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Adventures on England's Pirate Coast: Surfing and Paddling Cornwall

Exploring England's Cornish coast where pirates once roamed; today the area's safe for great opportunities to paddle and surf uncrowded waves and beautiful beaches.

On our first full day in Looe, a 12th century fishing village along Cornwall’s southeast coast in England, my cousin Toby suggested we go for a paddle around a nearby island.

It was a perfect day to be on the water and was unusually sunny, warm and glassy. Toby, who is an active volunteer with the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) guided me and my two sons, Israel and Daniel, out on two kayaks, a standup paddleboard (SUP) and a paddleboard.

The waters of Looe River were crystal clear. While passing the Banjo Pier as we paddled out to sea, Toby said, “Sometimes when the tide comes back in and there is a little swell you can surf the SUP in on little river waves that break off the pier.”

The boys and I, along with my father, were in Looe to visit my large group of cousins who live and work there. was English and her elder sister, my Aunt Jackie, moved to Looe from London with my Uncle Ken after WWII.

I spent the summer in Looe when I was 15 in 1979 working at the family sporting goods store, Jack Bray & Sons, for my cousin Zena and her husband Martin Bray, Toby’s parents. I reveled in the ocean lifestyle of Looe where everyone seems to either sail, water-ski, fish or surf.

The most remarkable part for me was listening to the accent of the fishermen in their blue smocks who worked the waters of Looe.

You’ve heard these accents — the "Ar-matey” and "shiver me timbers" of the classic Pirate movies. That accent is essentially a copy of the true Cornish or West Country accent.

I even spent a few days surfing Newquay on the north coast with England’s then national champ Nigel Semmens. Nigel is currently one of Europe’s most well respected shapers through his label NS Surfboards.

There was no better way to reaquaint myself with Looe than paddling around the charming village and its seaside. After crossing the mile-long channel, Toby, the boys and I paddled the tree-lined and rocky island. Great black-backed gulls dive bombed us as we explored sea caves below their cliff-side nesting areas.

Looe Island was first settled by an order of monks sometime around 1139 and was a hideout for smugglers and pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries. Now the island is a nature reserve owned and managed by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and a critical component of the Looe Voluntary Marine Conservation Area.

Fierce-looking and large-snouted grey seals inhabit the waters of the island. The Latin name of Britain’s largest mammal, Halichoerus grypus, means 'hooked-nosed sea-pig'. As we circumnavigated the island, we spotted a seal basking on the surface. It certainly looked fierce, but disappeared as we came closer.

Afterward we headed back to town and up the Looe River. Dividing the once separate towns of West Looe and East Looe, the river is bordered by old shops, fishing boats and timbered docks. 

The tree-lined West Looe branch of the river that we turned is part of the Trenant Wood that is managed by the Woodland Trust. Herons flew away as we silently paddled past. A large school of mullets swam beneath us.

After a mile, we turn around and leisurely paddle downstream back to the Banjo Pier. We stopped on the way to say hello to Toby’s sister Gaby and her two young towhead sons, Jack and Drew, who were playing along the banks. Drew is appropriately dressed like a pirate.

A few days later, the boys and I drove northwest of Looe to Constantine Bay, a broad and open beach that is considered one of Cornwall’s most consistent surf breaks. I surfed there on a visit in 1983, when my brother Nick and I camped in a nearby field and spent a couple of days sampling super fun waves.

After a torturous trip through rolling hills and ancient villages, with one-lane roads bounded by tall hedges, we found Constantine. The tide was low. The water was an emerald green and glassy and there were 3-5’ La Jolla-shore style peaks rolling in on the sandbars.

While the beach was crowded with tourists (the English love their seaside holidays) the lineup was almost empty. The boys and I surfed for a couple of hours and then took a break to eat lunch and wait for the tide to rise.

Due to the extreme tides (tides are extreme in England, with average tide differences over 13 feet), surf conditions in England can change at a moment’s notice.

Sure enough, the west end of the beach that a few hours earlier had been exposed rock was now covered with water. Suddenly out of nowhere, a set broke revealing left point-reef set up that looked good.

The boys and I quickly threw on wetsuits, grabbed our boards and paddled out.

For the next couple of hours, we shared the super fun head-high lefts with a small crew of very friendly locals. The boys exchanged stories with a local grom, while I scratched into a few long lefts. Later I paddled over to the opposite side of the beach that was a high-tide right semi-point.

I caught a variety of lefts and rights, and the semi-point offered up long head-high rights with fast sections perfect for snaps and cutbacks. It was hard to believe I was surfing by myself.

For me, our last surf in England was the most pleasant and unexpected of our surfing adventure in Europe. And as the boys and I headed back to Looe after our all-day session, I realized that the surfing experience we take for granted in Southern California is overrated.

There are thousands of beaches worldwide that offer a surfing experience that is just more than about riding waves. These spots help surfers connect with the spirit of adventure and friendship that is at the core of our sport; due to pollution, overcrowding and coastal development we have largely lost it in Southern California.

So get out and enjoy the waves and surfing experience the world has to offer. You won’t regret it.

Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST and the author of Wild Sea: Eco-Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias.

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