Why the Isle of Wight Surf Club may be the community’s best kept secret
PUBLISHED: 12:37 13 August 2018 | UPDATED: 12:37 13 August 2018
Jason Swain All Rights Reserved
A surf club… on the Isle of Wight? Surely not! 50 years on, Faith Eckersall meets those that say their little island is the surfing community’s best kept secret
It was the year of the Vietnam protests in the USA and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
On the Isle of Wight, however, in 1968, something more positive was taking place – the first annual meeting of the Isle of Wight Surf Club.
According to a local newspaper the club had been formed in 1967 despite its chairman, ‘Mr R Backhouse’, having been rudely told that surfing ‘couldn’t be done’ off the Island. Never mind that no less a waverider than the European Surf Champion and Honorary Club President, Rod Sumpter, had declared Freshwater Bay one of the best point breaks in the British Isles.
The keenness of the island’s burgeoning surfing community to prove the naysayers wrong was demonstrated in club membership, which rose from six in 1967 to an impressive 70 by the time of the first AGM.
And in their golden anniversary year they’re still proving them wrong – travelling to take part in competitions, increasing in numbers and having the last laugh on all those who reckoned the only decent wave in this country was to be found west of Devon.
Club chairman Matthew Harwood, who runs Harwoods Garage, believes the IOW surfing community is so strong because they live on an island. “You end up seeing everybody all the time and if anything happens it reverberates round,” he says. “We rarely get great surf but we actually get the best surf – consistently average – and because of that you’re forcing yourself to surf average waves all the time, even when it’s howling. That’s what bonds us together.”
In 1968 it was much the same. Club records show that 38 members put up £1,000 to buy some boards and 12 members invested £250 in wetsuits. This was vital, says Harwood, because “many of them were quite literally surfing in woolly jumpers back then.”
Eventually, he says, they started fashioning their own wetsuits. Island surfing legend Archie Tricket, who sadly died in 2011, made wetsuits for his entire family, from a kit purchased from the mainland. His daughter, Sarah, believes she may have been the first child to wear a wetsuit on the IOW. “I certainly don’t remember ever seeing another child with one,” she said.
Memories of Archie Tricket and the wooden board he made himself (known affectionately as the QE2) form a huge part of the of club’s history, lovingly documented by artist Paul Blackley and Isle of Wight photographer, Jason Swain on the website wightsurfhistory.co.uk.
This website is the reason the club can be so confident in its heritage as it showcases a comprehensive photographic and memory archive - the Isle of Wight Surf History Project.
The project documents the club’s highs, lows and more hilarious moments, including the heroic club outing to Cornwall at Easter 1967, where the dedicated bunch battled hail, storms, and the ‘antiquated’ Isle of Wight ferry to arrive on the beach at Newquay.
According to Roger Backhouse’s memory on the site: “The thinking was it would be relatively warmer by then and it would be a chance to surf some proper waves. It was the only available time off work so ferries were booked, sleeping bags were bought from the army surplus store and old tents dug out as no one could afford a hotel then or even a guest house, that’s if they would let us in.”
They took ex-hire, single fin boards ranging in size from 9’6” – 10’6” and because Newquay’s Fistral was exposed to the wind they nipped round to nearby Towan beach. However, as they arrived: “A confusion of coastguards, police and council workers descended on us. Were we illegally parked? Were we being invaded? We were told quite forcibly to clear the beach immediately, but why?”
Eventually they learned the terrible news that their Easter trip had coincided with the Torrey Canyon tanker disaster in which a supertanker had run aground off the Scilly Isles and was spilling thousands of gallons of oil into the sea. “It was a long way to come for no waves so perhaps the little old Isle of Wight waves weren’t that bad,” said Backhouse.
Since then the club has grown in size and the surfing community bonded ever more closely, and Matthew Harwood thinks he knows the reason why. “Suddenly there’s a whole generation of us in our thirties where our kids are involved – for the first time in the UK you’re starting to see second and third generation surfers coming through,” he says
There is a strong female element, too, he says, of women surfing together; “They drop the kids at school, get into the sea and then have a coffee,” and the island has produced many fine young surfers at national and international competition level.
The surf club contributes to island life in other ways too, campaigning to save a well-loved surf spot in Freshwater Bay and on environmental issues as part of the Surfers Against Sewage group.
Harwood is one of two local reps for SAS and their proud boast is that they regularly get more people than anywhere else in the UK to attend their beach cleans. “In bad weather you get around 40 people, which is brilliant, but in good weather we’ve had up to 80 people which means we can move a terrific amount of rubbish from the shore,” he says. “There’s so much plastic on the beach sometimes it’s unbelievable.”
Like all surfers, Harwood is reluctant to divulge the island’s best secret surf spot but reckons that Whitecliff Bay is good with a strong storm from the south west; ‘beautiful shaped waves’ and of course, Compton Ledges, because it’s ‘accessible, visible and a beautiful area’.
He believes surfing in the UK will go from strength to strength – it will feature in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – and the Isle of Wight is well-placed to take advantage of that.
It’s not anything those early IOW surfing pioneers could have predicted but their legacy can be seen every day there are waves, as yet another generation takes to the waters at what is probably the UK’s biggest secret surfing spot.