In Cornwall the first week of September means fewer tourists, cooler weather, shorter days, warmer water and better waves. It’s also a time when hundreds of surfers converge on Chapel Porth beach to fight it out for the title of World Belly Board Champion. And this year I took part.
Running for eleven years, the championships originally started out as a tribute to tourist Arthur Traveller, who surfed at Chapel with his trusty belly board every summer for years, come rain or shine. Since then it’s grown into something much, much bigger and this year over 400 people competed in the event.
The rules are very simple; you must turn up by 10am, with authentic belly board and wearing just a swimsuit – wetsuits are strictly forbidden.
The boards are a real attraction. All are made from plywood (we’ll have none of your modern blown fibre boards here thank you), some (like mine) are pretty basic bits of ply that have been roughly cut into shape and given a lick of varnish, others have been elaborately crafted and painted, and then there’s the originals that have been surfed at Chapel by successive generations since 1954.
And with the variety in boards comes a variety of surfer. The great thing about this style of surfing is it’s not restricted to the blonde, fit, young and beautiful. At the Belly Board Champs there’s everyone from (virtually) every walk of life.
The day is broken down into heats with an Expression Session first off, where basically everyone charges into the water pretty much at the same time and if someone catches a wave that’s a bonus. Then there are the heats – youngsters, juniors (under 60), seniors (over 60) – which are split into men’s and women’s.
Each heat runs for 10 minutes and each competitor is judged on: length of ride; directional changes with flow; wave speed and glide; innovative and progressive manoeuvres; style, finesse and enjoyment.
Everyone is issued with a coloured swimming hat – which is distinctly feminine and possibly antique, even for the men – and then judges issue points by way of hat colour.
Oh yes, and there’s the fancy dress. Whilst the event is not strictly a ‘vintage’ event as such, because of the nature of the boards and the old school style of surfing the vintage costumes have become a real feature. There’s all sorts of beautifully classic 1950’s style suits, flowery swimming caps, and weird and wonderful get ups, so of course there’s a prize for best costume these days too.
This year I competed for the first time. I’ve had my board for about three years and have registered every summer for all of those years, but this year was the first time I actually made it into the water for my heat. The weather was far from exotic, with a stiff north easterly blowing in dark clouds. My heat took place at 3.30pm; I had a gorgeous little outfit from the lovely people at Pret A Surf and was issued with a green hat. The water was thankfully a really good temperature at about 16°, and I caught some waves.
Sadly I didn’t rank, but there’s always next year – you never know, in decades to come I might be one of the old pros with a board that has some stories to tell. And this my friends is a brilliant finale for the summer season, a last ‘hurrah’ to the long, warm days and a chance to get in the water before the winter chill sets in.