“We’re in the Shire,” says Kalani Robb to Go Pro founder Nick Woodman, as they rip through one of the world’s most beautiful roads. They’re on the A470, a winding mountain track that makes me almost cry with national pride every time I get to drive it. And now here are some of surfing’s major names, also cruising that road, like I’ve seen them do in surf movies since I was a teenager. This time, though, it’s not some dust track in West Oz, the US-Baja border or Capetown’s Garden Route. This time, they’re in WALES!
“Cymru am byth,” shouts my mate, who’s watching the clip over my shoulder. “This Wavegarden thing is gonna bring Wales to the world!”
It was an amazing moment. Because, until now, we’ve lived in one of the most insignificant countries on the planet as far as surfing goes. And that might be about to change… right?
Wrong. Speak to anyone in the lineups here this week, and the bubble has already burst. The announcement that Red Bull was going to bring 24 of the world’s finest to Surf Snowdonia should have had us all frothing. Big-time pro surfing coming to Wales. Cymru am byth! Alas, the release of the full roster has had everyone reeling–there wasn’t going to be one competitor from Wales.
No, you haven’t heard me wrong. Check the list and you’ll find four Brits: the amazingly talented Alan Stokes, Jayce Robinson, Oli Adams and Reubyn Ash. But these guys are English, from Cornwall, and probably ride waves in Wales not much more often than Kalani Robb does. Hang on, British, right? Isn’t that the same thing? Well, here comes a problem this country of Wales has dealt with for centuries. Wales is not England, and for many in Wales, this isn’t Britain either. Pro surfing fans will be very familiar with the fact that Mundaka is located in the Basque country, an area of Spain that has a strong claim to being an independent nation in its own right. The situation in Wales is similar – in fact, it’s even more clear-cut than the Basque land. Wales is a country, independent of England, but currently held to an ‘Act of Union’ agreement with their bigger louder neighbors, as well as Scotland and Northern Ireland. Together, the four nations make up the UK. A commonly shared sentiment among the three smaller countries, however, is one of being overshadowed by England – which tends to be the most prominent home nation in all matters of sport, business, politics and tourism (they do have London to attract everyone’s attention, after all).
Who remembers that feeling of excitement surfers had when Fanning’s shark encounter went viral? Part of it was because we thought surfing was going to get the world’s attention. We laughed at how it had taken a live incident with a great white to do so, rather than someone getting a ten at Pipe or Chopes. Well, back in July, the surfers of Wales had a similar feeling. Here was our country’s long overdue chance to exist on the world stage. Ok, the quirks of life meant it was going to take an inland lagoon and a spatula-shaken, man-made wave to do it, but now, at last, the surfers of the world were going to know we were here and that our beautiful country had waves! Not so. For better or for worse, it’s been nothing like that so far.
As I write, it seems a PR disaster is brewing over Surf Snowdonia, which Red Bull, in fairness, seem to being doing their utmost to avoid being dragged into. Billabong’s branding for Mundaka events was always covered in Basque colors and images, as has been Rip Curl’s during Bali events (an island which has a very different identity to the rest of Indo). Since it opened, however, Surf Snowdonia has done little of note to promote Wales as a surfing nation. This is despite having received around $6.5m from the country’s government during the development process. Owned by business interests from over the border in England, the company passed the job of covering their opening ceremony over to England-based media organizations, which quickly brought English surfers to the wave (as was their right), and put out brilliant edits of those guys ripping in the gorgeous Welsh hills. Shame they weren’t Welsh, though. Drive three hours to the coast, and you’d have found Alex Morris and Harry Cromwell charging a mysto slab the same day with a similarly incredible backdrop. James Jones, meanwhile, was shredding a two-mile stretch of A-frames just another hour down the winding, breath-taking road. Ironically, I’m sure all three would have still chosen a free go at their nation’s newly created world-famous wave instead… if only someone had asked them.
After an opening ceremony that invited Wales’s political class, surf industry moguls from all over the world and other dignitaries to watch more English surfers demonstrate the wave, Surf Snowdonia seems to have lurched from PR problem to PR problem. First, the wave broke down during one of the country’s holiday weeks, which was when most of the paying Welsh public had been scheduled to get their shot at riding it. And then came the announcement of the international contest apparently meant to showcase how surfing may look as an Olympic sport (minus ladies, for some reason). In the face of huge online criticism over the absence of any Welsh surfers from the lineup for next weekend’s Red Bull Unleashed, Surf Snowdonia actually sent prominent Welsh female surfers’ collective Surf Senioritas a DM saying “if there were female and/or Welsh competitors compatible to compete with the other contestants they would be there.” That incredible statement had BBC Wales’s attention by the end of the day. Yes, at this point, it’s safe to say bridges need building.
Which brings me to the part of this article I am actually looking forward to writing…
Please, please, please, world, can you take notice of the fact that this country does have many surfers “compatible to compete” at all levels, and that Wales is a beautiful place worth admiring for its oceans as well as its newest mountain wave facility? A land of 3 million people, we have a rich language and culture that is Celtic-European, and some of the most incredible coasts you’ll ever see. Wet and green, a mite cold in winter but sometimes balmy in summer, we have an outdoor lifestyle and a sporting tradition steeped in national pride and endeavor. Rugby is the country’s favorite game, and our soccer team looks set to appear on the world stage next June for the first time since 1958, too – while the city of Swansea now has an established Premier League team.
As for its landscape, Wales has a coastal path recently preserved as a heritage site, which means it’s possible to walk the entire shoreline of the country – a feat which would take years, as the coast is often rugged, hilly and wave-battered. There are also mountain ranges and valleys to rival anything you’d find in the Shire. Surf Snowdonia, in fact, is located in one of the most beautiful parts, near Snowdon, the country’s highest peak and in a national park. Most people there speak Welsh as a first language, and the place names will cause you to choke pronouncing them. Not far further north is in fact the town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch – the longest piece of local nomenclature on earth.
As far as surfers go, it’s a very liberal country, with a huge population of female riders (many of whom have been equally baffled by the fact no women have yet appeared in any publicity for the new wave, or on Red Bull’s schedule there). Among the male riders, the name most likely to have been heard outside of these parts is that of Carwyn Williams, World Tour competitor in the eighties and early nineties, as well as star of All Down the Line alongside Tom Carroll and Danny Wills. Usually friendly in the lineup, those local to the south west coast enjoy plenty of swell, which regularly fires at a range of beachies and reef-breaks, while further north and east the waves often tend to wrap around long points, bending back into the prevailing south westerly winds. I won’t go much further, because I’ll let you look us up if you’re interested – something we hoped Surf Snowdonia would have had people doing, if it had made much of a fuss about the fact it was located here. Currently, keep an eye out for Rhys Barfield, James Jones, Harry Cromwell, Alex Morris, Joanne Dennison, Emily Williams and Gwen Spurlock to name but a few. These guys are leading a pack of smiling, proud rippers who are all keen to shred for the rest of their lives, whether it’s in the ocean or a lake in the mountains… as long as they’re deemed “compatible.”
So, if you tune in to Red Bull’s stream later this month, or next time you watch a video of the amazing, world-first wave pool, please know that somewhere behind those hills, along that gorgeous road, is Cymru, the “hen wlad fyn nhaddau” – the old land of my fathers, as our national anthem proclaims. Wales is saying “croeso” to you all, and is looking forward to hearing the world’s reply. Hwyl fawr ffrindiau.