The adrenaline levels always rise as you whisk past the Saunton Sands Hotel and approach the famous overnight illegal camping lay-bys of your youth, from where you get the first proper look at the glassy lines stretching all the way to the horizon in the delicate glow of the early evening light.
So it comes as a mild disappointment when what you actually see, way, WAY below the road level is a wind-smashed swirling maelstrom of grey and blue reminiscent of the early Monday morning output of a very hungover modern art student. Who paints with feet. Other people’s feet.
Despite a very large bribe to BBC Weather’s Chief Fortune Teller, Carol Kirkwood, we were getting wind. Swell? Yes. But wind, seriously onshore and consistently windy wind. Only one thing to do, retire to the welcoming arms of The Thatch in Croyde and stuff our mildly sad faces with lovely food and possibly beer.
Despite the above, Saturday morning saw a good sized crowd of bright-eyed and vaguely bushy-tailed longboarders keen to get in amongst the general chaos and retreating tide. First to hit the water was the Men’s Open, and Round 1 standouts Ben Howey, Sam Bleakley, Chris Webb and Evan Rogers made enough of the conditions to put double digit total scores on the board. The quarter finals, held later in the day at a higher tide, gave the young guns Blake Jones and Arthur Randell the chance to shine and between the two of them they sent current Masters Champion Sam Bleakley for an early bath. Local boy Ashley Braunton made the most of the home advantage to claim his place in the semi-finals along with Howey and Rogers.
In the Women’s Open, a smaller field meant we ploughed straight into quarter-finals. Held at low tide, the surfers were a LONG way up the point. Rumour is that Emily Currie was so far out to sea, she actually won a heat in a totally different contest at Rest Bay, on the other side of the Bristol Channel. The walk across the ankle-breaking reef for the photographers was no picnic either. The highest round scores went to Emily, Claire Smail and Mali Harbour, very neatly covering the U16 to Over-35 age range.
The Single Fin had another great turnout despite a few last minute withdrawals. The heavier logs gave surfers the chance to actually link up the crumbly 2-3ft faces, make it through to the cleaner reforms and open up much more scoring potential. Strong representation in this one from the NE, with Louis Thomas-Hudson and Evan Rogers flying the flag. Another strong performance from Ashley Braunton, Ben Howey and former local lad Jack Unsworth – bettered only by Welsh Wonder Tom Fisher. No surprise to see the same names float to the top of the charts in the following rounds…
The Masters were the last division completed with heat wins for Sam Bleakley, Chris Webb and Edge Napper before the late afternoon glare made it impossible for the judges to determine the vest colours, and an enforced early finish. Pub? Pub.
Sunday morning saw an early start to make up for Saturday’s lost time, accompanied by slightly blearier eyes and slightly better conditions and with the Single Fin and Grandmasters quarter finals done, we were in to the sharp end of competition.
In the U16 Cadets a good turnout saw a couple of great semi’s result in Kaz Phillips providing the only male representation in the final and, despite some great footwork from the ladies, it was an early zinger from Kaz that sealed the win over Sylvie Puddiphatt, Mali Harbour and Lola Bleakley. It’s great to see the juniors competing on such an equal footing, though.
The Masters final was another close affair, this time between Sam Bleakley and dark horse Chris Webb. The difference at the end probably came down more to the vagaries of wave selection and possibly Sam’s ability to look smoother than a greased otter in pretty much any conditions. Good showing from Alan Reed for 3rd place.
In the Women’s Open it was all about the British Teammates Emily Currie and Beth Leighfield. With Emily defending her BLU title and Beth having pulled a stealth mission up to Saunton to get a cheeky bit of training in a week earlier at a Hotdoggers contest, it was anyone’s game. In the end, Emily linked sections and squeezed waves just that little bit harder to take the victory.
The Grandmasters was another interesting affair, Chris Webb’s victory leaves the title wide open for the final event and must have 2nd and 3rd place finishers Alan Reed and Adam Chell looking over their shoulders with a tad less certainty than before the weekend. Great to see Jim ‘Shed Shapes’ Mew making the final. Son Joel must have got some gentle paternal leg-pulling on the drive home to the IOW – ‘you might want to try surfing a bit more like your dad’ etc.
Another great final for the U18 Boys, with pals Arthur Randell and Blake Jones once again tussling over the number-one spot despite the efforts of Seth Reed and newcomer Reggie Roynon. Given that Arthur had surfed more heats across more divisions than anyone else over the weekend, would he have overstretched himself? It would appear not, and it was actually Blake looking wobbly on his feet by the end of the day. Arthur has been put forward as a replacement mascot for Duracell as a result. A win each for these two frothers leaves it all to play for on the final stop.
The U18 Girls next, and (sadly) the only straight final. A massive positive was our first-ever Danish entry in the form of Freja Pettersson Kristensen! When I teasingly apologised for the horrendous windy conditions, she gave me the full Scandi noir look and replied ‘Windy? Ha! You should try surfing in Denmark’. It appears that surfing in less-than-perfect conditions at home came in quite handy for Saunton as she slipped past Sylvie and Lola to take second place, a feat only slightly eclipsed by Mali Harbour taking her first – and well-deserved – win in the division. Huge welcome as well to Lily Williams who already seems to be an integral member of the mildly terrifying teenage girl grom gang. Great final and new friendships blooming.
Another very open division is the Men’s…ummm…Open. That doesn’t scan very well, does it? Anyway, with no real frontrunner and a number of surfers still numerically able to win the division at Fistral, it was a really interesting battle between 4 surfers who have represented their country (at least) in international competition. In a close match, it was South Devon’s Ben Howey who took the win over Arthur Randell, Evan Rogers and Ashley Braunton. With an almost eldritch ability to find the wheat amongst the chaff (there’s some high grade ‘O’ Level English prose for you and no mistake), Howey showed once again the buttery smooth turns and footwork that make clumpy-footed swamp donkeys like myself sigh in resignation at the ability of some people to make it look SOOOOO easy. Thankfully he’s got less hair than I have, or he’d be insufferable. Great surfing across the board, and delighted to see Ashley make the final at his home break in spite of the waves doing their very best to avoid him.
The Women’s Over-35s was a straight up North Devon vs Newquay affair which finished with a great win for Jen Pen over Claire Smail, Tina Beresford and Ingrid Morrison, who seemed to enjoy her first appearance in the final. For a ‘test’ division we’re doing pretty flippin’ well so far, these are all canny competitors who can put on a show with the best of them. Lovely to see the return of Vicky Burley and ‘new kid on the BLU block’ Jo Decrind.
Last but not least, the Single Fin. As previously noted, the big boards had a definite advantage in the conditions, as evidenced by the higher average heat scores and the fact that 5 of the top 10 scores of the day came from this one division. With Ben Howey, Sam Bleakley, Tom Fisher and Louis Thomas-Hudson making up the finalists, this was never going to be a slow final despite the reduced heat lengths (that evil afternoon glare, once again). Louis got off to a flying start before being overhauled by the others. It looked super close until Ben Howey took off on an innocuous-looking right-hander that ran pretty much to the beach and claimed his second division win of the weekend. To say he made the most off it would be an understatement, the noserides were sublime and numerous, the whole ‘style, grace and flow’ mantra was met in spades and, with an excellent ride score, that was pretty much that. Sam Bleakley’s 2nd place keeps him in pole position for the Single Fin title, but by my reckoning there’s still at least 10 surfers able to take the whole shooting match with a win in Newquay. Blimey, it’s going to be a cracker.
In summary, it was great to be back at Saunton Sands even if the surf wasn’t the top notch logging wave we’ve come to expect, brilliant surfing all round given the conditions and only one surfer was heard swearing a blood oath to destroy the beach, the waves and the whole of North Devon so we did pretty well really. The judges did an awesome job given short notice staffing issues (seriously kids, if you want to travel the World as part of the surfing circus give judging a go, there’s a major lack of people doing it and you get treated almost like a human being at times), Mike the Beach Marshall marshalled the beach like a pro and the Media Team didn’t get arrested and actually produced some great stuff, with the final video edit hitting the streets within the next few hours.
Huge gratitude as always to our sponsors, without whom I wouldn’t need to write these contest reports. Thanks to our primary event sponsor, Saunton Sands Hotel for their support and providing a rather attractive backdrop for many of the photos taken across the weekend, The Thatch at Croyde for their support and for feeding everyone on Saturday night and Saunton Break Café for making sure the staff and judges were fed to a level that prevented any diva outbursts during competition.
This year we are especially grateful to welcome Tour Sponsors Lisarb Energy, CTC Waste, Ocean & Earth, 10 Over Surf and Media Partner Longboarder Magazine. Your support is genuinely valued and we thank you for helping to keep the longboard scene in its current vibrant state.
1. Ben Howey
2. Arthur Randell
3. Evan Rogers
4. Ashley Braunton
1. Emily Currie
2. Beth Leighfield
3. Lola Bleakley
4. Jennifer Pendlebury
1. Ben Howey
2. Sam Bleakley
3. Tom Fisher
4 Louis Thomas-Hudson
Women’s Over 35s
2.Freja Pettersson Kristensen