Porthowan Rule the Waves…Still

Last Saturday was the big one: the UK Open Surfboat Champs at Saunton in north Devon.

The numbers were down on recent years with a dozen men’s crews entered and seven teams in the women’s event. There were a couple of eye-catching entries from Leander (Pink Pythons) and Henley (5-0) but what was noticeable was the lack of entries from the surf clubs in the south west beyond the usual suspects.

In keeping with tradition the eve of the competition saw the last dregs of the week’s swell peter out into next to nothing. A half foot swell was not what the teams wanted. To liven things up, those who arrived on Friday evening were treated to a monsoon. Parts of Braunton flooded, the road to the campsite was underwater and Pete Gaisford left the door of the tent the French were to borrow open; well, les grenouilles do like a bit of the wet stuff.

It didn’t do them any harm for in the first heat of Round One les Bleus stormed to a comprehensive win. They have become regular, and welcome, participants at the Open and were plainly intent on improving on last year’s fourth place finish.

Blue Bali also opened with a win, the rower production line at Porthtowan manufacturing Tim Bracey and Jules Chenoweth to step into the wetsuit boots of Mladen and Tom Hanna with no obvious loss in boat speed. Bude looked quick as did St Agnes (where have you been all season?) but the flatties struggled with jumping into a stationary boat and struggled to make an immediate impression, something they would put right in later rounds.

The opening heat of the women’s event was as dramatic as any of the season to date. Perran Phoenix clashed blades with Black & Blue, Bournemouth and, I think, Bude Bombshells. What no one had anticipated was just how evenly matched the crews would be with all four crews catching the same runner back to the beach. The points were determined by the run to the flag but it was clear there would be no easy heats.

Eight crews contested the men’s semis in two heats of four. In the first heat, the bad luck that has plagued Llantwit at the Open continued when Gethan somehow fouled his oar in a rope at the turning cans. They deserved better and had looked quick all day. In the second semi Perran’s Torpedoes, a crew who only came together this year, bowed out with heads held high.

In the women’s event the first semi saw the Bombshells eliminated. Arguably, they were the fastest crew on the water but they lacked the polish of the established crews at the starts and, more particularly, the finish and it cost them dear. Similarly, in the second semi, Bournemouth were slow into their rowing and couldn’t recover. That is as it should be at national standards. Make a mistake and you should expect to pay the price.

Fair to say, however, that both Bude and Bournemouth showed real boat speed in flat conditions and obvious improvement. Work on the surf skills and the established crews will have to look to their laurels.

In the men’s final BB nailed their start and opened up a lead of 1-2 lengths. It proved decisive. The French and Bude squabbled over second with the north coast boys finishing stronger to take silver and Tom of Finland ((France) the bronze. The Barr’s bow man, Evan Bickmore, was so chuffed he proposed to his lovely girlfriend Lorraine the same evening. Congrats to you both. The mind boggles at what could have happened if the Barrs had reeled in BB.

The Steels suffered unfairly when a lunatic bather thought it would be a good idea to swim onto the course. Some sweeps, who will remain nameless, would have been sorely tempted to leave her to take her chances. Steve Instance, RNLI employee, did the right thing by stopping his crew but as with the Welsh in the semi, the Aggie boys deserved better. Have another crack at Bude.

In the women’s final it boiled down to the two crews from ‘towan against the two crews from Perran. It wasn’t just club against club, it was club member against club member. Black and Blue won it with the Rinsers second while Phoenix beat Gold on the touch and only after a steward’s enquiry.

What the racing showed was that the standard of competition has gone up several levels in the past year. The gaps between the crews shrink all the time which makes for fantastic racing.

The disappointment, for me, is that there are no new crews willing to give it a go. In Cornwall alone, there are established and successful SLSCs at Hayle, Crantock, Portreath and St Ives. There are literally hundreds of gig rowers including the world champions in Falmouth and Par. If we want to grow our sport we need to take the gospel to these places and make some converts. Otherwise, we risk what we have going nowhere. And that would be a shame.

Enough of the maudlin. Once the racing was done, the crews descended on The White Lion for the prize giving and a couple of quiet drinks. Everyone was knackered though which obviously explained why so many turned in early at the campsite for a full night’s undisturbed rest and no more sport. Yeah.

See you at Bude.

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