Last Friday, mainland Britain’s favourite ‘big wave’, The Cribbar, woke from its slumber, came barging down the stairs, and started throwing its weight around like an angry bear.
The Cribbar (named after the Cornish word for ‘ploughed reef’, alluding to the striations of rock that run out under the water from the Towan Headland) breaks more often than one might think; about 2 metres of ground swell will get it going, throw in a low tide and light offshore winds and hooray, you’re going surfing at The Cribbar. On this day however, some 3.7 meters of swell at 16 seconds was hammering into Fistral Bay, and as is a rarity for swells of this size, the wind was offshore rather than driving the swell before it. These would potentially be the best conditions for many years.
(Click the arrow to see a video)
All the major forecasting sites had been predicting this swell to hit as far as two weeks out, and the predictions held. There was plenty of time to get organised, still Nick Healey and myself both managed to leave our search for the right fins till the day before – neither of us could find what we were after and were unwilling to trial a new set on such a day.
The night before I cancelled what scant plans I had (it’s rather quite this time of year) so that I could paddle out at the most opportune time, about two hours before low tide. In the morning, I took the dogs for a walk along Fistral Beach to get an idea of the swell. Huge lines were sweeping in to the bay, and although the wind was offshore, the swell looked wobbly and growly. Little Fistral appeared to be one giant rip, as can happen when the swell gets beyond a certain point, and sets were already feathering off of the Towan Headland.
One chap, an Australian (sorry I don’t have his name), had already bravely tried to battle out through Little Fistral to get out there but due to the abundance of sand, the channel that usually sweeps you out was absent and he was beaten back. But that didn’t stop him from paddling out from the lifeboat slip side and he was bobbing around way out to see when I arrived at the white hut on top of Towan Headland. I was chatting to Keith Beddoe and a couple of others, all of us agreeing that the sets seemed to have diminished and things weren’t looking as spectacular as predicted. Still, everything was favourable and once a light squall passed through the sun almost started to come out. It was time to swap the dogs for my trusty W.E. 9’1 gun and a wetsuit.
By the time I arrived back at the beach a proper crowd had amassed on the headland. It often gets like that when The Cribbar breaks, people hanging out, watching the waves, taking photos, oohing and aahing as waves get ridden and sharply sucking in breath when waves bite back, and just enjoying a wonderful display of nature. Nick Healey turned up, and we both agreed without much discussion that we’d paddle out from the lifeboat slip.
When you’ve got just the right amount of adrenaline running you become a bit more aware and everything looks clearer. I can remember that standing on the slipway, waiting for a break in the sets before tottering out onto the girders that run into the water with an 8ft fall into the rocks below, everything looked like it was in 4k high definition. We really had nothing else to think about at that moment other than getting into the sea safely, and beginning the long paddle out. Nick jumped in first with his sup and had to immediately turtle roll as a rogue rebound of wash came at him. I hopped in began the slog paddling prone.
When you have a long paddle out to a peak it’s a bit like reaching the summit of a hill. There were three or four prone surfers already out there, as well as Dave Ewer and Pete Edkins on their sups. Dave was doing the business and picking of waves; the sup can lend some advantage as you can see the sets swinging in from much further out and are faster at getting into position, but all this is useless without some serious skill to pull it all together. I was impressed with how well the sups were doing out there, they had the highest wave counts for sure.
My usual line up spot clearly wasn’t working today as wide sets were breaking all over the place. There’s a lot more sand in Fistral Bay than usual and the reef must have been full of it. It became a real game of cat and mouse dodging the wide ones, deciding whether you should aim to paddle left or right to get out of their path, or of course to catch one. I tracked a set coming in and move slightly to meet it. The first wave started to stand up abruptly and it was right there so I span the board round and paddled into it. It felt like it went completely vertical and within a nanosecond I was into possibly the steepest and most exhilarating drop I’ve ever had. That’s why I surf The Cribbar, it may not be a long wave, or the biggest, and some of them are fat, but when you get a good one there’s not much like it as far as I’ve experienced, and it’s right there in your front yard. Superb.
I made it most of the way down that first wave but after recovering the nose once I couldn’t do it a second time and so went over the handlebars. I dived deep and felt the water explode above me but I escaped the worst of it. I had another take off not long after but that wave didn’t go anywhere; it happens like that, you’re never really sure what the wave will do till your on it. Sometimes the ones you think will be slopey and small suddenly lurch up and become very tall and steep, and sometimes it’s the other way around.
(Below is some incredible drone footage from the local guys at Light Colour Sound. They did a great job in capturing the feel of the day.)
It’s wise to save a bit of energy for the return journey, back in through swirling, heaving Little Fistral and I was considering going home as the tide was nearing its lowest ebb. Then the shadows far out to sea appeared again and a wide one started to build. It was an easy enough take off and seemed to be quite slopey, so rather than going right straight away I faded left till it started to build then bottom turned into a nice right wall. The subsequent top turn resulted in a splash; the wave had fattened out more than I expected and so I turned but the board didn’t. Still I was pleased to have read the first part of the wave correctly and it’s the one that the BBC used in their little video clip of the session.
In between waves it was strangely relaxing just hanging out out there, watching big, angry but beautiful unridden waves exploding on the reef. The noise is ferocious, even through a wetsuit hood. Because you can sit off of the peak in the channel, you do get a sense of watching some sort of natural phenomenon, like looking into a lava pit. You’re right there with it, but not close enough to get caught.