[This article originally appeared in Volume 254. Subscibe to Wavelength now to never miss an issue.]
I grasped the rope tightly as my feet performed a small involuntary tap shuffle on the steep, muddy path. In the bay below, a solid A-frame detonated on a sharp finger of reef. A little way in front of me, Nathan looked much more nonchalant, with a large gun tucked under his arm and his feet firmly planted as he paused to watch the set. As he gazed out, it struck me that by his usual standards, neither this trek or the waves breaking at the foot of the cliff were particularly perilous.
For the last 25 years Nathan Carter has spent much of his time exploring the miles of rugged empty coastline that stretches out in both directions from his home in North Cornwall. In particular, he’s hunting for bombies and slabs, but anything empty will generally do. Upon making a discovery, he sets out learning everything there is to know about its bathymetry and dynamics, selecting his craft accordingly from an extensive quiver of longboards, asymmetrical and bonzers. The gun currently tucked under his arm was shaped specifically for one of his most treasured discoveries, but today will simply serve as a means of getting in as early as possible.
A few miles away, fifty surfers jostle for position on a wind affected point. “These waves might not be the best ever,” Nathan tells me as he points out the options in the bay, “but it’s guaranteed fun, and it’s empty”. We finish our descent down a final length of rope, apparently installed by fishermen some years earlier, and Nathan wastes no time in getting out there.
Later, with a few bombs under his belt and the light fading from the sky, I sit down with him to find out more about what motivates his pursuit.
What is it specifically that attracts you to finding big remote bombies?
It’s a combination of things that attracts me to these spots. I love the challenge that the spots bring in terms of riding them, the dynamic of the waves and the equipment I use, but the fact that they are well off the beaten track and require serious effort to get to is something that I’ve always been attracted to.
It’s a decent drive and a long walk just to check if most of the spots are even breaking and the remote locations mean that you are alone in a fairly wild area most of the time, which is something I really enjoy. Camping and open fire cooking are real passions of mine and it takes so much effort to get to these waves that I often arrive the night before a swell and set up a basic camp. Even if I wake up to disappointment surf wise, I have still enjoyed an evening under the stars.
How do you find them? Is it a case of walking the coastline? or do you use google maps, nautical charts or other resources?
It definitely started with walking and exploring. As soon as I was old enough I’d drive the coastal roads and look for places to park up and trek the coast path. We are really fortunate in Bude that to the North and South we have extensive stretches of coastline that are fairly remote and inaccessible. It just so happens that both stretches have a few hidden gems that lie dormant most of the time, but come alive when there is a decent swell. The Bude area has a few pretty high profile, high quality surf spots that have very good waves on their day. I learned that sacrificing a few days when these spots are pumping and heading off exploring really paid dividends and I could scope out an area under prime conditions.
Every so often I would find somewhere with a bit of potential. More recently Google Earth has been amazing for identifying potential locations and in particular looking for pieces of coastline that look similar to spots I already know break well, but maybe have a broader swell window. It didn’t take long until I worked out that a certain blend of reef shape, location, offshore topography and angle actually magnify the approaching swells into waves that are bigger than the majority of spots on the coastline. The classic, high profile example of this is The Cribbar in Newquay. I can assure you it’s not the only option on the North Coast though!
So you’re really into longboarding and surfing big heavy waves, does that pretty much sum up your surfing experience or have you explored other areas?
That’s a pretty good summary! I had a bit of a dabble with tow surfing for a while. Glyn Ovens and myself dedicated a fair amount of time to a particularly interesting slab near to home but the logistics were just so difficult due to a lack of low tide launch spots and the general upkeep of PWC, combined with the wave being a really grumpy bitch. While Glyn headed off to tow surf, SUP and foilboard Nazaré with the other crazy hell men, I got a couple of big boards and dedicated myself to the pursuit I really love, paddling into waves at spots that have somehow remained a bit under the radar. Longboarding has been something I have enjoyed since I was a kid.
I love the fact that you can approach it in so many ways with totally different styles. More recently I have met an amazing guy called Tim Stafford who shapes the most insane surfboards and this has really turned me on to riding different sized equipment. Tim makes asymmetric boards with incredible shapes and fin placement and I’ve found that I can step off my longboard to a shorter board and back again really easily which is something I’ve struggled with in the past. Tim also shaped me the beautiful 9’0” unconventionally designed gun I was riding today.
Even though the south west has produced three of the best big wave surfers in the world, it seems like there’s not much of a culture of underground chargers like you find in other places, why do you think that is?
Don’t forget the fourth! Dr Tony Butt is an absolute big wave legend and still charges! He was doing his thing before it was cool and is probably the British big wave surfer with the most giant paddle waves under his belt. But he and the others you make reference to (Andrew Cotton, Tom Lowe and Tom Butler) have ridden the majority of their larger than average waves outside of the south west of England and that is for good reason.
Although we are literally surrounded by world class big wave locales in Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal, most of our surfing is performed in waves of less than consequential size. At face value I think it would be very easy to say that our region just doesn’t get an abundance of large waves with optimum wind conditions and this means a real lack of big waves for surfers to cut their teeth on and get hooked. Compared to the countries I mentioned above this might be true. However, I also have another theory.
Most of the really good waves in our area, I’m talking the ones that are world class on their day, require pretty specific conditions and decent sized swell. This means that when the swell is big the majority of surfers are heading to spots that are absolutely firing, but are actually reducing the size of the ocean swell, due to the waves wrapping into points or protected bays. There is a very famous left hander nearby that is one of the best waves you will surf, but when it’s breaking at just overhead I could give you directions to an exposed right that will be double and sometimes triple the size. You can park your car 50 yards from the left, you have to walk for an hour to even check the right hander and there’s every chance it will be wind affected. Is anybody in their right mind going to risk that?
You usually tackle the spots by yourself, with no water safety, or spotters. Have you had many super heavy experiences? What’s the worst?
I have definitely spent a fair bit of time at the spots without other people there, although I have started taking a friend of mine along recently, just in case.
The worst experience was actually one that made me realise that it’s worth having a mate there. To cut a long story short, it was a combination of overconfidence and inappropriate equipment that resulted in a lost board, a concussion and an hour’s swim to the base of a cliff. I didn’t surf there for a while after that and I actually got hold of a vest before I went back. It’s not one of the inflatable ones like the guys who are surfing the big waves use, but it has a little bit of floatation sewn in which is definitely a confidence boost.
It seems like in the past surfers used to get their flat day endorphins from partying, whereas now there’s a big culture of pretty clean-living guys into more wholesome activities. You’re a personal trainer in an area full of talented surfers, so I guess you’ve seen that shift first hand?
I’m fortunate that my job has always been in the fitness industry and its something I really enjoy. I definitely agree that more surfers are training and taking care of themselves. It always surprised me that surfing had such deep connections with substance abuse and I think it’s great that people are embracing a more wholesome approach.
Why do you think that is? Do you feel like the gym not only prepares you for heavy situations but also keeps endorphins up in between surfs?
I think that the majority of people surf train because it prevents that horrendous feeling of being out of the water for a while and not having the fitness to enjoy the surf when it arrives. For the guys who are surfing a lot I think there is definitely something to be said for dry land training, reducing your risk of injury and improving your longevity.
I’m not sure that my time training keeps my endorphins up but because of the long time between my favourite spots breaking I do like to simulate scenarios in the gym. For example my absolute favourite spot has a ridiculously long paddle, as the only access point is at the other end of the bay from the reef. I often like to lock into a nice long session thinking about how shitty that paddle will feel if I haven’t trained!
Tell me about one of the most memorable days you’ve had surfing around home?
Hands down the first wave I rode at a left hander that only breaks a few times a year due to really specific tide requirements. It was about eight years ago and I had absolutely no idea if the place was rideable or not. I will remember the first drop forever!
Is there much left to discover around here?
100%! I could show you three waves that I have yet to ride but have invested a good amount of time in. I’m hoping to tick at least one off the list this year. In terms of discovery, I am absolutely sure that there are some classics that have either been surfed and forgotten about or have yet to be surfed. From what I can see on Instagram there are a few young guys getting out there and exploring a bit as the popular spots get more and more crowded, which is awesome to see!
Nathan is featured here wearing the Vans Ultra Range & Ultra Range 3D, built with dedicated features to help you Get There, wherever there might be. Find out more at Vans.co.uk or your local Vans retailer.