The Ocean is Not Full

Seeking flow state on the foil in the first week of September, a reflection on the pursuit of an open-faced wave.

No one surfs anymore, it’s too crowded

September arrives, and coincidence or not, the first week of Autumn brings with it two long-period hurricane swells, colder days, rain, frontal weather and a few days of brisk Northerly winds. The changing of the seasons in the Northern Hemisphere can be pretty punctual, as if a queue of storms had already formed, waiting ready for departure (something to do with the jet stream). Departing in an orderly fashion, right on time - one two three straight into the coast.

Their arrival, much predicted by the breathless call over the premium online emergency global wave alert system, much like the Hawaiian missile alert system, is prone to false positives.

Nonetheless, the surfers of London heed the call, firing up the chic-camper-conversions, having phoned up ahead to book a soft board for 2.5hrs, or more likely ordered a new hybrid twin-pin with same-day delivery.

With Flo in tow, swimming wetsuits and dry robes in the back for the 4/5hr Friday burn “down country” (down must be the opposite of up, as in “up country” - the other direction meaning London).

And so set out the Dry Robe Wankers, the pejorative term for the influx, and the sales of camouflage having dropped since this made the news (I don’t own a robe, but I did live in London. Conflicted).

Intermediates Only Please, this is Britain

Saturday 3rd September arrives, with it a stern warning on the global alert “beginners stick to sheltered bays”. The rule abiders abide, strictly. Surfing, hilariously, has no UK commissioner, no council and apparently no regulatory body, which is quite literally unheard of in the UK hobby scene. There is the BSA (I guess the acronym) that run the surf contests, but there is no RYA (Royal Yachting Association) equivalent, to hand out “intermediate” badges. And so the majority remains in a state of purgatory, formally a nation of beginners.

The swell arrives, and the high tide shelters formed by the bays provide some much-needed orientation for the hordes. A natural queue is formed, and beyond it lies a wild ocean. The wildest ocean I’d seen in months.

The irony is that the reason I was in attendance alongside the horde was purely to find some sheltered waves to continue my foil journey. As I indicated previously, I am somewhat hooked, and thus need a place to practice my art. The summer months lead me to exposed beach breaks, honestly occasionally wishing that I had my 6’6 mid-life-mid-length instead of the bloody foil.

For the majority of this time, the surf has been perfect, absolutely perfect for a beginner. Not to mention the water has been incredibly warm (hot in a 4/3mm), and endless sunny days (also in duration, 6am to 9pm) meant that for the bulk of the summer, double sessions were viable. Adding to this the foiling game of pumping out to link 2 or 3 waves at a time means that the annual wave count has certainly started to rip up away from the 1 year moving average.

This abundance of knee-high ripplers went unchallenged, and the only people that joined us were a euro couple who even went so far as to comment to our crew on the beach that we were the friendliest and most accommodating foilers they had encountered. How many foilers and how many surf sessions they could possibly have had to form this opinion I don’t know, but they both were taking off on green waves and heading down the line, along our perfectly formed peak that faded into a nice big rip which ripped us right back out to sea.

The bay of plenty

Back to The Big Saturday, and the bay was jam-packed. Ominous signs forming in the typically deserted 7am car park.

Many, many, campervans, and quite a few with surf kayaks emerging.

The parking lot is usually rather sparse at this time, weekend or not, but today was quite a scene. Immediate reservations around adding a foil to the mix, but a quick look at the water satisfies me that if I’m quick, the session won’t last that long and I’ll be in and out before the bulk boat up.

Summerleaze bay in Bude is a relatively protected bay at mid tide upwards, with a seawall providing a barrier for boats and thus a natural haven from the elements for surfers too. Coupled with a very high tide, it takes all the energy out of swells and makes for a very peaceful sleepy running wave.

My arrival was carefully timed to match the tide, and as the tide had topped out and was starting to ebb, I had about an hour or two before the tide starts to pinch in the mouth of the bay, between Barrel - a green barrel channel marker, very useful navigation aid marking the Starboard channel boundary, and the relatively un-documented Cross Rock - an iron cross embedded into a rock, below the water level at any boat-approachable tide, and rather deadly looking.

On the foil we can use the boat entrance as a channel to pump the foil back out to catch another wave. This “pump” is the main cause of derision towards foilers. “Stupid things why do they bounce around so much”.

This is the exact same mechanism that surfers employ to generate speed, in surfing known as the Hungtington Hop (not sure I agree with the physics prof on why it works, but then I’m not a prof). In surfing, this is applied to stay on the wave, but usually only when the waves are especially gutless.

foiling is pumping - you’ve got to pump (it up)

With foiling, the same technique is also applied, but can lead to significant advantages as it allows you to do two things: 1. accelerate down the wave, 2. accelerate beyond the wave, carrying the momentum and then continue adding to it, allowing you to pump out and catch another wave as part of the same takeoff. This “link” is the first hurdle of foiling. Much like doing pull-ups, the first hurdle to foiling quickly becomes a physical endurance repetition game.

How quickly can I get off this wave and pump back out to get another, this weighed against riding the wave to the end and having to pump further back out for another.

In 2018 Kai Lenny managed 11 waves in a row with what would today be regarded as a ridiculously inefficient way to pump for only one wave, all the credit to Kai who is quite the human-machine. An antipodal man recently went on to smash the record by catching a wave and continuously pumping between waves for 2.5 hours.

Catching 4 waves leaves me wishing I’d rather hit Cross Rock, and so the recent record clearly indicates that the technique involved transforms the pump from anaerobic to aerobic, where the body can maintain lactate levels etcetera!

So the pumping is a big part of the thing. Pump pump glide, pump pump glide.

The idea is that once you can pump effectively and reliably, you can catch as many waves as you please. The other attraction is pumping out away from the crowd, as you only need a breaking wave to takeoff on, and once you are up, you can very reliably head out to sea at about 15kph, to catch ocean swells long before they break.

Another attraction is “laddering” up a set, where you pump out to sea, and on the way out catch a short break by catching a wave, getting some speed on each wave or second wave of the set, giving yourself a quick rest and a speed boost. Interestingly, the faster you go, the less effort is required to maintain the speed (caveats etc), and also when you catch a wave, you go fastest down the line. This is the same as with surfing, but the acceleration and top speed that a wave provides to the foil is quite incredible, and the same physics that applies to squeezing a olive/watermelon seed to shoot it applies here - you get squeezed and shot down the line, taking that speed with you as you quickly dip in and out of waves to keep the momentum up and the heart-rate down.

Summerleaze provides a very gutless wave, so much so that traditional short-board surfers mostly ignore it. We foilers can takeoff on a small breaking bump, and as it fades out (so the surfers generally ignore these), we ride the swell through the deep water channel and pump back along the breakwater channel, boosted by the very strong rip that forms, out to catch another wave in the set. The mouth of the bay at high tide provides a natural sand bar that causes the waves to pitch up, making the link easier and more attainable, but still not of interest to the surf crew. Riding this wave back along the channel, making a few cutbacks to stay near the “pocket” of the wave.

The foil feels like an oversensitive highly calibrated instrument and amplifies every single impulse of the sea. A bump needs to be navigated, double-up waves create a half-pipe, turbulence from a broken wave is literally like flying through a massive storm, hoping that just holding tight will get you through it. Pumping back out to sea, swells provide an opportunity to pump up and down like a skateboard ramp, further accelerating if you get it right and stopping you short if you get it wrong.

Foils also have a critical altitude, above which the foil “breaches” the water and you leave the board as if it hit a pothole or stone on a skateboard, an instant stop as the wing loses lift. These are avoided by keeping lower on the mast, but the more of the mast that is in the water, the less efficiently it rides as you have the mast not generating lift but generating significant drag. A delicate balance as you navigate the bumps and troughs of the sea, trying to eke out energy from the ocean and conserve it.

Combining these aspects means you have set yourself up with an invisible snakes and ladders obstacle course, a literally multi-dimensional game of strategy and endurance to try and get as far and as many as you can. Ideally, you’d catch a smaller wave before a set arrives, timing it so that you arrived back at the main peak to coincide with a set wave, and then laddering through the set to find the biggest lump. Riding that wave through to the inside carving as many or as few turns as needed and then pumping back to the takeoff for a rest. No surfers are at all interested in the same waves, and so the bay turns into something of a skateboard pump track, but without constraints and only your fitness and ability preventing you from riding an endless flowing wave.

Our ideal wave is one that breaks and then fades. This is optimal for a few reasons. The fade means that it is running into deeper water and so our 75cm+ draft won’t run aground. We need a wave to break as the boards are generally smaller and stubbier, to maximise pump efficiency. I have never been as finely tuned into a barely breaking wave and whether I can catch it with my 32 litre 4’4 board. Strong shoulders and a tired back. These “chip-in” waves are potentially the only part of the experience that has any interference with the regular surf crew, and we try and minimise them as much as possible.

Kayaks. KAYAKS!

As the session progressed, and the boats started to arrive, it became clear we had a slight clash of wavelength. For some reason that I do not yet understand, they seemed to be partial to the same waves that we needed to chip in. The boats in question are a novel creation, something that I had literally never encountered in my 20 and a few years of ocean interest. They are formally surf kayaks, though you’d still be puzzled clicking on that link as to which variant. The 11th resulting image is the answer.

It is a sit-in wave-ski type boat (right below), which I think primarily stems from the river kayaking scene in the UK (riverless SA might explain the African drought of these). Apparently, they are easier than the traditional wave-ski so common in SA in the 80s (or MacSki, left below) as the centre of gravity is lower, and they are generally a bit longer. They have a splash hood and quite a smooth long rocker line and seem to be generally quite a bit easier to throw around, and also paddle more easily, with a few of them getting into waves surprisingly early, with much less wild windmilling.

This early entry also meant that they could glide through the slow parts of the wave, linking the outside section into the inside, typically the domain of the foil. And there were lots of them. An incredible amount, an unnatural amount. It turns out that the world champs are being held in Bude in 2022, and this appeared to be the England crew, hunting in packs as it seems, turning up for some team building and last-minute coaching. As fellow marginalised surf craft, we discussed rockers and foils while trying to keep out of each others way. I say marginalised because that is the category, distinct from “alternative”, which is far more fashionable and palatable for the core surf fashionista, and typically is approved only because it can catch less waves than a surfer.

Alternative is shorthand for bodysurf, Alaia, surf-mat.

Marginalised are the SUP, kayak, and most certainly the foil brigade, and probably for good reason.

Through all of this, the tide started to drain and the bay became smaller, the rip became more pronounced, and the session became slightly more location-condensed. The double takeoff spot started to merge into one, and the fishing-boat channel became more narrow, and also started to become the shoulder to the main peak when larger sets arrived. The effect was that the foil could no longer comfortably ride the rip out as it became crowded, and the sets were pushing through with too much energy to really ride comfortably. It was at this point that I realised I would be no longer a sensible participant in this session, but hung around for another 30min to catch a “wave in”.

Beginners take care

The observation primarily in this period of time was around how the median competence level was somewhat lower than I had realised. This is an evolving observation and will require some baseline comparison when I’m back in SA, SA being the baseline, specifically a few spots around that coast that have a similar attraction to beginner/intermediate surfers. Excluding the surf boats for now as they are more of an oddity than anything else.

Surfing in the UK is incredibly popular, but as I discovered on my recent Bude Surf Life Saving club induction, “do you surf” equates in most people’s ears to “have you ever tried to surf”, with a confident Yes being the answer.

Much like my answer any time, erring on the side of blinding overconfidence lest it cost me an opportunity for fun; “yes I can certainly ride/drive/operate/command that bike/plane/digger/fleet”

Thus the whole country in effect surfs, as it is a seemingly compulsory part of the summer beach kit to add a £35 supermarket-bought wetsuit to the kit, along with the beach windscreen. Both peculiarities I have not encountered in SA. The wetsuits potentially because there are too few surfers in SA to make a commodity wetsuit viable for retail, and the windscreen because the SA sun is too intense to prioritise a windscreen over a beach umbrella.

In fairness I think the screen is great, as it reduces the likelihood of the umbrella blowing away, and reduces the wind-chill factor, which in the UK is quite a factor indeed for the marginal summer days. I wonder if they would be a hit in SA if offered.

And so the observation continued, as a BIG set rolled in, now hitting the only peak square on, the channel (or shoulder), which was now indeed shoulder to shoulder, full of boats and the more competent surfers taking the rip back out, and the inside section a chaotic mix of intermediates bailing their boards to the chest high set (that’s 1-2ft South African, don’t @me). I blame The Wave, as the world’s easiest scapegoat for ruining surfing, primarily because they have created a national benchmark, and stamped a label on the Intermediate:

Surfers who consistently ride white water waves and are able to catch an unbroken wave The intermediate surf session is open to everyone aged 6+ who are able to swim 25m unaided and are confident they have the required skills to ride this wave

Swim 25m unaided! Well there you have it, a lower bar I cannot fathom.

Intermediates at The Wave (capitalising in case it isn’t clear the link is to THE W.A.V.E!) have potentially equated their Wave ripping abilities in the knee-high chlorine mush as a global accreditation, and also a verifiable licence to ignore the MagicSurfLineWeed advice that applies to beginners - “beginners stick to sheltered bays/wait this one out”.

What they do teach you at The Wave is that if you keep f&*king up The Wave for everyone else, then you get kicked out of the water and sent to an easier session. Having spent £60 for an hour session to watch as Advanced™️ surfers attempt the Expert takeoff and blow it 7 times, I must admit I would love Love LOVE for The Wave to more aggressively police this, maybe printing NFT badges for those that don’t ruin the session and allow them to level up rather than the self accreditation system.

What they don’t teach at The Wave is how to spot a cleanup set that has quietly coaxed all the Interbeginners into the inside. These cleanup sets now draining neatly off a more pronounced sandbank with few fewer meters of waver over it, and starting to peel into the shoulder. Subtle carnage ensues as every single person ditches their board regardless of the chances of pushing through this now chest high wave, boards rattling and bashing as the crew untangles and flops towards another wave.

Clogged Arteries

The overwhelming feeling through all of this is that there are too many people for any one individual to progress.

Progression is a combination of repetition in a valid environment and a feedback loop. Coaches abound in the busy lineup inside, but the beginner cannot make the leap to intermediate (and I mean here the global intermediate - can surf varying conditions, get into position reliably and reliably catch most waves, and most importantly, not cause grief to another surfer).

There is a certain limit to the number of waves that can be surfed per day. Assuming around 4 to 5 surfers can reasonably surf each wave (at true beginner level), and there are 4-5 waves in a set, that means 20 surfers can at best get a wave in each set, at the most generous. 5 surfers surfing a wave doesn’t lead to much progression other than avoiding bashing (or not) into each other.

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that a Covid-driven growth of surfing due to any number of interacting elements has led to an overshoot, whereby the component surfers of the surfing mass are starving each other of waves, clamouring for some photosynthetic light that feeds growth (waves), and in the clamour are preventing growth. A Malthusian reading on this would say that surfing has overshot the carrying capacity, and I suppose the evidence was in favour, as I would suggest that the perfect spot on a perfect day was just far too crowded.

This is not to say that the ocean is full, but the commodified surfing experience has potentially been tapped out, the objective becoming self-defeating. To learn to surf today must be the easiest and hardest thing in history. Easiest because there is nothing undocumented, nothing that can’t be coached 1,2,3 (some things money can buy), and hardest because there is very little chance of progression in the quagmire of the beginner surf zone. Waves have a very inelastic supply, no matter the demand.

I often wonder if this is what causes the UK to have a markedly different feeling in the water to what I’m familiar with in SA. The UK crowd seems slightly more dense, slightly less competent and there is a significant breakdown at the intermediate level, with far too few people aware of what is going on, leading to more drop-ins, more bailed boards, and far more close calls in an otherwise perfectly viable lineup than I have ever experienced.

Perhaps this is more due to my foiling perspective. It is like living at toddler height again, taking on an old perspective on familiar terrain and realising the make-up of the ecosystem has changed. Perhaps in SA, the lineups are equally clogged, and it is only because I’m foiling on the periphery of beginner waves that this has become apparent to me.

Like with all things, people lose interest and move on, this will be the likely outcome like it was with sailing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, and especially Rollerblading. Without some or other invention, the carrying capacity has been hit. I imagine it felt the same way for any surfer of a previous generation as the lineups became more crowded, and no doubt the true carrying capacity was always beyond the current generation’s imagination to believe.

Foil Therapy

This brings me back to my foil, and its ability to artificially increase the carrying capacity of this humble bay in North Cornwall. Suddenly the spot became alive with an entirely new dimension, untapped waves that were going un-ridden. We early brave pioneers who break out of the blinkered obsession with the last gasp of a wave ending its monumental trans-Atlantic journey, looking out to sea and seeing the lines for what they truly are, opportunities to be surfed, and not just opportunities for a brief burst of fleeting joy over a sufficiently shallow sandbank.

I probably should exclude Me from that We. I participate as a likely candidate for the “something new” brigade. Competent at everything, excellent at nothing, never an expert. Experience does not cause expertise, lest someone insist that they’ve been surfing for Xteen years and consider themselves something of an expert, myself included, despite my 3 sessions on expert setting at The Wave.

Foiling attracts those who can’t help themselves but try something new, and it proves the point that all the surf foilers I know are varyingly ex-kiters/windsurfers (and naturally lifelong surfers) who got bored and decided they needed to learn something new.

So who are foilers? They are addicts. Addicts to the progression curve. Flow state demons. What usually happens is the challenges become too high and the experience falls to boredom.

Ask any foiler if they can kitesurf, wing, foil, surf, hang-glide, fly and wakeboard. Yes.

Ask them if they are world-class at anything. No.

Expert generalists are a unifying theme. I surprised everyone at a work office party when there was a cable-ski on hand and threw some backrolls, later surprising no-one. “First Try Arderne” at the climbing gym, giving away the expectation.

And as I called out in the previous post on foiling, I’ve actively avoided getting involved, waiting until such time as the foil was sufficiently developed and enhanced to a degree that was ready for my growth oriented interest, with a range of brands, teams and disciplines. It is no surprise that I have joined as the ground swell is strongest.

It amounts to the same thing in the end - surfers who can spot an opportunity for a new thrill, and it is certainly thrilling to ride big open swells, as much fun as it is to rip down otherwise unremarkable waves at incredible speeds, and carry this momentum out the wave and into the otherwise flat sea, to link into the next surge in energy, in a true and continuous flow state.


It is indeed rather crowded

This is the most astounding little sequence, from a surf-spot that I have spent months surfing, to see this is almost beyond comprehension, and yet here we have it, an illustration of the point.

“When I told them the safest would be that they leave paddling through the channel as it was dangerous for them, he looked at me and answered with an eastern european accent “We know what we are doing”.”


Source with details

South Africa is possibly less crowded

Big bay, a popular city surf break in the city of Cape Town with a larger population, similar if slightly colder water, many more sharks and similarly mediocre waves, seemed to have generally fewer surfers, and possibly unusually, a higher ratio of female to male surfers.

(not scientific, I was chasing seagulls)