If you're a surfer in the South West, you've probably come across Phil Williams (aka @philboysurf). A perpetual ambassador of stoke, his trademark ear-to-ear grin is a familiar sight from the Wave in Bristol to the deepest depths of Cornwall.
But being a landlocked surfer during a pandemic, many miles from any surfable breaks, Phil has had to adapt to almost an entire year without his beloved sport. Below he talks us through what this has meant and how nature has helped him through a year without waves.
By way of introduction my name is Phil Williams and I live on the outskirts of Bristol in a little town called Nailsea. I turn 60 later this year (that is scary), am a passionate surfer who tries to live life to the full, loves skateboarding, family, faith, photography, and nature. In my 'day job’, I look after the charity Christian Surfers in the UK, and the 10 countries in Europe - from Norway in the North to Portugal in the South - as well as a number of other volunteer director roles.
My traditional life consists of organising and supporting events that are being run in the skateboarding and surfing community; travelling to support other leaders as they further develop their activities, and spending time at the coast (hopefully catching a few waves!) catching up with friends, members, partners, and the surfing tribe.
As with all of us, life changed in a big way for me in March 2020, when lockdown 1.0 was announced. We had just come back from our CS leaders gathering in North Devon and the severity of the pandemic became obvious. Four or five days earlier I had been riding the ‘Bore’ with the ‘muddies’, and taking the threat in our stride, then within days the UK population realised how serious this situation was.
So, what was this surf-loving old grom going to do when so many of the activities that my life was based around were no longer happening? Well, the first thing to take on board was that no matter how disappointed I was, I had my wife, my family (although distanced), faith and my neighbours. I was in a far better place than so many others, so I had time to reset and start investing in my local community.
For the first few months I found myself volunteering virtually full-time as part of the senior leadership team of the Nailsea Covid community group, running the pharmacy home delivery operations, delivering over 5000 prescriptions, and overseeing food bank rota’s as well as other initiatives. This was really key for me, because as well as helping others, it gave me a sense of purpose, which I think we all crave.
But what about surfing? and what about my exercise, how would those needs be met? This is where nature came in. It is amazing when you can no longer travel to other countries or other parts of your own country that you begin to appreciate so much more what is on your doorstep. Local parks, countryside and the Bristol Channel coast at Clevedon, just five miles away, provided a space to stretch, breath and explore.
Whilst surfing was out of bounds due to the distance I had to travel; my local river had some great opportunities. Stand-up paddle boarding brought me close to nature and I was able to clear my head with all the many things that were swirling around.
All our Christian Surfer events had to be re-thought, some cancelled but others re-engineered. A time of creative learning and execution (including a virtual surf competition!) some of which we will take into the future #betternormal.
I have been lucky enough to travel to numerous places as part of my surf expeditions and whilst I am not a great photographer, I love photography and my trusty camera and lenses always come with me (as in fact my tripod does, and much to my family’s amusement, very seldom comes out of its cover!). The beauty and wildlife that surround me on these trips always inspires and revitalises me.
Those that know me also know that community is so important to me, and the neighbours in our local ‘Close’ grew so much closer together during lockdown as we strived to look after each other and support those going through tougher times. ‘The Walnutters’ were formed (we live in Walnut Close) and a year on are still going strong. I think with any lockdown and the additional stress that occurs, it either brings the best out of your local community or, if things are not great with your neighbours, it can make things worse, which is so tough. We are so fortunate that we all get on and look out for each other on a regular basis.
I also get a huge amount of enjoyment wandering on my own into the countryside or by the coast, ‘One man and his camera’, and reflecting on the surroundings. There is beauty all around, we just need to look closely. Heron, robin, and numerous other birds have become my friends, and so fortunate to be able to see Kingfishers even in the middle of urban Bristol.
Getting up early has never been an issue for me and therefore sunrises throughout the seasons at the end of my road, or in my local area, were always going to be an attraction whilst in lockdown. Experimenting with my camera and morning coffee, reflecting, praying, and thinking about my community and how fortunate I was, replaced my many trips abroad.
I began to create a Facebook Live every day, which contained honest reflections, some mad activities, but also contained a positive message, and I was encouraged that many people seemed to be uplifted by the posts and the images that went with it.
This third big lockdown has been much tougher for me. It is often cold and wet, and still no surf, which has been tough - missing some fantastic winter swells! However, the sun still rises, and the sun still sets, and I still have the ability to dress up warm, and set off with my camera, coffee, thoughts, hopes and prayers, to head into the early morning cold. My faith has also been so important to me, and I find I have more time when requests come in to support others.
Do I miss surfing? Of course I do, although I try not to look at the charts when I see a new swell coming, that many of my friends who live at the coast will be enjoying.
So, during this last year, what have I learnt? I have learnt that nature is on my doorstep as well as hundreds of miles away. I began to understand the rhythms of the wildlife in my garden, and I have continued to realise that one day this lockdown will end; the surfing coast will once again be open to me and other inland surfers who have also missed the ocean playground.
I will not forget the places I have been spending time in during this lockdown year, and there are numerous things that I hope I will not take for granted again. Our planet and its nature are so precious, and I hope that all of us who have explored it more during lockdown, will have a better understanding of it, and a passion to look after it once lockdown is over.
No one this time last year would have had any inkling about what was about to happen, but spending time investing in my community, nature, grabbing fresh air when I can, and resetting goals are lessons I will not forget.
Words & Images by Phil Williams