The Storied Life Of Porthleven Pioneer John Adams

Filmmaker, event organiser and Cornish surfing pioneer John Adams sadly passed away last week. Here, we pay tribute to his storied life. 

Originally from Yorkshire, John first landed in Cornwall for a summer job in 1960 and after learning to bodysurf, developed a great affinity for the place and its beaches. 

Having spent much of his youth organising dances and parties, as well as helping out at his mother’s snack bar (where he was tasked with curating the jukebox selection,) John felt destined for a career in hospitality. So, when his family was offered the lease on a Penzance dance hall in ‘62, he leapt at the chance to take it on and move down for good. 

John, captured by Greg Martin for Pitpilot Magazine in 2008

The venue became the Winter Garden and it was there, while chatting to the tanned guitarist of a local band one evening in ‘64, John first learnt of the county’s fledgeling stand up surf culture. The guitarist told John he was a lifeguard at Porthtowan beach, where a small group of surfers with Malibu boards rode on some of the best waves in Cornwall. After a few visits, John decided he wanted in. So, along with his mates Mike Carr, and Tony Hole, he ordered a 9’6 single fin from Freddie Bickers in Newquay (his second choice, after the already popular Bilbo declared it had a three-month waiting list.) That summer, the trio took their new boards down the hill to Sennen Cove and became the first local surfers to paddle out from its sandy shore. 

Over the following year, the boys were joined in the cove by a handful of others, including a professional diver named Olly Crocker who fashioned some early wetsuits for the gang, allowing them to extend their surf season beyond November. Together, they founded the Sennen Surf Club and John became chair. Although it emulated those already in existence elsewhere along the coast, this club did have on major advantage; their own events space. Each year, John would organise an annual dance, with bands and surf film screenings at the Winter Garden, instigating a knees-up that quickly became the focus of the social surfing calendar and forming a precursor to the legendary SAS Ball that followed decades later. Half the takings from each event went straight in the SSC coffers and soon it was the richest surf club in Britain.

Chris Tyler, John Adams, Mike Carr and crew hanging out at Sennen. Photo: Skewjack stories

While the Sennen crew mixed with other surfers from St Ives, Porthtowan and Newquay, they found most of them stuck to their local areas. John and Mike, on the other hand, both had vehicles and used to spend time cruising around, particularly along the south coast, looking for new spots to surf. 

“One day, when there was a good swell [and] we drove Porthleven,” John recounted to Roger Mansfield in the Surfing Tribe. “We were amazed to see incredible waves breaking next to the harbour. We’d never actually seen a reef break, only pictures of them in Surfer Magazine,” he continued. “It was was pretty extreme and we weren’t quite ready to ride it yet, so we kept surfing our usual winter spots, Praa Sands and Porthmeor.”

“All the St Ives boys were anchored to Porthmeor. We told them we’d found this amazing new reef reebok and the Williams brothers started grilling us about where it was, but we wouldn’t tell them. Anyway, after a few weeks we thought we’d better go and surf it before they laid claim to it first.” 

One sunny morning in the spring of ‘65, with 4 foot of swell groomed by light north-easterlies, John and Mike paddled out and became the first surfers to ride the break. Soon after, they relinquished their secret to the St Ives crew, who wasted no time in descending on the small working port.

Queen at Winter Garden in ’74. Photo by Karen Silverlock via Queen In Cornwall book.

Over the course of the following decade, John split the bill at the Winter Garden between surf flicks, like Five Summer Stories and Salt Water Wine and some of the most iconic artists of the day. In ’74, he got a call from a booking agent offering him a little known band called Queen to play as a support act. “I didn’t want them!” he remembered in an interview with The First Wave, “because we’d got a band called Caravan, who were a really good concert band, and I said ‘they don’t need any support.’” However, after learning the Queen drummer was from nearby Truro, John obliged, agreeing to pay them £25 for the show (£5 less than he’d paid for his first surfboard just a decade earlier.) 

By the time the Sex Pistols walked the boards at ‘Wints’ three years later, John had already established a production company called Three S Films and begun making surf films, with his debut flick entitled Tubular Swells released in ‘75 (“a year before Dick Hoole and Jack McCoy nicked my title!” he notes.) He followed it up with 6 more action sports movies, released throughout the late 70s and 80s, including a 16mm hit entitled ‘Taking Off’, which starred Nigel Semmens and Steve Daniel and featured coverage from the first-ever Boardmasters event in ‘81 as well as the European championships in Thurso.

John filming a windsurfing movie for three S films in Lanzarote in 1983. Photo Geoff Tydeman

Throughout the decade, he toured and distributed both his own films and new global releases around the country, packing out venues from Saltburn to Swansea with excitable shredders, frothing to get a glimpse at cutting edge surfing action.

Since John’s death last week, messages of condolence and memories from those legendary film nights have been pouring in on social media from luminaries and the everyman alike.

“As a grom we would always look forward to his summer road shows,” remembers Richard Carter, former British Champ and surf shop owner. “It was the only time you could see how surfing round the world was evolving.”

“The frothing groms of Team Vit Sea, Ocean Magic and Bilbo would all be clamouring for the front row seats to watch the likes of Playgrounds in Paradise,” added Andy Sturt, ex-British team coach.  

“Bringing those massive surf movies to the UK inspired every grom and raised the level of surfing,” summarised former Welsh pro Simon Tucker, expressing a sentiment shared by may. 

Above all, the tributes paint a picture of an ambitious and kind-hearted man, keen to share the stoke with all.

There’s no doubt John’s legacy will live on, both in the fond memories held by his contemporaries and the bourgeoning surf communities at Sennen and Porthleven for which he paved the way.   

Cover photo: @lugarts



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