Island Surf – British Style

Isle of Wight featured in issue number 4 of what is thought to be the one of the first ever British Surfing magazines. British Surfer magazine no1 came out in March 1969.

Surfing UK magazine published by Lindsay Morgan in Porthcawl in Jan 1969 pipped it to the post by a few months to be the official first nationwide mag running for only 3 issues before fading away.

Swansea surfers produced `British Surfer` and the first issue was purely Welsh news as they had no English contributors. For the 2nd issue Rod Sumpter (Honorary President of The Isle of Wight Surf Club) took over as Editor and it covered the whole country. Reps of other surf clubs started to write in too, and the mag became more rooted in south west surfing with the influence of Rod Sumpter, but sadly only survived a few more issues.

The Isle of Wight Surf Club had only been up an running a short while and Island surfers were mainly riding big heavy logs and no leashes. This was time for exploration and finding new breaks and learning about the waves that Island had to offer. You may not agree on Keith’s description of some of the Islands breaks in the article and many of them have dramatically changed over the years but it is a great insight into the Islands waves in the late 60’s.

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Island Surf – British Style

by Keith Williams

“Say have you seen those guys from the Isle of Wight, they reckon it gets up to 10 foot down there sometimes. How can a place in the Channel Islands have surf like that?” That was a snatch of conversation between two Perranporth guys at the Porthowan champs last year.

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You guys should check your atlas sometimes, firstly our Island is not in the Channel Islands, secondly the Channel Islands gets bigger surf than we do anyway, thirdly it has been known to get up to 10 foot plus about once or twice a year on average.

The Island Surf was consistent enough to prompt Rog and Sue Backhouse, John Ainsworth, Rusty Long and Jeff (Ned) Gardner and a few others to form the Isle of Wight Surf Club three years a go, back in the days of the longboard. In the first 6 months, the club membership had rocketed to over 70. In the early days a lot of time was spent finding the best breaks around the coast.

The most consistent surf spot is undoubtedly is Compton Bay, the scene of this years South Coast team contest on November 29/30th. Facing South West it catches any swell coming up the English Channel.

Basically it’s a sandy beach about 3/4 mile long. The sand however shifts around quite a bit causing very different conditions, some days it can be really mean on a big swell, say six – eight foot, with sections closing out and fast hollow walls, yet on other days it can hold a six foot swell and break real easy. It is usually best on an incoming tide 1/2 to full tide, but at low tide, if the swells big enough, a groovy little tube peels over the inside ledge. On really big swells 8ft. plus Compton it’s usually closed out, but if the conditions are right it does break, but fast over the outside ledge. It’s one hell of a paddle out and you usually end up swimming.

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On big days our thoughts turn to Freshwater Bay. This bay faces practically South and is basin shaped. Inside the bay it is pretty deep and the main break is on the west point over a rock ledge. It’s pretty easy to paddle out because it rarely breaks in the centre of the bay. As the swells come in from the south west they have to wrap around the point to come into the bay, thus losing some, but not all, of their power. The ledge makes the walls pretty fast and hollow but the break is usually quite gentle. The left break on the other side of the bay, called Kellys, is a bit different. It breaks over a shallow ledge and is usually pretty mean and rarely ridden even by goofy-footers.

Take off on the right break is pretty critical because you have to take the drop 20 – 30 yards outside an outcrop of rocks and 8ft. above water level. One mistake on take-off and all you get is a dinged board.

There is also a shallow spot further across the bay, affectionately known as “The Cabbage Patch which can bring about some interesting situations. Another hazard is a small fishing boat moored inside the bay which can get in your way especially if you are bellyboarding.

Freshwater is sheltered from the prevailing sou’westerly and so when Compton is blown out Freshwater is usually worth a look. If it is too small in Freshwater, a 15 mile drive to the Southern tip of the Island is usually worth while. The road down to the beach at Niton is rashly labelled “Unsuitable for Motor Vehicles” but I’d like to see anyone take a horse and cart up it.

Niton is basically a point break with a bowl section. The beach off the point consists of large round boulders and three wooden break-waters which have all claimed quite a few boards. Kickouts are a very necessary part of your repertoire if you want to keep your board in one piece.

Usually a strong rip current requires luck and strength to paddle out on a big day. The walls are usually fast but not particularly steep. Like Freshwater, Niton is predominantly a right break, but doesn’t offer much of a problem for goofy footers.

If Niton is blown out by the wind or is too big the next stop around the coast is Ventnor main beach on the south east side of the Island. At medium tide some good fast walls come in over some rocks. Low tide is too dangerous and it doesn’t often break at high tide, if it does, it’s a killer. Ventnor sometimes breaks after an easterly gale when small glassy swells come in at an angle to the beach peeling to perfection.

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Isle of Wight Champion Roger Cooper at Compton Bay

Those four are the main breaks on our Island, there are others that have never been ridden, such as Atherfield ledge, which has claimed many sailing vessels before the installation of St Catherines Lighthouse. Very little is known about the break except that it is about 1/2 mile out on a ledge that is 8ft deep in some places and 50ft deep in others. Plans have been made to ride it but as yet it’s still a virgin.

Another break that is real hairy is on the east point of Compton Bay, nicknamed little Guethary by the few who have ridden it. It breaks over an uneven rock ledge as at Atherfield and it is the general opinion that both breaks are similar.

Anyway that’s the score, so if you want to try your luck on the Island, come over but please don’t bring your mates. Our beaches are littered with holiday makers in the summer and pretty crowded with surfers too. As yet, we haven’t got a proper surfing area on any of our beaches and there are enough accidents already.

We hope to get an area as soon as we can convince the National Trust that it is really the best thing apart from banning surfing, and we don’t want that do we.

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