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Perfect waves, and how not to find them.

Perfection is often intrinsically linked to perception. What might be perfect for one might be very much less than ideal for another. In surfing, this can take on another level - perfect conditions for longboarding are often not great for shortboarders, and so on. 
Ambassador Mike Lay is a well travelled surfer, and as such has managed to experience his fair share of perfection. Now, locked down in his home at the western most tip of Cornwall, the hunting of glassy waves is (temporarily) no longer an option.

 

A windswept stretch of Cornish coastline, whitewater beating against the cliffs

'The search for the perfect wave' is a surfing trope that dates back to The Endless Summer and probably before. Since the film's release in 1965, with 'the search for the perfect wave' as its tag line, surfers have been intoxicated by the idea of perfection. It has driven surf exploration, fuelled surf addiction and given rise to the modern day titans of the surfing industry, the surf forecasting websites. While most websites (this one included) strive to create enough quality content (this piece included?) to warrant return visits, the forecasting sites just crunch the numbers, package those numbers in an easily understandable graphic, then wait for the punters to roll in.

If constantly repeating the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of madness then I am most definitely crazy, proving most non-surfers who see me entering British waters in January right ('You must be mad!). Too many times to count I have repeatedly refreshed an unpromising forecast hoping for the variables necessary for perfection to swing a little in that direction. While conditions are notoriously turbulent in Cornwall, it benefits from being a peninsula with a myriad of options for a multitude of different wind directions, tides and swell sizes. In my late teen's I would take full advantage of my home peninsula. Often with 2 or 3 to a vehicle we would chase our Cornish version of perfection around the west of the county.

 

Mike Lay pulling on the Finisterre Nieuwland wetsuit with a smile on his face

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We quickly began to establish the optimal conditions for each spot and would spend the often empty, post-lifeguarding winters surfing as much as we could. The opportunity to ride quality, clean surf everyday was a compelling one compared to the blinkered surfing experience of the pre-car teenager, where the only option other than Sennen was riding the branch line train from St Erth to St Ives when the swell got big. We adopted our new passion with a brash devotion. Arriving at spots at the perfect time and often decamping to another if the light and tide would allow, we were uncompromising in our search for Cornish perfection.

In my early twenties, and after a brief hiatus at University in Liverpool, the search continued whenever I was home and had time on my hands. Then came the unlikely offer of a full time contract from Reef and suddenly my obsessive tendencies were given free rein. And in between international travels, I gorged myself on the freedom to find my daily version of perfect waves. While anything approaching perfection was rarely, if ever, found, it was a driving force for many surf adventures and day trips.

So when the word lockdown suddenly added itself to our lexicon (along with others such as furlough, shielding and epidemiologist), the daily search was suddenly and definitely curtailed. Although the nature of our three lockdowns in the UK have been strikingly different, from the fear and absolute adherence of the first version, through the half-hearted second and now in the muddled third, the freedom to galavant from place to place in search of offshore wind is rightly restricted.

 

Mike Lay makes the most of small crumbly surf on his longboard

Without wanting to get into the politics of surfing during lockdown or becoming bogged down in the blame game, on a personal level it has served to greatly alter my relationship with searching for surf. I am extraordinarily lucky to live within a long walk or very short drive of regular surf. And while I haven't been completely faithful to my most local spot, I have learnt to embrace her many challenging faces. After over a decade of marauding the gnarled Cornish coast in search of clean surf, I was unpractised in the art of all condition surfing. But over the last few months I have certainly learned that there is much to enjoy in the grizzled jostle of imperfection.

While there is an undeniable excitement to the search, there is peace and comfort in the acceptance of conditions. The actual wave riding experience is challenging, from tiny waves to wind ripped, short period swells. But if the waves are rideable there are inevitably moments of success and moments of flow. Amongst all the objectively awful waves I have surfed recently there have always been those moments. It turns out I have unwittingly been training for these surfs since the age of 18. Summer's spent lifeguarding helped to foster a flexibility when it came to acceptance of conditions. While it is often too busy to surf at all, when an opportunity does present itself the eager lifeguard must embrace their 20 minute session, whatever the conditions.

 

The lip of a wave crashes onto Mike but he stays firmly on his feet

My surfing experiences as a whole have been as rewarding as they were before. Less punctuated by successful manoeuvres but soaked in space and awash with the intangible enjoyment that comes with the acceptance of imperfection. Another personal side effect of our enforced confinement has been a more thorough exploration of my immediate surroundings. Instead of spending hours in the car I have spent those hours walking the snaking footpaths around my house. Most every excursion rewarded by the discovery of one of the many neolithic monuments that are scattered across the far west of Cornwall.

I have learnt to enjoy this altered relationship with surfing but hesitate to commit to its continuation beyond the current set of extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps when restrictions are lifted I will hit the road with renewed vigour, with the hunger of a 17 year old behind the wheel of their first hatchback, board stack strapped to the roof. But I hope that a more profound change may have occurred... in the great Tom Curren's latest video offering he says, "I don't really have any sort of searching left to do, I'm old... I could take the search sticker off, it gets boring after a while." Perhaps easy to say when camp is set at an empty Mexican point break, but surfing enjoyment has always been relative. So as my horizons have shrunk, my perception of perfection has certainly expanded, for how long though, who knows...

 

Mike Lay sits on a wall in front of a white lighthouse somewhere in West Cornwall 

Words by Mike Lay
Images by Jack Johns & Nick Pumphrey

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