“It’s a gathering of the tribes,” says a post-surf Tom Lowe, who has just scaled a cliff path in the south west of the UK, and is looking around at familiar faces.
It’s Lowey’s first session back home in 12 months, after spending winters abroad in Portugal, with the odd trip to Ireland. Lowey’s own tribe, which is himself, young daughter and wife, had just spent few days driving from Portugal to Cornwall. “My partner’s pregnant so we wanted to get home to have family around,” he said. They arrived just in time for this swell. “There’s so many people I’ve not seen for years here today,” he said. “Guess they’ve all come for good reason.”
Live Cam: Praa Sands
Last week, for a few days only, this special part of coastline was bombing. A long period swell had fanned in from the mid-Atlantic, hitting the west coast of Portugal and Ireland, wrapping around the western-most headland of the UK and then up the channel. Further north, that same swell continued, uninterrupted up towards Norway and the arctic, and also south, towards Northern Africa.
But all that long period stuff was catching people out. Just up the UK coastline, the beachies were flat for 20, 30 minutes, then there was a set of four or five waves, before settling down to nothingness. You needed a reef, like this one, or a point, to make best use of all that energy in the water. And that’s why it drew a crowd, who lined the grass verge over-looking this particularly wild stretch, with its granite fingers reaching out into the sea, and rocks in the end section that boiled up like an underwater upper cut.
“It felt as if that period was too big for here, so there was a lot of waiting around, then the sets came in and it was dreamy,” said Lowey. “I took a drop, and my board hit me on the head – just a little cut. You surf all these waves around the world, and you think, ‘yeah, I’ve surfed at home a lot’, then bang, you hit the granite, or a board to the face.”
Jobe Harris, a pro surfer from Devon, took the day off work, marking his first return to this part of the world in 18 months. “Some total gems out there. Proper nice on the sets,” he said. “Got chucked over the falls on one. I’m wearing a 4/3mm suit, big mistake, it’s freezing.”
That’s the thing about last week: the cold. Winter’s full force unloaded in one, potent blast. Water and wind chill chomped through 5/4mm wetsuits. Hands frozen in surfing’s equivalent of a Vulcan salute.
“Yeah, was cold out there,” said UK pro, Jayce Robinson. “But haven’t had that much fun in the water in a long time. Normally, would get a few tubes with a swell like this, but it was relentless just tube after tube, runners that spat me out at the end.”
“Some solid sets,” said Nathan Philips, a Welshman who moved to Cornwall a while back and is a legendary tube hound round these parts. “It was like a Hawaiian set up. Everyone with a camera was there and everyone in the water who loves a tube, old blood and new.”
Fellow Welshman Mark Vaughan, left home at 5am to meet up with Nathan on a 20-hour strike mission. “All I had to do was hold my line, stand tall, admire the view and exit. Or in my case stand too tall, for too long, get axed and blow the wave you’ve waited for all day,” said Mark. “But that moment made my trip, which was 10 hours on the road, two hours catching up with mates and six hours surfing for just a couple of seconds in a tube. That vision made it all worthwhile.”
A few days later, Nathan wiped out at this same reef, breaking his tibia and fibula. Those in the water rallied to help him out. A Go Fund Me has been set up to help with the cost of being off from self-employed work. His partner is expecting a child in five weeks.
“I took off on a wave, I was in the barrel and then heard a big crack and was under water,” said Nathan. “Just felt my foot flapping around. They said I was too big for the helicopter [Nate’s 6’2″] so had to wait for an ambulance.”
“Nath's a super experienced surfer who’s charged big dangerous waves all over the world,” said UK big wave charger Tom Butler, who was also out there during this session. “You can’t help how you fall sometimes. This wave is not forgiving at all.” We’re wishing Nate a speedy recovery.
“Over the last weekend of February, two small low pressure systems merged to become a stronger storm, around 2,000 miles WSW of the UK,” said Surfline’s UK forecaster Jamie Bateman. “Storm force W wind to the south of the centre, produced a long-period W/WSW swell that fanned out across the Atlantic and filtered into the UK’s south coast overnight on Monday, February 28th.
“Surfers in Cornwall woke up to inconsistent but overhead sets on Tuesday morning with an offshore NE breeze. The swell filled in through the day, still inconsistent at times, especially around the midday low-tide mark. But with sunny skies, occasional double overhead sets and great wind, Tuesday will definitely be a day to remember along the south coast.”