, flattering, but that kind of responsibility I don’t need. You’ve got to be able to swim.
Gig rowing tends to be known as more prolific in Cornwall, how does surf rowing compete with it?
Gig rowing has done so well because you can do it out of harbours and there is a huge history. It also has a massive social side to it, a very good social side.
When I first started rowing surfboats, gig rowing was nearly extinct. With help from Sport England etc. it was resurrected. They were able to see a much better return on investment than surf boats and it was much easier for new people to join. Part of the problem is that British rowing have difficulty trying to figure out whether surfboats fall into the sliding seat or fixed seat rowing category – I think we are sliding seat.
What surf boat rowing does have, is more of an international following. It’s also really exciting and great spectator sport – there’s even talk of it featuring in the Olympics at some point, it just needs that recognition.
What’s the future for surf rowing?
It waxes and wanes. It needs a few people that really lift it and if those personalities drift away, it’s hard to be same. Sometimes it wanes and there’s frustration because it feels like it’s not going anywhere but then again in Europe, it is developing, the sport has really got going. The Germans are chasing boats and the Danes are looking for boats, so hopefully it will develop more over there.
Compared to Australia, we’re in the 1920’s – we are way down the development scale because no one is prepared to build them over here. At the moment you have to not only purchase the boat but then you have to ship it half way around the world, and that’s quite an expensive exercise, so development is restricted.
If British Rowing gets to it more, or if the IOC decides to express an interest in surfboats, then things might change but as it stands the UK are leading it in Europe and we need the French to get more involved (the Dutch have been very good). We just have to keep developing it in other European nations as well, in Spain and Germany and so on. They’re all nations that are renowned for rowing and they all have huge amounts of rowers; it’s time to get them to understand that within their beach culture, they could actually have a rowing experience that fits well into the scene.
I think if we keep the format that we’ve got in the UK with the summer series and the championships going, and continue our development with those in West Wales, it should slowly progress; but it isn’t going to suddenly move in an exponential way. We’ll just have to settle for one step at a time.
Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us Peter – we wish all you and the Perranporth teams luck in the coming season. You can keep up to date with the UKSRL and Perranporth SLSC Surfboat Team on their respective Facebook pages. You can also find out more about Peter’s world renowned surf skis over at Gaisford Surf. Thanks also to Jo Pickard for some top quality help with the interview.