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Cornwall Surf Lessons: Teaching a French to Surf in Sennen, UK

It was a typical May weekend in Bordeaux. Temperatures were in the high 20s (not like Cornwall!) and the market was buzzing; pledges of cheap tomatoes and gourmet cheeses filled the air. The fishmonger had just brought in a fresh catch of oysters, perfect to compliment the bottle of white wine awaiting us at home. The acute ping of an incoming WhatsApp message pierced the ambience; “it can wait”, I thought, and returned my attention to the platter of canelé samples that and been thrust in my direction. (In case you didn’t know, canelés are petite pastries composing a custard centre, flavoured with rum and vanilla – a Bordelaise delicacy).

We haggled a good price for the seafood, and returned home with the day’s produce. It was then that I saw the urgent message from my mum, “YOUR 90-DAY TRAVEL INSURANCE RUNS OUT TOMORROW. CHECK FOR FLIGHTS ASAP.” It turns out that UK travel insurance policies only cover a maximum of 90 consecutive days out of the country, after which you must return home to reset the limit. Yet, the message followed with some consoling news: Myn Tea, our Cornish holiday home, was vacant for the next 3 weeks. This new unseemly run of good fortune continued when I found Ryan Air’s next flight to London selling at €4.99.

I proposed the idea of introducing Clara to the most beautiful region of England, together with promises of simultaneously giving her a crash course in surfing. She agreed and, after a brief explanation and apology, we faired “à bientôt” to her family and were on our way.

24 hours, 1 tram, 2 coaches, a frantic re-packing (surfboards, wax, and wetsuits), and a 4-hour drive later, we arrived.

Check out this guide to holidaying in South Cornwall

It was early evening by the time we reached Sennen, but a quick check of the beach on arrival revealed decent lines and light offshores (a rarity for Cornwall). However, it was soon getting dark, so there was no time to waste.

I threw Clara my 5/4, and loaded a few thermal rashies under my 4/3 before donning the gloves and boots. Despite claims that she always swims in the sea without neoprene, I finally convinced Clara of the contrast between here and the tropical climes of South West France. Nonetheless, the late-evening Cornish waters in spring were always going to be a shock for the unsuspecting.

Don’t let the South Pacific-esque aesthetics fool you, this is Cornwall!

Not to mention, Sennen – while being the clearest, bluest ocean I’ve seen in the UK thriving with marine life (it’s rare to surf a session without sharing the spot with one of the local seals!) – is also one of the coldest places to surf on the South West coast. This is due to its exposure to open ocean at Lands End, far from the comparatively warmer water of any nearby rivers or estuaries.

Nevertheless, cold water means nothing until you’ve surfed in the North East…

…but it’s more than worth it for empty waves like these. (Check out my North East Strike Missions blog for more from that part of the country)

Anyway, back to the topic of this blog.

There was no time to give Clara a sufficient surfing lesson due to the dying light and too-good-to-miss waves (oblige myself to miss the waves by waiting in the whitewater with her? Sorry, but not today). I convinced her a bodyboard with fins was a great way to get comfortable in the ocean without overwhelming herself.

The enthusiasm of someone who’s yet to feel the consequences of an overhead, frigid evening in Cornwall

Thankfully she is a great swimmer; after teaching her to ditch the board and swim underneath any oncoming waves we timed it perfectly between sets and made it to the lineup. Unfortunately, it was a little bigger than anticipated – evident when the first mid-sized set rolled through, much to Clara’s horror.

As the swell crawled over the horizon and emerged from the twilight haze, it loomed higher and higher until finally blocking out the little light remaining from the setting sun. I was a little out of practise and fitness, but stuck the nose under and timed my duck-dive well to avoid the guillotining lip. Clara wasn’t so lucky. I turned to see her washed halfway back to the beach, but love is a powerful emotion; after battling the last few waves in the set, she hopped straight back onto the board and battled back to meet me.

Her confidence was knocked a little when a grumpy longboarder told her “this is no place for a sponger”. But when he stacked it on the next wave and Clara stuck the drop on her first ride, he soon shut up.

Who could refuse a surf when it looks like this?

The first attempt was a success. We returned home and demolished a hearty dinner (as always, post-surf) and prepared for the day to come. It was forecasted to be nice conditions for learning with the best tide early in the morning, so we set our alarms and waited in anticipation.

It was Clara’s first day on a real surfboard (besides our first date last August in Lacanau… but that’s a story for another time). I dusted off Dad’s old 7’2” tiki Sumo Fish – not as ideal as a foamie, but the best I could offer.

The result of Posca Pens plus lacquer, but the bottom artwork resulted in some inappropriate misconceptions when viewed from afar

I had plenty of instructing experience from my time at Dreamsea and Durham University Surf Club, and the next task would unknowingly be a pre-emptive for my current job at Chill & Surf Lacanau. Nevertheless, Clara was lucky the Cornwall trip occurred before starting my professional career, so I had yet to be introduced to Chill & Surf’s standard price of 34€ per lesson!

Side note: If you want to sample my instructing expertise but can’t make it to Lacanau this summer, check out my beginners guide to surfing blog for Urban Surfer!

As testament to my teaching abilities – or Clara’s natural talent (living a stone’s throw from the ocean in France must have its advantages) – she picked up the technique quickly in the whitewater. And, ever ambitious (impatient), she once again convinced me to take her out back.

The next few days passed without incident. The only issue being the violent shorebreak if we forgot to exit the water before high tide (which somehow managed to happen every day, finally resulting the fin being snapped clean off my Dad’s board – but fortunately the plug remained intact so after a quick pit stop back home we were back in the lineup).

The lethal shorebreak was a curse for most, but I always try to find the best in any situation

Although the ocean never lets you forget who is boss

Nonetheless, Clara was soon mastering the pop up on every wave and, thanks to my GoPro and mum’s love of clifftop walks – mixed with a little patience and a determination to capture souvenirs to show the grandparents – Clara had more photos of herself surfing than most seasoned surfers have in a year.

The benefits of an ultra-intensive training routine in Cornwall: not bad for a first attempt

Unfortunately nothing lasts forever; by the second week, the wind picked up and the waves turned to mush. Though it was maybe a blessing in disguise, as Clara’s wetsuit rash, leash cuts, and clifftop yoga accidents were demanding at least 20 minutes of bandages before each session.

The magical moment that makes all the tiredness, pain, and mild-hypothermia worth it

Hopeless surfing conditions? Enter: kites and skimboards.

Although I’ve since become an accidental skimboarding instructor (tune in to my next blog to hear more about that!), it’s safe to say skimboarding was a bigger challenge for Clara.

Tackling the heavy shorebreak head-on

After an hour face-planting the sand, I made the executive decision to try the traction kites instead. Unfortunately, I vastly underestimated the ratio of wind strength to Clara’s weight when launching the 3.5m Flexifoil Bullet. Her first attempt resulted in getting dragged 50m down the beach before the kite finally crashed. We thus employed a safety strategy; hence the “kite train” was born

The only way to stop Clara accidentally flying home to France

The weather finally improved for the last few days, bringing glassy knee-high conditions and a picturesque environment resembling something from a tropical surf trip.

Perfect learning conditions

Walking through a jungle in Cornwall

A tropical vibe

The above hike may look beautiful, but a navigating mishap led to the 5-minute walk home taking 45 minutes. To add insult to injury (or injury to insult, in this case), the council had just finished cutting the gorse, brambles, and nettles and I was walking back barefoot. I was still in pain 2 weeks later.

Nonetheless, it is always a pleasure to see Cornwall at her best, not to mention a much-needed redemption of English pride in showing the potential beauty of our landscapes over the monotonous, never-ending beaches of the French Atlantic coast.

Views from the stunning Minack Theatre in Cornwall, a short drive from Land’s End

And our little island can sure hold its own on the wave front too; maybe Brexit won’t be so disastrous after all… (who am I kidding)

Solid walls during a mid-tide session at Sennen

Stay tuned for my vlog of the trip on our YouTube channel this week. After that, keep an eye out for updates on my next adventure: working at a surf school in Lacanau!

Until next time,
~ Will (@willdavies11)

Why not treat yourself to some new threads to help you through the last weeks of summer!

Aaron Carr

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