I pulled my hood up close to my face as we picked our way through the field, heading in the general direction of the sea. It felt like autumn was skulking over the horizon. Cool nights and thickening winds had already prompted the oak trees nearby to prepare for winter, and a few of their leaves edged the track to the beach.
The morning light wrapped everything in fine layer of expectation, and although it was before eight in the morning I was feeling excited, sensing the approaching energy of the first autumn swell. We arrived mud footed at the cliffs edge, and stared at the corrugated surface of the sea. We looked at each other and grinned like fools. After months of cold turkey, we were a pair of addicts were ready for a hit. The swell had arrived, and was hitting south Pembrokeshire better than any other part of the Welsh coast. We were in the right place to meet it head on.
For surfers, the slow fade of one season into the next is often more sharply defined. For us, spring sunshine lights the days, pushing the dark sullen power of winter swells into the back of the mind. Summer teases with fickle surf and warm water. By the end of August, the mind of surfers is drawn to the horizon once again, as the hurricanes most people know only through twenty four hour news segments, send us powerful waves born in the eye of a storm. We look forward to chilly offshore winds giving us goose bumps as we change, ducking through cool water, and consistent, uncrowded waves.
The tide was too high to go surfing straight away, however, so we parked the van in the National Trust car park, and chatted to the warden over a cup of tea as he opened up the booth. We got a few disapproving looks from people in new cars who had come for cliff top walks. They obviously hadn’t expected to see a scruffy man climbing on top of a white van and waving his phone around to try to get signal. I’m not usually bothered about staying connected, but I’d promised a teacher friend Andy that I wouldd call him if the surf was any good. It was nearly the end of another wet summer holiday and school was due to start in a few days so he was keen to get a little trip in before the start of term. I eventually managed to contact him and he was on his way.
After a leisurely breakfast we walked the half a mile back to the cliff top. The tide had dropped, and exposed the folded rocks that claw out into the sands. Sand banks had built up around these rocks and were shaping the swell into breaking waves that steamed in the offshore wind. We watched a couple of sets form up at the far end of the beach, producing hollow lefts and rights that looked a good size even from quite a distance away. We couldn’t believe our luck that there were no other surfers around. We’d not even seen anyone check the beach.
After getting changed and jogging down the cliff path we picked our way through a maze of sandstone and out onto the open beach. I opted to paddle south and wait for a heavy looking left that was breaking in front of some rocks. I waited for about half an hour before a decent set came through, getting a bit frustrated at seeing Si tear into some fun rights at the other end of the beach.
After catching some half hearted waves in the inside, an overhead set rippled the horizon. I paddled out to sea quickly, not wanting to get caught out of position. I checked the shoreline and the rocks to make sure I was in the right place for the peak. I let the first waves go through, then a wide peak appeared, and started to form up. It looked like it would close out right on the rocks, so I paddled to my left and scrambled into the wave. The lip of the wave threw forward and deep into boiling, rocky water. I got to my feet and bottom turned up to the shoulder of the wave. The section in front started to form up into a fifty yard wall, so I cut back down and set up to race along the steepening wave. After three hard turns off the top I was through to the beach and managed to float over the closeout and into the shallows. I flopped off my board and lay smiling in the water for a moment. That was the first proper wave of the new surfing season, better enjoy it.
Si gave me a cheer and immediately started paddling over to the left. We had an hour of waves before the dropping tide started to affect the swell. We had a break and some food on the beach. It was only as we were wading back out into the weakening surf that we remembered that Andy the teacher hadn’t showed up. We could see a few other people on the beach with boards, but they were mostly beginners. We surfed some clean but short waves for the next hour before Andy eventually arrived.
We could tell from his march down to the water that he wasn’t happy. He paddled out and told us that he’d been stuck behind late summer tourists and tractors, had got lost in Haverfordwest looking for a cash machine, and then had gone to the other village with the same name in Pembrokeshire. A two hour journey had taken three and a half. Si and I had already decided not to tell him how good the surf had been. We kept it to “ok’s” and “average”. The next hour was frustrating as the waves closed out on low tide and were fairly unsurfable, though Andy seemed determined to make the most of it and windmilled his way into anything that resembled a wave.
Si and I kept exchanging glances and grins as we walked up the cliff to the car park. Had it really been that good? I’d seen Si pull into a barrel, and I’d had one of my best forehand turns. But we’d managed to keep quiet about it for Andy’s sake, which was no mean feat because every surfer like to have a little brag about getting some into some quality surf.
Andy and Si decided to stay on and wait for the pushing tide, but I had to head back north. I didn’t mind missing the next session because we’d already scored clean, offshore, overhead waves in a beautiful location with no one else out. It was one of those sessions that reminds you why you endure the summers and look forward to autumn.
The next week Hurricane Danielle arrived. Fuelled by the warm gulf stream she made it most of the way across the Atlantic before she waned. The power of the tropical sun had been converted to winds, amplified by low pressure, and delivered to mid Wales in the form of six foot waves with a fifteen second period. You could look out to sea for fifteen minutes and see a flat, sun glistened surface. But then a set would arrive and batter its way along our local reef. I surfed for a total of seven hours that Friday. It wasn’t very big, but it was perfectly fun, giving long rides where you could really let loose with powerful turns.
Sunshine, warm seas, good surf. Autumn rocks. Bring on winter…