Nothing beats a gathering of Brits on a beach in the rain. Add to that a vintage fever as pervasive as the repetitive dots on a Kidston apron, some wooden bellyboards and a cake competition and you get village fete meets fashion show meets niche sporting event. So niche, that a corner of the north coast of Cornwall was an alcove of media attention last Sunday for the Ninth World Bellyboarding Championships.
"So just what part of this brings you here?" asked my friend. She gestured at his shivering body, the potent grey clouds, the foaming smashing waves.
"This! It's amazing!" replied Matt. He meant the jagged dramatic cliffs of Chapel Porth, the red polka dots of women in retro bathing costumes, the Ford Model A, the custard yellow bathing tent selling wooden boards.
Matt McGregor-Mento, an advertising creative from Manhattan, had flown over especially for the Bellyboarding Champs with his girlfriend and already BBC Cornwall had accosted him about 9/11. The echoes of that day hung oddly in the air, incongruous next to primary colours and painted ply. The rain began to beat down as clutched his body with his arms, explaining how The Men's Expression Session had become a little too expressive when his woollen all-in-one costume had separated at the waist, revealing his bottom. He needed to borrow some bathers for his qualifying heat.
"You know Tom? Tom Wegener? He's a big pro surfer and says that this is the best surfing competition in the world and I can see why. Look at it." I looked. A battered ply board proclaimed the ninth World Bellyboarding Championships, tired bunting rattled in the wind. Down on the beach, a huddle of scantily clad bathers propped up by wooden boards, waiting to brace the north coast, Sky Sports searching for the stories, clumps of bearded men, pockets of tweed, pairs and trios of costumed women, delighting in the strange glamour of it all.
Scott Bell, an American ex-pat living in Nice, is at the champs after a chance meeting with Sally Parkin, owner of the Original Surfboard Company, in Revolver surf shop Newquay. Today he was clad in a 1934 Jantzen all-in-one bather belted halfway between his waist and his chest, black woollen ribbed shorts hiding under a unisex skirt or 'modesty flap'. "You get to about 40 and most men have a crisis, you know, what's it all about, why am I doing this? I dropped my son off at school in Sussex and had some time to spend so thought I'd go to Newquay, learn how to surf, I met Sally at Revolver and here I am."
Sally Parkin and the Original Surfboard Co. have been the driving force pushing the boards back into use across the north coast of Cornwall: "I wanted to make the boards stylish again, change the image and inspire younger people." The inspiration has now gone global and the Americans want them. Radiant in a late 1920s woollen navy bathing suit with yellow trim, "straight out of a George Seurat painting", she explains that, "I always loved the boards, we always had one in the house as kids. It's a different type of surfing."
Apparently this early wooden precursor to stand up surfing dates from the 1800s but took off after World War One in the 1920s when veterans returned home, a story outlined in Cornish playwright Alan Kent's highly entertaining Surfing Tommies. Boogie boarding, surf-riding, bellyboarding, bodyboarding (whatever you want to call it) originates from Hawaii where surfing is defined less by the stand up surfers (who tend to gaze down from on high at the bodyboarding fraternity) but by the type of board that you ride. The board design was based on the ancient Hawaiian 'paipo' boards (meaning short or small board) on which you learn the art of riding before graduating to a longer 'alaia' board.
There's nothing to stand up about at the now highly popular and endearingly quirky World Bellyboarding championships. Held at Chapel Porth beach (just up from the surfing badlands of St Agnes), the numbers have swelled from a handful of diehard grannies in wool to hundreds of prone devotees. Sally secured third place in the women's under-60s last year, a feat she attributes entirely to her Original Surfing Co. board. Jack Johns, world famous pro surfer, also used the same board and won, hence the board is now known as the Championship Board.
The board fits as neatly under the arm as a compact handbag, no fins, no wetsuit, no lessons, no macho demeanor required, this is minimalistic fun for those who just want to get out there and enjoy the swell. And what's more, with the vintage revival hitting the high street and influencing top designers, sending the public into a waltzing vintage teacup frenzy, there has never been a better time to ditch the plastic.
"This one doubled up as a sledge, my father made it," explains one enthusiast, "we've reinforced it and added bits to hold it together." Another competitor is encircled in towels, sewn together as a neck to foot cape: "We used to always wear these on the beach as children, I made this one." As I make my way up to the National Trust officials, for the senior heats, I'm told I've made a mistake: "No, you're heat three in the junior section, at least I hope you're not over 60." As a 35-year-old, the word 'junior' is much appreciated. We meet another competitor, waiting to slide the waves: "The cold is good for you, these days children never go into the sea without a wetsuit, it's ridiculous." It's strictly no neoprene at the World Champs.
The rain reinforced its patter on the ply, the queue at the National Trust café grew in retaliation and juniors and seniors alike waited patiently for their heat. As we made our way back up over the cliffs towards St Agnes, the spectacle of tiny pink bodies armed with boards in the swollen north coast Cornish waters was heart-warming and very, very British.
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