Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Brilliance of British Bellyboarding

Greater than the sum of it's parts:  deckchairs, bunting, an Original Surfboard Co. bellyboard and John Isaac's Model T Ford.  World Bellyboarding Championships 2011.

Some things define British beach culture like nothing else:  buckets and spades, stripey deckchairs, sandcastles and of course bellyboards.  International readers may raise a quizzical eyebrow at this point, however a lot of British based readers will be drifting off into memory-ville.  A lot of us caught our first wave on a bellyboard; not our first "stand-up" wave, but lying down on a piece of plywood with a rounded nose, engulfed by the whitewater from waist-deep until we were deposited in the warm shallows.  In my grandma's shed there was a stack of these old things - my grandma's bellyboard which now rests in the corner of my bedroom, and three that my mum and her sister and brother had painted their favourite sea creatures on when they were children.  Most people who spent their childhood holidays on the beaches of Britain will have one of these bent plywood boards stashed away in a shed or up in the rafters of their garage, but these days they're starting to dust them off and get them back in the sea.  Bellyboarding's back.

Jenni Hosen entering into the spirit of things.  WBBC 2011. 

"Surf riding", as it was called back then, was a British beach pastime inspired by Hawaiian paipos and which has a history in this country dating back over one hundred years to the turn of the 19th Century, when Hawaiian Royalty were sent to Britain to finish their education.  Ever wondered why the Hawaiian State flag has the Union Jack in the corner?  That's the link right there.  After World War Two sheet material such as plywood became increasingly available and shaping a 4 foot long by 1 foot wide board with a rounded nose, often steamed or laminated to a slight upward curve, was easy.  You could get 8 boards out of a standard sheet and make them at home before loading the car to head south and west for the family holiday.  Wade out to waist deep water, wait for a strong line of whitewater to advance towards you then turn around and push yourself into it.  Good, simple, honest fun.

Arthur Traveller used to come down to Chapel Porth in Cornwall on holiday from London every year, bringing with him his plywood bellyboard.  When he passed away back in 2002 the National Trust's car park attendant Chris Ryan and Head Lifeguard Martin Ward organised the first "World Bellyboarding Championships" in his memory on the first Sunday of September.  This year is the championship's tenth year, and promises to be even better, and more eccentric than ever.  Modern wetsuits are not allowed, and classic woolen bathing suits are the most you're really meant to wear in the waves.  Everyone piles in for the expression session before the "serious" heats begin in two categories:  Juniors for anybody under the age of 60, and seniors for the more "practised" attendees who can get there using their bus pass.  For anybody not keen on wading out into the Atlantic Ocean in September can stay on land and get involved in the bake-off.  It's a wonderful event where a sense of humour is just as important as a bellyboard, chock full of British beach culture and traditions with a brilliant dose of classic eccentricity.  Knotted handkerchief and sand in your sandwiches anyone?  I'll see you there on Sunday September 2nd.  Enter here.

 The "Expression Session"

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