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The Pub Round Table: The Legends & Lore Of Surfing In Porthleven

[We’ve teamed up with korev – a refreshing lager, born in Cornwall, with a deep heritage in surfing – to bring you a brand new series here on Wavelengthmag.com. Over the next few months, we’ll be heading to some of the South West’s most iconic surf towns and sitting down at the local with a few legends of the scene for a chat about the history, the culture and the characters over a couple of cold pints of korev.]

Porthleven holds a unique place in the hearts and minds of south-west based surfers. 

Firstly, because of the almost absurd beauty and charm of the wave’s surroundings. From the colourful fishing boats that trundle through the harbour entrance, to the clock tower that looms high overhead. From the Wrestling Field’s rolling green amphitheatre to the disused engine houses that dot the headland jut beyond, the backdrop is as quintessentially Cornish as you could ever hope for. And secondly (and perhaps most importantly) because of the world-class waves that break there.

See, Levvy is a proper setup, with long and perfectly makeable tubes on its day, a world away from the nobbly fingers of granite and horribly shallow boulders that pass for reefs elsewhere in the region. 

Accordingly, in the 70-odd years since it was first surfed, it’s fostered many high calibre chargers, a dedicated crew of work-a-day devotees and a unique local community of surfers, bodyboarders (and at least one SUPer.)

For this round-table conversation, we assembled a group of characters who span these categories and several chapters of the wave’s history. They are; Dan ‘Mole’ Joel, one of the most technically proficient and hardest charging surfers to ever emerge from the town. He spent the 90s and early naughts cutting his teeth on the reef before casting out into the world to become one of Britain’s foremost big wave surfers in the 2010s. 

Next is Kelvin Batt, noted local raconteur and founder of the legendary Masked Ball, beloved by all for his balls to the wall attitude in and out of the surf. 

Then, Jack Johns, the youngest of the crew, who grew up in nearby Penzance and began bodyboarding the wave in his teens before heading off around the UK and Ireland to pioneer some of the North Atlantic’s heaviest waves. Since his return to the area a few years ago, he’s become one of the best stand-up surfers at the break, particularly on days big enough to scare most away. 

And finally, Bernie Robinson, one of the highly respected original local crew who began surfing the wave in the early 70s. And, at 67, continues to surf the reef on the regular. 

The location of our meet up was the beautiful Mussel Shoal bar and restaurant, perched in the corner of the harbour, looking out towards the iconic clock tower and Atlantic just beyond. With five cold korevs and the smell of squid and chips wafting over from the grill, we kicked off the conversation right back at the beginning. 

(1) From left to right, Kelvin Batt, Dan ‘Mole’ Joel, Jack Johns and Bernie Robinson. (2) The view from the Mussel Shoal out over Porthleven harbour.

KB: Bernie, when did you first surf Porthleven?

BR: in ‘73. We couldn’t surf it before that because we didn’t have leashes. 

LG: And how would you know it was on?

BR: We could see Mounts Bay had waves. 

DJ: When I started Craig Rich used to do the week’s weather on TV and we became sort of amateur meteorologists. 

KB: We had the phone box too that was like the office. 

DJ: Yeh, there was a phone box up the top of the reef that’s not there now. And you’d ring it and hopefully, somebody would be walking past. And quite often whoever answered would say ‘oh no, it’s shit mate, don’t bother’ just to send you off the scent if it was pumping. 

LG: Mole, when did you start surfing?

DJ: When I was probably 10 or 11, I started by watching Bernie actually, Bernie was my inspiration, if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be sat here.

JJ: That’s the same for all of us really…

DJ: Him, Budgie and Milky, they were the best surfers around.

BR: And Gary Rewberry. Budgie and Milky are both fishermen, Milky’s in Hayle now, he’s the best fisherman over there, he was on that documentary the other day. 

JJ: Budgie was terrifying, he terrified the fuck out of me as a bodyboarder and a grom, he would just shout at me. 

DJ: There’s never really been any agro locals at Porthleven, but I think Budgie probably came the closest! He’d give you a death stare if you were stepping out a line. 

JJ: You’re still the enforcer out there!

After honing his skills on the reef at Porthleven, Mole embarked on a lucrative career as a pro surfer throughout the 90s and naughts. Here, he pulls in on a trip to El Salvador, unnumbered by the thick rubber required to score a vision like this at home. Photo Ben Selway // WL Archive

DJ: Yeah right (laughs) I couldn’t enforce anything! 

Anyway, I just used to watch them out there and then go and practise at Pra sands. I  probably started surfing here when I was about 14, with a little gang of us. Kelv didn’t arrive on the scene for another couple of years, but he arrived with a bang…

Back then the normal thing to do was start surfing on the beach breaks, and then when you got to a certain level of competency, come and have a go at the reef. Kelv turns up just before the sixth form and he wasn’t a surfer, he was a footballer from Kent. He was a really nice guy, got on really well with all of us and straight away, he was like right, I’m going to give this surfing thing a crack. He decided he was just going to jump off the pier on an 8-foot day at Levvy…

I remember, it was getting dark and I said Kelv, I don’t know about this mate, you haven’t really surfed before. It’s pretty serious out here. 

KB: I had some Dunlop green flashes which I’d wear as wetsuit boots. And then I had Bernie’s wetsuit which I bought off him for a fiver. He’s 6’4…

JJ: You’re still waiting to grow into it… 

(all laugh)

DJ: We got out there and Kelv paddles into this 8 footer and he doesn’t give a monkeys.  He literally gets stuck in the lip and gets absolutely smashed. I just saw his pair of Dunlops go over the falls and pop up about 20 seconds later. But from right there, he was my best mate. 

Having started in his late teens, what Kelvin lacks in early years experience, he makes up for in audacity. (1) Acid drop off the harbour wall. (2) Taking on a big chunk during a memorable session in Feb 2010. Photo: Adam Ludnow

LG: So you’d been pinned to the reef before you’d even stood up on a wave out there? 

KB: Yep. I learnt on the reef, really badly, just going straight.

LG: What board were you on?

KB: I was on the Zippy Stick! I’d bought it in the village for a tenner. It had one of those elastic leashes that meant it would come back and smack you in the face. It was a big 6’9, 1960s old school single fin. It worked really well because you could get into the waves early and then just go straight because I couldn’t do anything else. We used to leave the boards in the little sheds overlooking the reef.

DJ: There are really nice flats up there now, but they used to be old fisherman’s sheds.

KB: For years it was fine and eventually, after 4 years of just leaving our stuff there, everything got knicked including the Zippy Stick. Years later I was watching BBC Spotlight and they were doing a bit on a surf museum in Newquay and it panned past and it was up on the wall!

(all laugh) 

DJ: Didn’t some fisherman have to retrieve it for you once as well? 

KB: Yeh! I lost it and they found it 6 miles off Lizard Point, way out to sea. And they brought it back in the boat. 

BR: Was it still in one piece?

KB: Yeah! Just floating out there, miles out. 

A solid day at Leven in ’86, from Issue 8 of Wavelength. (1) An empty reels off for a crowd of 3. (2) 1981 European champ Nigel Semmens lays it on rail during the same session. Photos: John Conway // Wavelength Archive

LG: Tell us a bit about when you started then Bernie?

BR: I started surfing in ‘69, started here in 73. I moved to Breage in ‘77 and then I never surfed anywhere else really, just here and Gwenvor.

LG: And it was John Adams and Colin Wilson who first found it and surfed it in the late ‘60s right?

BR: Yea. I was in the same year as Colin at school and I knew him well. He used to surf here a lot, he was a good surfer, much better than me. It was a little sort of secret, it wasn’t widely broadcast, and not many people wanted to come anyway because of the rocks. It still has that reputation now, which is fine! 

JJ: My dad and one of his mates Olly Crocker were divers out of Penzance and John Adams was a bit younger, and he became one of my dad’s best mates. They used to make wetsuits for all the surfers. 

BR: The main thing back then was finding someone to go in with. Although people surfed it, in the middle of winter you could almost guarantee to be on your own, so you used to go to the phone box and try and get someone out of bed, especially if it was big. 

KB: You were always out there on massive days Bernie, taking big drops… 

JJ: Bernie’s got the most unique drop, you can spot it a mile off…

KB: Super late, but makes it every time. It’s legendary….

JJ: Into an elegant bottom turn…

BR: There’s nothing elegant about my surfing! I’m still not a very good surfer.

DJ: Oh come on, if I can still surf like you when I’m 67, I’ll be 100% happy.

Bernie, air-dropping into the Porthleven bowl at 72 years young. Photo The Atlantic Walrus

LG: Here the wave is much more an immovable thing than in some other places with shifting banks. Have you noticed any changes at all to the way it breaks in the time you’ve all been surfing here?

DJ: Nothing’s changed, it’s broken like this since the harbour has been here, which is hundreds of years. Nobody knows what the waves were like before the harbour was built. But since we’ve been surfing, the waves have been exactly the same, no rocks have moved at all. The only difference has been that the crowds have forced people to spread out across the reef. 

LG: I think Steve England told me once he reckons it’s the construction of the harbour cutting off the sand flow that’s allowed Levvy to stay as this sort of perfectly exposed wave-cut platform.

DJ: Steve England, he’s a legend, absolute barrel master. Nobody’s ever got barrelled like him. 

KB: One of those waves down there is actually called Di’s left, because when we were all kids we’d go down there and he’d surf it. Which is quite cool to have a wave named after you. 

DJ: Di was a really good mate of ours, got into surfing just after me. Really nice, talented guy, great on the guitar, great artist, great surfer.

While the main peak is often impossibly crowded, when graced with the right swell, there’s plenty of room to spread out across Levvy’s many peaks and take-off zones, with everything from short intense lefts, to more playful long-running rights on offer. Photo Luke Gartside

KB: We used to jump on my moped, the three of us, from Di’s house before school with no helmets and three surfboards and just go surfing.

DJ: We were 15, so no one could drive yet, but Kelvin bought this motorbike down from Kent, and the only way we could get to Gwithian was for me to get on my BMX and him tow me on a rope. No insurance, no tax, no MOT, underage. I was sitting on a surfboard, with another one under my arm and one hand on the handlebars. It was so dodgy! I remember a guy coming up to us and saying, ‘boys, that’s really dangerous what you’re doing,’ which is what I’d now say to a kid if I saw that and we just said ‘yeah alright mate, we’re going to Gwithian.’ 

KB: We all ended up with mopeds in the end and we’d put the board bags on our backs and they’d fly out behind you like a sail. 

LG: Do you remember your first tube out there?

KB: I’ve got into a few but never got out of any. These two are always in the tube, they just sit in them.

DJ: Oh not anymore! But this man knows the barrel better than anyone.. (pointing at Jack)

Jack Johns sneaking into a sick one last winter. Clip: @robertblackett

BR: The most memorable session of anyone I’ve ever seen out here was this January, you and Doove, it was massive, absolutely massive!

JJ: Almost unsurfable. 

BR: Life-threatening! 

JJ: It was a few days after that really big day. It was closing out the channel. A set broke over the lifeboat station and Markie got engulfed and washed down the steps behind. 

LG: Do you remember surfable days as big as that over the last 50 years Bernie?

BR: I used to go out on quite big days, but that was exceptional. There was the storm where all the trees came down and Mr Fish got it wrong on the tv. It was pure, enormous groundswell. We surfed out in Mounts Bay and that was massive. 

KB: I remember the day the supermarket emptied out into the surf, all the snickers and bottles of vodka.

DJ: (laughs) That was in ‘93 I think… We had massive flash floods in the morning and it washed all the way through the town and I heard on the radio that school was cancelled. We came out and we saw a river running through the supermarket and washing everything off the shelves, and the surf was pumping! And because the village was completely blocked off it was just a handful of locals. We were sitting out there, perfect 6-foot barrels, with goods from the supermarket washing out next to us… Can of coke washing past us, open that, mars bar, open that. It was bizarre! That was a good day.

KB: Me and Di paddled across the football pitch to the surf and the goalposts were only just sticking out the water. The flood was massive. Just torrents of water. 

DJ: The woman who owned the supermarket was paddling around the streets outside in a boat, just trying to salvage stuff. 

The great flood of ’93. Photos: Ashley Laity // www.helstonhistory.co.uk

KB: Mole always used to surf it huge by himself didn’t he. You’d look out and be like what the fuck… I know he’s small but…

DJ: You didn’t need to throw that in there! (laughs) I used to surf some big days.  You know you’re young, your fit, you’re at the top of your game you’ll have a go. But I tell you what it is, when you have kids things change, you say hang on, I don’t know if I want to risk myself here. 

KB: Or you get a pub…

JJ: A pub that sells squid and chips.

KB: Yeh, squid and chips twice a day, four pints. Unless your Dave Burr! 

BR: He’s the guy I used to ring to go in if there was no one here. I’d call the bar. 

KB: He had a triple heart bypass and he was in the surf like three days later and then down the pub.

LG: Let’s talk about another perennial fixture of the lineup out there, Pete the SUPer…

KB: Bernie had a word with him the other day…

BR: He was being greedy! I said Pete you’re greedy! He said, ‘no I’m not,’ I said ‘yeh you are.’ I said, ‘there’s only one way of solving this, hands up everyone who thinks Pete is greedy?’ And everyone put their hand up. 

(all laugh) 

KB: A unanimous decision

BR: He paddled out all red-faced and came up to me and said ‘Bernie, you’re a fucking wanker.’ I said I can’t come back from that Pete!

KB: He’s been surfing out there for 20 years, but didn’t used to get many waves before he got his SUP. 

JJ: He was a good surfer, but got bad hips and couldn’t sit on his board. 

DJ: Psycho Pete we used to call him. 

BR: He’s fearless!

DJ: He actually got paid to do an advert once. A TV company came down to Porthleven and said we need some nutter to go and paddle a rowing boat out by the pier for an advert, and obviously when the word nutter was mentioned everyone just said ‘Pete’, he got paid quite a lot of money to paddle out in massive surf…

JJ: Maybe that was the beginning of his paddle days… 

DJ: He got a feel for it. 

LG: At some point, Levy became a favourite with photographers and nowadays there are dozens up on the pier and floating in the channel any time it’s half decent. Can you remember when you first started to notice that? Was it in the early 90s? 

DJ: Well not really I don’t think, back when I was in my sort of prime, I never really got that many good photos of me at Porthleven. But I remember when I got my first photo in Wavelength. I was well chuffed.

KB: We stuck it up on the wall at school!

DJ: It was just a drop, taken by John Conway. Spencer Hargreaves was down, and I remember I was in absolute awe, like oh my god, Spencer Hargreaves is here. Stay calm, stay calm. 

(all laughs)

But I got a couple of drops and pulled into a barrel and got my first ever photo in Wavelength and John Conway wrote a nice little something next to it so I was really chuffed with that. 

KB: He said this is Mole, he’s one to watch, he’s charging. We put it up everywhere, we were like fucking hell, Mole’s got in Wavelength. 

Mole’s first appearance in WL, circa 93.

DJ: There weren’t really many photographers around, whereas nowadays if you get a really good barrel, it’s going to be documented. Which is great, I’m not envious but I kind of wish it was a little bit more like that back then, but I suppose that would have added to the crowds. 

LG: Are there other experiences surfing here that really stick out from that time?

KB: We were so into it, we’d try and surf the moonlight. So we’d put the tent up on the wrestling fields, wait till it was dark and then paddle out. 

DJ: Our mate Beaker was really good at predicting the weather and the swell, because he did a little stint in the navy as a meteorologist, and I remember one night it was dead flat and he said don’t worry guys it’s going to be six foot tomorrow. We said what are you talking about? And he said don’t worry, I know. So we pitched up there. Had a little bonfire, a couple of beers and lo and behold, the next morning it was perfect six-foot glassy barrels just cracking off the reef. Amazing. 

JJ: He’s still up there now and again, predicting it, on his electric bike. He’s been pushed down the reef a bit, but he still surfs. 

A dreamy day at Wrestles. Photo: Luke Gartside

KB: We used to put lights on the end of the pier too, powered by a big gennys, so we could surf at night. It just about worked but it pissed the harbour master off a treat. The first time we tried it was down at Wrestles with a little builders light, it was like having a candle. 

BR: it was big that day too!

KB: 8 of us went out. We couldn’t see anything and we lost Pete Edkins,

DJ: Search and rescue got scrambled…

KB: Apparently the helicopter was a foot off the ground when we called to say don’t worry we found him. They were livid. 

DJ: What it was, everyone came out of the pub pissed up to see all these surfers paddling off into inky blackness. Somebody said, where’s Pete? And everyone started panicking and saying no one can see Pete. And next thing everyone’s on their phones scrambling search and rescue and we heard the next day that it did actually take off before we stood it down. 

KB: We were sat out there saying we’ve really fucked up here. 

BR: Didn’t the light go out? 

KB: To be honest we probably couldn’t even tell. 

JJ: Didn’t you do it last summer?

KB: Yea, It kinda works on the pier though, if you get two big lights. 

LG: I guess if it ever gets too busy and aggro for you, you’ve always got the night.

BR: What I am proud of about this place is that you don’t get localism do you. If this was C–– or some of those other places, you’d get slashed tyres or whatever. But we’ve never had it here because we’re all very welcoming.

JJ: Yeah, but I do wonder whether that’s because we’re locals, there’s definitely a hype around it that it’s quite dog eat dog, and so people get scared to surf it. 

BR: How often do you hear an argument out there, it’s usually people chatting away, always talking to strangers. Where are you from, how’s it going all that…

JJ: Maybe that’s your chilled attitude while you’re out there, you kind of calm the lineup down a bit. 

BR: Yeh, well it’s a nice atmosphere out there and I’m proud of that. 

LG: Any other favourite locals you feel like haven’t got a mention?

JJ: Doova. He’s a kind of under the radar proper core guys. He was out on the big day with me, he loves the big stuff. 

LG: Is that the next thing for you now Jack? Are you just waiting for a day when it’s that size but lined up? Is the goal to surf it as big as possible?

JJ: I just like the energy of the bigger days. I used to get my fix by going to Ireland and now I haven’t done it for so long, Lev is the place I get my fix, I just wait for the bigger days. I’ve kind of go into the bigger wave stuff because it’s not always hollow. You know so the big fat days. 

With the buoys maxing out at 20 feet and the wind swinging offshore for the last hour of light, the 31st Jan revealed the upper size limit of what the reef can hold. Photo: Luke Gartside

LG: On that giant day in January, there were all these bombies breaking out the back of Wrestles. Has anyone had ever had a crack at surfing them? 

JJ: That’s the first time I’ve ever seen those bombies. There’s Welloe Rock, off Rinsey Head that breaks sometimes. But that day was special, a whole load of reefs just opened up out to sea. 

BR: You couldn’t ever get a boat out when it was like that because the blocks are down [in the harbour]. You cant get a boat from here, you’d have to get one from Penzance.

JJ: Yeah, it’s a pretty treacherous, open ocean, wild storm seas. You wouldn’t want to be out there in a boat. I don’t think you realise how big that was, I reckon it was like 25 foot. I think it was half the size when I went out there on the Monday, and when you’re sat out to sea, looking in and there’s white water all the way across the channel, it’s terrifying. I was thinking if my leash snaps, I’m fucked. I’m a goner. There’s no way you’re swimming back in. 

LG: It sounds like it might stay unsurfed at that size for a little while longer then. Thanks for talking to me boys, hopefully catch you out there on a classic day soon.

Cover photo: Greg Martin


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