Is Boardmasters a surfer’s festival?
2017 has been and gone (Two Door Cinema Club, Jamiroquai, Alt J), here’s my rundown for surfers after checking out Boardmasters 2016…
There are loads of surf festivals in Europe. Boardmasters is the biggest by far. But is it really for surfers?
The answer isn’t simple.
What is Boardmasters Festival like?
Boardmasters is really two festivals.
Fistral: The surf bit. Where the action sprawls onto the beach itself. Free-to-watch QS surfing, skate/BMX jams and loads of market stalls. Up to 7 days long, depending on the swell.
Watergate: The proper festival bit. Up on a cliff and surrounded by fields of campers. Music stages, comedy tents, festival food and cider bars all over the place. 4 days, Thursday – Sunday (along with the back end of the surf competition).
There’s no prescriptive format for the music and there’s no classic punter. You’re as likely to find yourself moshing with a bunch of students as you are sharing a sunset view with some local old boys.
Some parts feel soulful and intimate, like The View stage, hidden behind stacks of hay bales. Other parts are brazen and in-your-face; the massive dance tent and the brand experiences like Samsung’s three storey VR cube at Boardmasters 2016.
The upside to such an eclectic mix of stuff is that there’s something for everyone. The downside is that you have to make your own entertainment between islands of things that interest you.
I’m a fan of the music festival at Watergate Bay, but that doesn’t have much to do with my interest in surfing…
I’m a surfer, should Boardmasters be on my calendar?
Boardmasters is a British summer festival, but the best swell comes in winter, so it’s a bit of a balancing act every year.
Deciding how seriously you should take Boardmasters comes down to the type of surfer you are, and what you’re looking for from a weekend away.
Using my “lessons learned” rating system (check out the surfing lessons learned page if you don’t know what I’m talking about):
Mind Surfer (only dreamed of surfing)
Verdict: Like the look of the music line up? Go for it (even if you don’t end up surfing, there’s loads to do).
If you’ve never been surfing, Boardmasters should be on top of your list.
If you’re on the edge, thinking about learning to surf, I can’t think of a better weekend to give you that final push. The vibe hangs off surf and there are loads of surf schools, some even discounted for festival goers.
Lots of people pile down to see Ben Skinner, local longboarding legend. But the QS1000 (Qualifying Series) is in itself a huge deal. These guys are qualifying to take on the world tour; the premier league of surfing.
Learner Surfer (you’ve surfed once or twice)
Verdict: Book your ticket right now.
With the vibes among surfers at the festival, the sheer amount of surf schools and the chance to watch pro surf, you can’t afford to miss out.
Boardmasters is the top surfing event in England. Short of travelling to a WSL Pro Tour leg (our closest is in France), this is the best surfing you’ll ever see. The commentators’ rundowns are blasted out across the beach and you get a chance to grab a word or a photo with the surfers when they finish their heats. There’s no better way to start learning the format of pro surfing.
Scroll down for more info on the competition.
And, aside from seeing world class surfers, you’ll be surrounded by other learner surfers. Half the fun is talking about your first experience, especially with strangers who have shared those first waves.
Intermediate/Advanced Surfer (getting better, getting serious)
Verdict: Head down, but get a plan together.
This is the one case I would advise you to think carefully about this festival. It’s sweet to have an excuse to get your non-surfing mates in the water with you, but if you want to get a decent session in, make sure you consider:
1. The Watergate part of the festival is a classic music festival. You need to make sure you camp near your car (or in your van!). Without your own base there’s nowhere to safely stash your board or hang your wetsuit. Can you imagine taking that precious bundle of fibreglass into the campsites at Reading or Glastonbury? Boardmasters is the same.
2. The volume of people in Newquay makes line ups as much of a nightmare as the parking. There are whole armies in the water and you’ll be competing for your waves with the travelling pros. If you’re planning to surf, think about hopping down to breaks further down the coast.
Thanks to the RNLI guys over the weekend; Senior Lifeguards Mark Oliver, Warren llewellyn, Jason Walsh and Arron Evans. Find out more from the RNLI here.
What competitive surfing actually happens at Boardmasters?
The surf format has seen a lot of changes over the years.
From old schoolers like “Rabbit” Barholomew, Tom Carroll, Tom Curren and teenage Kelly Slater, to modern big league surfers Taj Burrow, Bede Durbidge and Seabass (Sebastian Zietz), Boardmasters has seen some incredible names in the line Fistral line up.
With an on-again, off-again relationship with the ASP in 2014 and 2015 (as it made the transition to the WSL) the competitions have altered over recent years.
As of 2016, Boardmasters is a fully WSL sanctioned event again. That means, with competitors duking it out for precious QS points, the ante has been upped. Coupled with a decent swell, this year brought us some quality surfing.
With the WSL back onboard, we also got all of the awesome digital bits they’ve been working on – live streaming, heat replays, online scoring. You can still check out the highlights and scores from 2016 here.
Ben Skinner, the Boardmasters pin up
Crowd pleaser and media favourite, Skindog has been the crown jewel for several years.
Somewhere between powerhouse and buttery longboarder, the owner/shaper of Skindog Surfboards and all-around lovely bloke has been truly adopted by the Cornish crowd. Locals will swear blind that he’s Cornish born and bred, despite coming from Jersey.
Thanks to Ben, even when the waves have waned, we’ve been hooked. Take a look back at any recent years and you’ll see casual board-walking, airs and impossible longboard cutbacks pasted all over the local media, bearded grin and all.
I care about ocean ecology. Does Boardmasters?
In a word, yes.
There’s no getting away from the fact that festivals have huge impacts on the environment. Boardmasters, with it’s thousands of people, is bound to be leaving it’s mark, but the organisers are making steady progress to a greener event.
2016 was the biggest year for attendance to Boardmasters, reportedly taking numbers over 150,000 for the weekend. With such sheer size, the event team had more of a commitment to the environment than ever.
Several initiatives were in place, from incentivised clean-ups (Shore Dumps) to litter-conscientious art projects. Check out the “Green and Clean” promises from Boardmasters here.
Some people spoke out on social media against the litter following the festival. Although the Boardmasters had done well by deploying their “Green Team”, there remained concerns around the impacts of the festival on local ecology.
So what else is happening?
Surfers Against Sewage out in force - Hugo Tagholm and his team seem to have fingers in every surf pie going, and a damn good job too. They’ve been in partnership with Boardmasters for years, and make no secret of how important that is for them.
If nothing else, the partnership with SAS alone makes Boardmasters worth supporting.
With spots at Watergate and Fistral, they laid on daily beach cleans and a raft of other things to raise money and awareness.
Their teams around the festivals were armed to the eyeballs with facts and figures, getting the crucial word of surf ecology out into the crowds.
Butta representing – how much difference does a change of wax make to the environment?
I’ll come clean. I’ve been using Butta wax for a while. But it wasn’t until I got the chance to sit down with Jim and his team on the Butta bus that I really understood their message.
A lot of the surf waxes available on the market today are pumped full of non-eco friendly ingredients that don’t biodegrade, and most are petrol based. So surfboards are effectively creating mini oil spills every time they hit the water.
Not only are Butta creating 100% eco friendly wax, they’re also supporting SAS with every block they sell. Oh, and a side note, the stuff smells incredible.
So is Boardmasters really for surfers?
Pro surf fans: Boardmasters is one of the few highlights on the national calendar. If you want to see a live surf comp playing out in front of you, it’s a pretty decent option.
Learner/Beginner Surfers: For anyone looking to get into the world of surf I think it’s great. Thousands of people are going through the same experience, with a whole weekend to share wipe-outs and stories with new mates.
Intermediate/Advanced Surfers: This is a bit of a weird one. It’s awesome to get out with your non surfer mates, you can find new gear and catch up with people in the surf world for a few days, but it’s not the best time for a surf mission. The winter swells haven’t quite started coming through, the line ups are rammed and the campsites aren’t set up for post-surf (nowhere safe to dry wetsuits or stash boards).
Most importantly, I hand it to Boardmasters for exposing a huge audience to the sport (and keeping Newquay on the map).
Personally, I loved Boardmasters 2016. I got a couple of sessions in, with some waves even at Fistral, saw a bit of music and caught up with some old friends.
Parts of the music line-up were world-beating, and the festival vibes are up there with the best I’ve ever experienced, so it made for a great weekend.
Boardmasters from my camera
A few of my favourite moments around the festival: