Roger Cox: Flat spells heighten appreciation of good surf

A surfer at Coldingham Bay. Picture: Sean Bell
A surfer at Coldingham Bay. Picture: Sean Bell
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It’s looking pretty flat out there,” says J, as we pass Thorntonloch on the A1, heading south.

Annoyingly, she’s right. A stiff north-easterly breeze is turning what little swell there is into a ragged, crumbly mess. Even with one eye on the road I can tell it’s barely ankle-high, but, Cnut-like, I have already decided what the sea is going to do today and little details like, for example, what the sea is actually doing today, are not going to stop me going for a surf.

“It’s not so bad,” I lie, “that wave breaking now’s probably a couple of feet. And it’s forecast to get bigger later on.”

That last bit, at least, is true – the forecast is for the swell to build through the afternoon, as yet another angry weather system bears down on Scotland from wherever it is in Norway that they manufacture unseasonably cold and stormy late spring weather. And east-facing Coldingham, where we’re heading, should hopefully be sheltered from the keen wind that’s making a mess of the surf along more exposed stretches of coast. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

“We could go just home,” suggests J, hopefully.

“Well, we’re nearly there now,” I say, giving the accelerator a subtle squeeze, as if increased proximity to our destination will somehow strengthen the case for carrying on, “we might as well go and have a look.”

The arrival of a new swell is one of the best things in surfing – not even today’s high-tech surf-forecasting websites have been able to kill the magic. In the pre-internet era, the only sure-fire way to figure out what the waves were like was to go and have a gander, and so I mis-spent much of my youth running up and down cliff paths, peering out at the ocean, willing it to produce something surfable until finally, inevitably, it did. And there’s really nothing like suffering through flat spells to make you appreciate good surf. Once, at an isolated point break in Sri Lanka, I hopped off the bus from Colombo just as a new swell had started sending glassy, bathwater-warm waves spinning for hundreds of metres along what appeared to be a deserted stretch of shoreline. By the time I’d unpacked my board and started the long walk up the point, however, the place was mobbed, as surf travellers who had been waiting around for days on end with nothing to do but kill mosquitoes finally got the chance to get wet. The sense of relief out in the line-up was palpable. I’ve never had a surf session that felt more like a party – albeit one where everybody else was steaming and I was playing catch-up. Nowadays, of course, an hour-by-hour surf forecast is only a mouse click away, but online forecasts aren’t infallible – nowhere near – it’s still a case of you win some, you lose some, only with better odds.

When we arrive at Coldingham there’s good news and bad news. On the up-side, the little headland at the north end of the bay is blocking the wind as predicted, so the waves are breaking much more cleanly than further up the coast. Trouble is, those waves are still too small to bother with, so to kill some time we wander into the St Vedas surf shop to drool over the boards. There’s the usual mix of factory-produced pop-outs for beginners and custom-shapes for the more advanced, but also something unexpected – a beautiful “Vedas”–branded fish. Turns out Steve Powner, who owns the shop, has installed a shaping bay out the back and is now making his own custom designs. After many years of doing board repairs, he tells us, he’s grown to feel comfortable with the unforgiving materials that every surfboard shaper must master – polyurethane foam, fibreglass and epoxy resin. He’s still learning his craft, he says, but judging by the boards he’s built so far, in his case the learning curve is a steep one. Once he’s got a few more under his belt, he hopes to have demo boards available for people to try. I predict they’ll be popular, particularly the smaller fish designs – wide in the rail and flat-ish in profile, they look like the perfect tools for making the most of Coldingham’s often fast, punchy waves.

Speaking of which, following our tour of the shaping bay the swell has picked up just enough to make it worth getting wet for, so we suit up and paddle out. It’s maybe waist-high to begin with, but then a set that could perhaps be called chest-high swings into the bay and one of the lifeguards grabs a board and joins us. A few more minutes and the sets are shoulder-high and holding their shape well. Only three people in the water and all of them smiling. Internet spoilers or no, the arrival of a new swell is still one of the best things in surfing. n