150 Miles For a Wave - By Dan Sharpe
Stepping away from the platform, my first job was to navigate my way through
suburbia to the Cremyll ferry. From there I would leave Plymouth across the
Tamar and begin my hike in Mount Edgecombe Country Park. My goal was to
hike the length of the Cornish Coastal Path, some 300 miles of undulating cliffs
and sandy bays. For the first four days I would travel light, alternating wild
camping and nights in hostels, but upon departing Falmouth I would be
travelling with my surfboard.
Indeed, the main goal of this journey was to find hidden coves and empty waves
in an otherwise crowded part of England, and I conceived that the best way to
achieve this was on foot. Not all would go as smoothly as I hoped however, with
an injured back and stormy weather I was forced to re-evaluate my goals around
half way through the hike. That is for another day however, and here I want to
focus on the 150-mile mission to Sennen Cove.
I breezed through the first four days, covering the 80 miles of coast between
Plymouth and Falmouth in the late spring sunshine. I was not planning on
covering the distance so quickly, especially having 6 weeks to complete the hike,
but motivated by the stunning views and the upcoming weather forecast I knew
if I could get to Falmouth I could ride out the worst of the inbound storm.
Sure enough, I lay up in the town for a number of days as torrential rain and
winds battered the southwest coast, but soon enough I had to take a chance and
push on with my journey. Everything was soaked in the first mile. The rain had
lessened to a steady drizzle but the wind pushing off the sea meant every corner
of my gear was wet. Carrying my surfboard and wetsuit, the weight had
increased massively and it was cumbersome, as I am sure you can imagine. When
the coastal path was conceived I am sure they did not have in mind that people
would be carrying a human-sized bit of foam along it for miles. Every incline,
decline, forest, or gorse bush made it agonisingly slow to travel with my board.
I camped that night in the trees above a small cove near Helford Passage. I set up
my tarp, got inside my bivvy bag and tried to drift off to the sound of the
metronomic raindrops falling overhead. I was cold, tired, and alone, but with the
occasional sound of a distant foghorn out in the Atlantic, I knew I was on a
This near sleepless night took its toll however, and for the next few days I
struggled with morale. The weather improved, although remained changeable,
and my body began to fatigue. My upper back struggled not so much with the
weight, but the uneven load (I can almost hear my parents saying: “I told you
so”), and by the time I got to Lizard Point I knew something had to give. I opted
for the hostel on the point that night, and rising early in an attempt to get some
good miles covered I realised I could not get out of bed. My back was in agony,
every motion or twist sending shooting pains of such intensity that it took every
ounce of discipline not to yell and wake the other hiker in my room.
I waited for him to depart, smiling politely and not letting on to the pain I was in,
then I went about trying to sit up. After an hour or so of slow movements,
stretching, and more willpower than I knew I had, I was on the path again and
I actually surfed that day, much to my amazement, but by the time I had reached
Lands End I had surfed only twice and the journey seemed to be more a mental
test than it was an exercise to find hidden waves. Having lightened my load and
switched to a day-hiking routine, my back had began to recover and I reached my
first reputable surf break with a small swell pushing into the bay.
Sennen Cove is the most westerly surf spot in Cornwall, and as such picks up
every morsel of swell created by those Atlantic storms. Winds hundreds if not
thousands of miles out to sea will create surface chop, or small waves, that
permeate only slightly under the surface of the ocean. The size of these swells
will depend on the strength of the storm, the direction of the wind, and the ocean
conditions at the time. As these chops move away from the storm they
amalgamate, forming waves, that over large distances become more and more
orderly until they eventually meet a landmass that obstructs their progress. As a
surfer, we hope that these waves are big enough, come from the right direction, and coincide with local conditions (tide, wind, sandbars etc.) that we can
eventually catch the wave and ride them. For me, that entire concept is
mesmerising. The fact that this wave you are catching has potentially formed
days in advance, thousands of miles away, is incredible, and its last act is to pick
you up and allow you to surf along its face until all of the energy it has generated
finally dissipates as the wave breaks on whatever point, reef or beach it is you
Looking out to a murky Sennen Cove, the reality did not live up to the fairy-tale.
The waves were small, weak and jumbled up which resulted in a very poor
session. The forecast for the morning was promising however, with crisp
offshore winds and larger waves than those of the evening prior. I hitchhiked
back to my hostel, got some rest, and dreamed of what might be.
I arrived early to an empty beach, the tide just hitting low and the offshore wind
chilling the air. My ride the previous evening had given me a tip-off about a
sandbank that was producing good waves, and as I sat staring out to sea I could
see the bank becoming submerged as the tide began to push. I noticed a
longboarder paddling over from the south, so put on my wetsuit and joined him
in the lineup.
There were no waves for the first 15 minutes, the tide too low to allow the swells
to break over our planned position. Our patience paid off. The first set came
through and it was immediately clear we had scored. There was me, sat with an
extremely proficient longboarder and one other surfer, and as the first wave
peeled right of the bank for some 100-150m we just looked at each other in awe.
Finally, after 150 miles of hiking, I was in the position I had hoped to be. My
excitement got the better of me. I took my first wave and fell immediately, the
cool spring water leaving my feet cumbersome and numb. Then, over the next
two hours the three of us shared some of the best waves I have ever surfed on the Cornish coast. Head high right-hand waves broke tirelessly over this
impressive sandbank and I was thankful when the inrushing tide killed the wave
count; I could barely paddle to shore.
That was what this journey was about. I sat recovering on the rocks, stretching
out my back that was still tight after the exertion, and all of the last two weeks
did not matter. The fatigue, the rain, the forced change of plans had all led to that
session and after two weeks and 150 miles of walking, I had found what I had
come for. You may think it is crazy when you can just hop in a car and drive to
the beach, but the reality was that besides two other self-motivated locals, no
one had. So when people ask if that one session was worth it, well, you already
know my answer.