It’s 5.30pm and I’m strapping the boards on the car. 5.30pm and I’m only just about to leave – no early finishes, no afternoon off, but it doesn’t matter because 5.30pm today doesn’t mean what it did a couple of weeks ago. 5.30pm today doesn’t leave me with only an hour left of light in the sky, 5.30pm today doesn’t mean a cold chill setting on as the sun goes down and the frost starts to rise, 5.30pm doesn’t mean having to hunker down and wait until morning.
Because it’s spring time. Officially spring time. We’ve all made it through the coldest winter in years, frozen faces and hands, icy headaches diving under and freezing wind chill coming back up; we’ve survived and this is our reward. Light until well after 8pm when the wind drops down to a barely detectable offshore so that the waist high waves glass off and peel away as the sun sets below the horizon, warm on our skin until the last second.
It’s a dream that kept me going through the winter, a dream that now, after a fast-paced half hour drive is being realised. Suiting up quickly, no need for hats and gloves, I paddle out and sit back, waiting for my slice of the pie. But there’s one thing I hadn’t counted on, one thing I had wiped from my memory, one thing that seems to occur naturally through the winter, but which, as the air warms up and the sun comes out, soon becomes a thing of the past.
To start with, out in the water, it all works fine. A group of 10 and we all know the score. We’ve done our cold weather penance and earned our place on the peak. Take off, paddle back out, wait our turn. It might make your fingers itch, watching glassy little walls roll on by while those in front of us hoot as they slide across the surface, but we don’t mind because we know we’re next. That’s how it works. Then they come. Scores of them. Each one armed with their plastic board and new smelling wetsuit. They’re down for the weekend, first year studying here or finally taking it up after years of standing on the beach. It doesn’t matter what their motivations are – all that matters is that they are here with only a few hours of Xtreme Channel viewing and a gut full of enthusiasm to show them the way.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with learners. We’ve all been there, standing in the shallows getting our first taste, building our confidence then paddling out past the white water to try the green waves beyond. And sure, it’s hard at beach breaks where the peaks shift around. If you’ve not been in the water much, knowing how the waves are going to behave and how people are going to behave on them, can be tricky, but you just have to get smart. Keep your wits about you, be aware that there are other surfers in the water too, look around and get the hang of how it’s supposed to be done; it’s all part of the learning curve. We all did it, right? The problem is, with the ever rising popularity of surfing, as the late light and warmer water arrives, so too do those learners who haven’t found out what they should do in the water, who don’t look around them and who paddle for every wave because they want to give it a go, regardless of whether someone else has already got right of way.
Dropping in, snaking, ignoring the line-up or just blindly floating around; all that’s bad enough. But the real problem with those especially ignorant learners is that they agitate everyone else in the water. No-one likes their waves being taken time and time again, so it’s not long before other surfers start to ignore good practice too, because if they don’t they’ll never get a wave. Suddenly it becomes every man for himself and there’s even more dropping in, even more snaking, even more aggression. What started out as the blissful dream of summer becomes a churning cauldron of frustrated surf reality with no-one getting the waves they want because everyone is trying to get the waves they want. For me, out in the water, summertime blues seriously set in as I remember that to have a good seasonal surf I’m going to have to play a bit dirty. Which sucks.
However, there is a solution and a pretty simple one. January 2010 saw new signs go up on the beaches around Sydney, Australia. With surfing an integral part of Aussie culture and busy beaches all year round, the councils took affirmative action by putting up surf etiquette signs to explain the rules for everyone riding the waves.
Now I know Cornwall’s no Australia, but there are more people getting in here than ever before and it is causing more trouble. If everyone in the water understood the rules then those who already knew the rules would be more likely to abide by them and we’d all end up happier, surely? The good habits built up over the winter when the water is emptier wouldn’t melt away as the sun came out and the ugly every man for himself mentality would stay on shore.
Idealistic? Yes, but then let’s face it – that’s what dreams of British Summer Time are all about…