Our First Session series peels back the legend on the first surfers at various famous spots from across the globe. We’ve already covered Teahupoo, Waimea, Anchor Point, Cloudbreak, Bali, J-Bay, Puerto Escondido, Mundaka, Hossegor, Jaws, Byron Bay, Huntington Beach, Germany, Tofino, Chicama, Malibu, Maldives, Bells Beach, Thurso, Skeleton Bay and Punta de Lobos. Let us know in the comments if there is anywhere else you’d like us to shine a spotlight on.
If you’re English, 1966 was a pretty great year. The world cup was won, for the first and only time in England’s history, but if you were among those in the fledgling stages of the UK surfing community, England’s most famous big wave was surfed for the first time not long before.
While English football fans will pray for more success in this winter’s World Cup, we can quietly assume for at least a few times this season that the Cribbar will come alive and provide us with a spectacle. With the autumn season now upon us, it’s time to wind back the clock to the first sessions of the Cribbar and discover the impact little England’s big wave had on UK surfing.
Live cam: Fistral
“Many who lived and surfed in Newquay remember 1966 as the year of ‘The Great September Swell.’ Huge lines stacked up to the horizon from a deep Atlantic hurricane. It was the biggest clean surf many people had ever seen.
In my memory it was monstrous, it was miraculous, it was a wonder of nature.
“The long distance ground swell closed out the whole of Newquay Bay at 10 foot. The Cribbar reef, off the end of Towan headland, was breaking at 20 foot. Australians Pete Russell, Rick Friar and Johnny McElroy, plus the American Jack Lydgate, couldn’t resist the challenge.”
Roger, who still surfs at 70 years-of-age, remembers the very first time he laid eyes on the Cribbar.
“I remember the long walk out of town to the headland. Word had spread through the relatively small and intimate surfing community of that time that some of the good foreign surfers in town were going out to the headland to ride big waves.
“Once, I broke the summit of Towan Head I could see enormous lines of white water rolling in from the open Atlantic. I ran the rest of the way to be in time to see my surfing heroes Pete, Rick, Johnny from Australia; plus Big Jack from USA assemble to enter the ocean on the sheltered side of the headland.
“Then came the paddle out to sea and around the end of the promontory to face the open swells that rolled over the Cribbar reef to break and then roll onto the rocks that fronted the headlands low cliffs.
“As soon as I saw the size of these waves pushing through I was overwhelmed by the spectacle. I didn’t believe people could ever surf in conditions like this. I had not seen pictures or film to show surfing, let alone big-wave surfing! In my memory it was monstrous, it was miraculous, it was a wonder of nature.”
Roger wrote the story of the Cribbar with photos from the day in his book that was published in 2009. This exposed the story to a bigger world for the first time.
“In 1966, I was a boy-surfer, always trying to emulate and even exceed the skills of my elder peers. I was honestly impressed by what they did that day. It was raising the bar of British surfing way above its then established standard. It was the start of UK surfers considering riding bigger waves.
“They all were hyped-up and so glad to be back on shore having survived this challenging experience. Hawaiian Jack swam in having lost his surfboard paddling over a big wave, exhausted and pleased to be alive. I rescued both halves of it from a rock gully in the headland.
“The idea and example of big-wave surfing had been planted in Europe at a point and place in time. But who was to know that? No magazine coverage, no TV coverage, no film made. Just a few photos by Doug Wilson. It really was down to the participants and the observers to spread the story through word-of-mouth.
“With the passage of time, the existence and challenge of The Cribbar has become common knowledge. In the world of big-wave surfing it has become one of Britain’s venues for the task, with frequent sessions over the last twenty years. It remains the European big-wave surf-spot with the longest heritage stretching back to that day in September 1966.
“I love the ocean and I have three wonderful children who love the ocean. One of which, Leon, has ridden the Cribbar at 20ft in more modern times. I watched that too, but with more consequential emotions than in 1966.”
Cover image by Clare James.
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