Huge southwest swells pound UK shores a few times a year, but lining them up with sailable easterly winds is more of a once in a decade occurrence. Fifteen years after scoring an epic mast high plus port tack session at Bigbury, John Carter rolled the dice on a mission to the famed south Devon spot, hoping for the stars to align once more and score a repeat performance! The lucky crew that scored pick up the tale.
Words Timo Mullen, Jamie Hancock, Dave Ewer, Andy King, Paul Hunt, Ben Page & John Carter. // Photos John Carter
This low pressure system was like the elephant in the room, it just wouldn’t go away! Normally when these sort of weather systems show up they promise the world but quickly disappear. But this system just kept getting better, in fact, I don’t think I have ever seen such a perfect low. Bigbury is a popular windsurfing and surf spot, it picks up loads of SW swell, but in my experience (I lived at Bigbury for a few years) it rarely gets epic as it needs a very specific and elusive combination of wind and swell to fire. In fact the last time it worked perfectly was about 15 years ago!! Myself and JC both use the webcam at Bigbury as our go-to webcam to check for surf on the south coast of England, so we are pretty familiar on what sort of swell works here and the forecast 6-8 feet @ 17 seconds we knew would be epic. Obviously we needed wind too and we were not to be disappointed, this rare low was producing E/NE winds at 20-25 knots which is perfect cross-offshore at Bigbury. We knew the swell was due to hit late and last for two days, but when we pulled up to the beach at about 11 a.m. it was flat, and when I say flat, I mean flat, barely 1 foot! Suddenly our decision was not looking so good, but we knew the swell was coming, we just had to wait! Within two hours the swell really started to pick up and at 2 p.m. I hit the water. My first wave was logo high and just perfect, and within half an hour the swell was pumping – solid mast high and getting bigger!
I was using my Severne Blade 4.7, teamed up with my trusty Severne Mako 91 litre, a perfect combo. for the day. My Mako 91 is such a reliable bit of kit as it is super floaty but works perfectly even when it is hollow and pumping! And it really was pumping, the wind was pretty offshore so it was really difficult to catch waves as the swell had so much energy and speed you really had to work hard as otherwise the waves would just push through and you could get blown out the back, which is why I opted for a slightly bigger board. It was a day for big aerials, the lip just was being held up perfectly to give a very hollow and sucky target that just begged to be hit! Bigbury is a river mouth style break, which means the wave does peel, but as it was so offshore it was actually pretty hard to get some good turns in, but like I said, the aerials were insane!!
I sailed until dark and by the end of the day the swell had fully hit with every set consistently mast high. With the forecast for more wind and waves, we booked a hotel close by so we would be on it the following morning. I went to university in nearby Plymouth, so it was tempting to hit the town for a few beers, but we decided to be sensible and save our energy for the next day and opted instead for a quiet local pub. Well, out of all the beautiful pubs that we could have chosen, we managed to pick the roughest, dingiest pub in England, where the best looking women was a man! Fortunately that would help us stay for just a few beers and home for an early night. The next day at the beach it was still pumping, maybe slightly smaller than the night before, so we knew we had to make the most of a now dying swell, the wind was also pretty light. As it was a Saturday there was a lot of windsurfers and surfers already at the beach. My friend Paul Hunt had been at a big party the night before and fair play had managed to make it to the beach early despite a long drive and by the sounds of things a very heavy night! Unfortunately for Paul he didn’t last longer than 2 waves and after a pretty hungover aerial he twisted his foot badly and suffered a Lisfranc injury, likely putting him out of action for a year!
We sailed all day again in logo to mast high perfect conditions, it was great to see so many old faces from the last great day here 15 years ago, with everyone shocked at how long it has been since that last epic session. Personally I have never had so many good waves in 2 days, it was flawless and even sunny, by 1 p.m. the swell had almost dropped completely with the filling tide, so it even turned out that we were able to make our way home early, keeping wives and family happy. Could this have been the first Motley Crew trip without mishap? Well if you ignore the dodgy pub, missing my mate’s 40th birthday party, and the fact Hunty broke his foot, I guess this did turn out to be a perfect trip!
“ We knew the swell was coming, we just had to wait!.”
As is the way with adult life and parenthood, I was committed to a wedding in Portsmouth on the Saturday. With my fiancé being a bridesmaid I was on a full day of baby duty whilst painfully checking the buoys. I knew around mid-afternoon when the group chat went quiet and there was some solid groundswell showing up on the channel buoys that it could only mean one thing. The positive of being on dad duty was that there was going to be no looming hangover nor an all-nighter at the wedding. I did however have to leave at 4:30 a.m. to make it to Bigbury for sunrise. I saw some images coming through which looked incredible from the day before. So I knew my best chance for the swell would be to arrive at first light. When I rocked up on Sunday morning there were big period sets rolling into the bay with huge plumes of spray in the sun. I rigged a 4.2m and paired it with a floaty Tabou wave board and slowly managed to make it out to the lineup. The wind was in honesty a bit too offshore and it was really hard to catch the right waves. I had to wait closer in to the peak to have any chance of getting on a wave which lead to getting steam rolled occasionally from a big set followed by a big swim. I was pretty exhausted from the 4 hours sleep, long drive and heavy floggings, but it was worth it to catch up with friends and share an incredibly rare day with so many other British windsurfers. The best part about these days is the way it makes me want more. I can’t wait for the next big swell.
“The best part about these days is the way it makes me want more.”
With an epic forecast brewing, I made sure my assistant shop guy went surfing on the Friday, giving me a guilt free trip to the beach Saturday afternoon (around the best state of tide) that I could justify to myself. Looking at the forecast it was looking fairly tame, 5-6 feet on Saturday and increasing 7-11 feet on the Sunday, a nice little warm up ready for some “proper sailing” on Sunday. I sloped off to the beach after a busy spell in the shop and got down around 3:30 p.m. As I drove down towards Bigbury it was clear that the swell had already kicked in a bit more than the 5-6 feet forecast. The car park was packed with vans and the beach was super busy with excitable and some nervous looking windsurfers. I could see Timo and Ben Page pretty far upwind with a couple of other locals scraping to slide in to some sizeable sets. I couldn’t get past my excitable friends in the carpark quick enough, rigged my 5.0 and stuck it on my 89 quad (the one I fell through the deck of after a bail out the first time I used it!). Once on the water it was clear that the majority of the sailors were struggling to get into some waves.
When sailing in such offshore conditions, to catch a wave you either have to wait on the inside, where there’s barely any wind, or you hope to get a gust and plane almost straight upwind on a lump before trying to get down it before the wind blows you out the back of the wave. It’s a bit tricky, but worth the effort if you can snag one. At this stage I was sailing with Timo who was sitting on the inside, taking the sets super late and charging for a bowl ready to rocket air his aerials. Ben Page, who’s just moved to Plymouth, was having what seemed to be the sail of his life, flying down the line hitting sections and going into orbit! Having sailed Bigbury since I was a teenager I was familiar with these rare epic conditions and followed Timo and Ben’s lead and had a few epic hits myself, not that anyone may have seen them! The late afternoon light was slowly fading and I was desperate not to burn out after the first day as we had “Big Sunday” to look forward to. Sunday morning dawned and I checked the webcam before dropping my son Blue off to another beach for him to go SUP surfing before his football match. It looked pretty similar at the beach Sunday morning, with just a few more sailors out, maybe I’d left it a touch late? There was plenty of new faces, Andy King (old Bigbury local), James Cox, fresh from his Gwithian BWA win, Jamie Hancock and about 30 other guys out too. There was some chunky sets rolling through, it was going to be a solid day. I was soon back out on my 5.0 and 89 quad combo and had the luxury of knowing I had a couple of spare 400 cm masts in the back of my shop guy James’s van too. As it happened I had a mast breakage free day. These sort of cross-offshore conditions with mast high plus sets don’t come around that often, but when they do, it doesn’t get much better at Bigbury. You slide into a swell that seems pretty chunky, only to charge down the line at ‘Mach 10’, hanging on for dear life till you can set up for a throwing lip to hit. If the wave and your timing are in tune, then you just get projected up for ever and a day so it seems. The funniest moment on Sunday was sailing around out to catch another set, only to see 3ft of a longboard blowing out to sea; the surfers on the peak were paying their dues. Sailing with your mates at your local beach on the best day of the year still can’t be beaten for me. It’ll give the local Bigbury windsurfers something to chat about for the next few years till the next epic forecast heads our way!
“The surfers on the peak were paying their dues.”
A very long time ago when I was at Plymouth University, Bigbury and Bantham were my ‘local’ windsurf spots. Over that time and a few days since I’ve been lucky to score some great sessions there. It offers a wide variety of conditions on both tacks, but the most elusive score in my opinion is port tack wind with a big south coast swell. I can count on one hand the number of solid wave days I’ve had there with east wind, and maybe just one with waves over logo high. The wind and wave starved summer finally conceded to a stormy autumn and we’d already been spoilt with some solid mast high down-the-line conditions in Cornwall, but something equally intriguing was showing on the forecast radar this time in Devon.
The problem is not only do they put cream on the scone before the jam in Devon, but there’s usually a 50% chance the fickle south swell or east wind forecast will change, leaving you equally disappointed. But on this occasion the stars lined up, for the sailing not the scones! I had planned to sail Bigbury on Saturday, but a morning webcam check showed very little in the way of waves or wind. My patience wore thin and instead I sailed a local spot in Cornwall that offers good jumping in an easterly and ‘proper job’ scones!
It was good, but the large SW swell never really arrived there, so I was surprised and a little frustrated to see how good the conditions had got at Bantham that afternoon. Having missed the Saturday I was determined to get a piece of the action on Sunday morning so the alarm was set for 05:30 a.m. I had my passport ready to cross the county border and I arrived at the beach just before sunrise. My early rise paid off, not only were conditions firing but I blagged a free parking spot, £8 richer…right result. It was low tide but solid mast high sets were pounding into Bantham. I rigged a 4.7m and my Goya custom thruster 92 litre for a little extra float to help get into the waves against the strong offshore wind.
A fair few other sailors were on it early too, and it wasn’t long till there were several of us out in the lineup. The conditions weren’t easy, the wind on the outside of Bantham was really fickle, dropping you off the plane and leaving you pumping with all of your might to get enough speed to catch or avoid the logo to mast high waves. In order to stand a chance of catching the set waves in the very offshore wind you had to get perilously close to the impact zone with sneaker sets poised to take you out if you were unlucky or not paying attention. When you did get on a decent wave and break free of the wind’s updraft you’d have a few moments to enjoy stamping your own marks on the mast high lumps of sculptured water curling their way to shore before you had to consider an exit strategy as the right hander from the river mouth of Bigbury morphed with the Bantham left hander we were riding to set up a do or die end bowl often complicated with a surfer riding towards you!
I had a plan to catch the biggest set wave I could, for my own satisfaction not photo glory. However, as with most of my plans, it went a bit pear shaped. I managed to sneak late into a set only to start my bottom turn and see a throwing lip shutting down in front of me. So I figured I’d ping my kit over and out of the wave before taking a hold down. In reality I just pinged my kit directly into a dropping mast high lip that hit it so hard it sheered the stainless steel fixing on the deck plate, separating rig and board. I’ve seen many a rig lost forever to the sandy depths at Bigbury, so the choice was simple, save the rig and my board could fend for itself. Thankfully for me the tide was pushing and after a 20 minute swim I was reunited with my board for a swift deck plate pit stop before getting back on it. As expected the swell and wind both started to ease, so I packed up and headed home to Cornwall. I felt I probably missed the full brunt of the swell as it arrived on Saturday afternoon, but at least I had a taste of it early Sunday before the epic conditions hibernate for another few years!
“I had a plan to catch the biggest set wave I could.”
Bigbury was a day off disaster for me. I missed the classic day 15 years ago, so was very keen to make up for it. Chris Audsley and I travelled down after a friend’s 40th the night before; I’d got involved with the wrong people and had a major hangover. When we arrived it was firing, huge spray and lining up for miles. I grabbed my 88 stubby and 4.7 Blade and ran down the steps frothing as I watched Timo and Jamie killing it. My day was about to get a whole lot worse!
I scored two waves and was just getting my eye in. The waves had smooth walls and were long peeling lefts, almost perfect it felt like. On my third wave right in front of the river mouth I bottom turned and as I was coming back up the wave a huge gust threw me into the air. I landed really heavily on the tail and felt a snap, it did not feel good. I looked at my foot and it was obviously in a bad way. Timo saw I was in trouble. He is always really good at keeping an eye on people. He has towed me in before and did so again this time. He then rallied the guys on the beach to help me up the steps as I had to be carried. Then he organized me a towel, water and called the ambulance. I was triaged in the end and Audsley drove me to Torquay A&E. After 3 hours waiting around I was diagnosed with a bad sprain and sent on my way. Just over half way home I got a call from the nurse who said there had been a mistake, a doctor had looked at the x-ray and diagnosed an unstable Lisfranc fracture and that I must return to A&E.
That was bad news, I’d never head of a Lisfranc, what a stupid name. I went to A&E in Portsmouth and sure enough it was unstable. I was booked for a CT scan to confirm and decide the next cause of action. That ended up being surgery, 5 months on crutches and a very angry wife. No windsurfing for a year, that sucks. I sit here now in May just about able to walk. The Lisfranc joint turns out to have a silly name but is very important, it supports the arc in your foot. I had hardware put in and then removed 4 months post-surgery. A Lisfranc injury is fairly common in windsurfing it seems, I’ve spoken now to 3 or 4 people who have had similar injuries. My advice is avoid doing it!
“The waves had smooth walls and were long peeling lefts.”