Minnow started surfing in 1966. Today, he continues to throw together an internationally respected longboarding competition that regularly features current and former pro’s and big hitters such as Ben Skinner, Sam Bleakley, Elliot Dudley and Mike Lay – to name only a few.
You won’t find Minnow sat still for long. He buzzes on contest days, rushing from job to job, sorting and arranging, catching up with old mates, laughing that old Cornish laugh of his. I thought I might get some good snippets from him if I caught him between heats of the recent British Longboard Union contest at Fistral in September.
No formal questions. Just shoot the breeze with him, fly on the wall sort of thing. At the end of the day I’d managed to scribble precisely only one line, as quite honestly, I wasn’t able to keep up with him; chatting with the other veterans, he was explaining the challenges in putting on contests and getting funding: “there’s a cheque I’ve been waiting 25 years for, it still ‘adn’t come!” followed immediately by that classic raspy laugh. He’s not doing it for the money then.
I meet Minnow at his house in Aggie the summer had just gone.
The WSL is on the TV, Jeffrey’s Bay. My first thought is ‘this isn’t longboarding, what’s he watching this for?’ But, of course, Minnow loves all parts of surfing’s rich tapestry. He mutes the TV as he welcomes me in, but he always has an eye on the scores.
The man loves a surf competition.
We get comfortable, but he apologises – he doesn’t have long to give me – he’s on call for the RNLI and he may have to respond to a shout at any moment. He holds up a bleeper, checks it hasn’t gone off, and puts it back on his belt. Eyes back on the TV.
Around the room are various photos of Minnow surfing from years gone by. In a series together on one wall are pictures of Minnow from one particular competition. If I had to guess, I would say it was Polzeath, possibly a Jesus Classic Longboarding event. In the different frames: Minnow is in perfect trim; Putting a contest jersey on; Sat outback. The last frame holds Minnow, dressed but obviously not long out of the sea, holding a tray of teas for the judges and a big smile on his face.
He tells me how much respect he has for people that volunteer their time for surf events, and how he does everything he can to give something back. That’s all he’s doing with the BLU, he tells me.
We get into it. Minnow’s personal surf history, and how he came to be at the helm of the British Longboard Union, the body that has driven UK competitive longboarding since the mid 90’s.
I ask Minnow how it all began.
MG: “Started surfing in 1966. Saw it all coming up, first surfboards, first wetsuits, first leashes. I was 10, now I’m 65 and I’m still going. A little bit slower now though.”
JM: What boards were you riding?
M: “They were heavy. A log would have been… 30 lbs. Weren’t many boards around so we had to share everything. I was the youngest so had to wait to the end. It’d be low tide and I’d have to carry it all the way down the beach on my head, I think that’s why I’ve got such a short fat neck.”
Minnow came up through surf life saving, then surfing, then got into waveskis, he says, because he wasn’t the best surfer. He casually adds that he couldn’t roll them, but he could surf them, then became European champion after doing a few events. He went on from that to a contest on the side of the 1990 Lacanau longboard pro, and that gave him the instinct to compete in longboarding.
MG: “We went in for 2 or 3 world titles. We were always missing out on big competitions, always a little bit outta the game. So we sat round, Chops (Lascelles, of Aggie Surf Shop), Richard Balding (of Nineplus fame), alongside Lee Ryan (former pro) and Tim Mellors (another former pro, and resident shaper at Custard Point since the 80’s). We were making a big dent in France, one year there was about 17 of us. The organisers recognised we weren’t to be fobbed off. So we came home and founded the BLU in.. .what’s it, 1994? 1992 I think Oxbow sponsored the world titles in Biarritz, 1993 it was in America (we got invited over there) and 1994 we had Oxbow come on their European tour, and I was invited to run the contest in Fistral. That was a really good do, and people said “we should do more of this!” There were three main contests at the time – malibu madness in Newquay, some up in Scarborough, and there was always the Welsh. Every year we’d take it turns to hold the grand final and other events…and that’s how the BLU came about. We just sat around the Driftwood (infamous St Agnes pub) one night and said “this is what we need to do”. I went off and got some sponsorship. I managed to get three grand from Oxbow, but I struggle to get that now.”
He breaks his own stream of thought when he spots my watch.
MG: “Same watch as me! Excellent, Casio – £9.99, great for surfing and they last forever.”It’s true, they really do. He changes tack again when he sees the time.
MG: “Right, I got to go in… oooh not long! But I can come back.”
I tell him the 20 minutes or so we have should be plenty. He’s happy to give me what little time he has, so we get back into it. I ask him how seriously he took the waveski competitions. European champion sounds pretty serious to me, I tell him.
MG: “…put the lycra on, I’m quite competitive! Basically, I went along to the English championships and made the final, someone said to me ‘you’re pretty good on that thing, you should be in the England team’. Was part of the British team that went to Hawaii for the world championships. Took my shortboard with me, 5 weeks for £500 it was – a no brainer. 1986 was Hawaii, ’85 was Bali… ’84 was, oh I’m not sure… ’83 was Ireland.”
I tell Minnow I didn’t realise how much he had done over the years. I ask him how long he’s been organising and managing teams.
MG: “…a few years now. I’d have to get the history books out if you want a specific… Been manager of Cornwall surfing teams for a few years, we went to Celtic Watersports Festivals in Portugal, Spain, France, Ireland, and at home in Cornwall. In the beginning, was just for non-international surf teams. But most of the local areas are very strong, so like you had the England Team A, and Team B would have been all Cornish. North Devon had their surfers, and Wales had another team. That gave some surfers that might not otherwise be at an international level, have a taste of international competitions. And there was music festivals, ale drinking, food testing, gave some kids a taste of travel, it was great.”
“I was coming up through the competition ranks as a manager and contest director, and they needed someone for the mens shortboard team, and some of my junior competitors (like Reubyn Ash and Tom Buttler) were very good surfers, so when I put my hand up for the open, I was blessed with having the confidence of these other guys. So when I came along, everyone didn’t just think ‘ah this longboarder bloke won’t know what he’s doing’, they thought I knew my stuff – jack of all traits, master of none, sort of thing. But I’ve learnt to climb the ladder a little bit.“
So its fair to say surfing has taken Minnow around the world, and back again. I ask him what his favourite surf trip has been.
MG: “Being British manager when we went to Japan in 2018/2019 was the top for me, so far. That was the selection event for the Olympics, all the WCT surfers had to be there – so many… Slater, Ferreria, Medina, Toledo… so Brazil had two world-champion surfers, and a world-class surfer in reserve! Stephanie Gilmore, met her she was really good, friendly. And, er, the South African, Jordy Smith – his wife is English, got chatting to us about “how good is it in England, how bad is it…” I missed him coming to the Wave soon after, but he was great.”
“I’ve been lucky so far, been able to travel a lot in my career. South Africa and New Zealand are on my wish list… it sounds a bit cliche I s’pose but there’s no waves like home. Had some great days back in the day down Porthleven, my old local down Godrevy, here in St.Agnes. Got to give a shoutout to my friend in Nazare, Andrew Cotton, who takes surfing to another limit. I went there some 10 years ago with him and Garratt McNamara, they just put that place fully on the map. It’s a great village, you know, though I’ve rarely surfed there, it scared the shit out of me when I did go out…. those blokes, all the history. We’ve had another maniac who’s come along now, Rob Fowlie, who’s putting another tow team together from the village (Aggie). Big wave surfing has come to town.”
Unsurprisingly, having been had such a major role in British surfing, long and shortboarding, for so long, there’s a tale or two involving Minnow. I asked around, and spoke to Lee Ryan, former longboard pro (and 9 x British title holder) who said he had a few yarns, which I fact check with Minnow.
JM: The first story I heard from Lee was from Biarritz in the early 90’s… Involving an onion?
MG: “Oh yeah in a pub one night someone dared me to eat a raw onion like an apple.That fell right into my hands, because I love an onion. I think the Portuguese will probably claim cooking fish with onions first, but… I was worried he’d tell you about something else!”
JM: He also told me about a competition in Jersey…
Minnow dives into the story, leans forward.
MG: “It was late on in the night, after a contest. And no-body steals anything in Jersey, because you can’t get anything off the island. And I saw this car had the keys in the ignition. I wasn’t sure if was the contest judge’s car, but it was someone on the committee’s. I knew him and I though he won’t mind, he’s not taken it home. So I drove it back to my hotel. In the morning, I woke up and went to get into my own car to go to the ferry, but the car weren’t going anywhere. I thought “what’s going wrong ‘ere!?” – it was jacked up on concrete blocks and they hid the wheels.”
I pick Minnow’s brains about the techy side of longboarding and competing. I ask him what has changed most over the years.
“I think there’s still a great debate about where it’s going, especially with the judging criteria. Judges should explain the criteria to the competitors on the day, to explain what the criteria is going to be. Also the boards that they ride – a lot of people riding traditional longboards, 9’6” single fins in what we call the Single Fin division in the BLU. But in the open division, if the waves are small, they ride the same boards. Obviously, the days of the 60’s, when the boards were 30 lbs in weight, now their 8-10 lbs carbon fibre, everyone’s style is different. Skinner has got the Slab Hunter for chasing gnarly slabs and barrel riding, a four finned longboard that can be ridden at Nazare! Some people prefer the modern lightweight construction, others prefer a traditional PU construction. Me, I’ve got one of each – on a day with howling offshores, on a lighter modern board, although you can paddle faster, you might not get down the face of the wave so you miss a few waves. And you’re not out there to miss waves.”
“But surfing is one of those sports where you get the equipment that you’re happiest on. I’ve seen many people over the years come to contests to test the waters, and see what’s best. Some people come back, and we don’t get too much criticism, but sometimes we get constructive comments. I always try and welcome new people to the events, and ask if they’ve been before, ask ’em are they aware of the times in the heats, and the contest zones, and all that. People get a good vibe from it. Take the recent one in St.Ives, it was pretty marginal conditions, and we were lucky to get the final finished before high tide when it went totally flat. But we only had one… I wouldn’t even call it a complaint, just one guy had a little moan. That’s all. I love him to bits, I’m sure we can name him, he’ll love it!”
In the interests of diplomacy, I won’t say who it was that Minnow was thinking of as he chuckled away.
My time with Minnow is nearly up, and as I leave he shows me his lifeguard certificate hanging by the door. He tells me it was handed to him when he retired, in the early 2000’s. Well, when he was meant to have retired. “But”, he says, “I don’t play as much of a hands-on role now”. He checks his bleeper again, without a hint of irony.
Minnow’s eternal energy and positivity for surfing are infectious. It makes losing seem insignificant, and contests become fun and light-hearted. He creates an atmosphere that makes you want to go surfing, and it’s clear that community is a big part of it for him. But not in an abstract, advertising or sell-you-something sort of way. More, becoming friends, helping out and getting to know everyone, spreading a love of longboarding.
For me, Minnow is the embodiment of a very Cornish version of the aloha spirit. Encouraging, fun, friendly, and an aficionado of all aspects of both high-level and grassroots surfing.