With surfing being added to the list of sports at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, now is the time to get surf ready. See how our editor got on tackling the swell with a legendary big wave surfer…
In my late teens, a can of Red Bull was never far from reach. I liked it best with a Marlboro Light or knocked back voraciously with Jägermeister when working behind a bar. The owner was Dutch and practically lived on the stuff – why our tips often came in the form of Jäger-bombs. By my twenties, I had weaned myself off the habit, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t occasionally get tempted. Like at this very moment, when there’s 24 cans of the stuff sat cooling inside my fridge. A gift from a world famous big wave surfer, who just so happens to reside in Braunton. Not the sort of thing you turn down when trying to make new friends in a town known for its surfing…
Six months ago, I decided to make the part-move to North Devon in search of some respite from urban life. Four days of the week, this is where I call home, and it was a coincidence that I found myself at Paddington boarding the Great Western to Penzance for a press trip that was to lead me back to my own front door. Well, almost… The Chalet Saunton was on the market for a cool £1.8 million before the owner thought it was destined for a greater purpose. Retreats.
The one that I experienced was hosted by legendary big wave surfer Andrew Cotton and his personal trainer (who’s something of a legend himself in our neck of the woods), Andrew Blake. Or “Cotty” and “Blakey” as the duo are fondly known.
The fearless surfer initially came to Red Bull’s attention when he towed American surfer Garrett McNamara into the biggest wave ever surfed. Since then he has put Britain on the surfing map, riding big waves all over Europe.
Over the course of 24 hours, I experienced a typical day in the life of a big wave surfer, focussing on the skills and techniques that can be used both in and out of the water. And it all started with learning how to breathe. Yes, even Red Bull sponsored athletes find time to meditate, somewhere between that adrenaline and taurine-induced high. And Cotty practices his meditation under water…
In our interview, he told me that he can hold his breath for 5 – 6 minutes. Those moments, he explained, “can feel like days”, where his mind transcends to a state of complete peace. He told me that it’s “humbling” being in the presence of something that is “so much bigger than us” .”It doesn’t matter how fit you are, you’re never going to beat the ocean. You have to surrender to it. Sit-ups and press-ups won’t prepare you. Meditation will. And when those frightening moments come, you have to accept and yield to it. You can’t fight it. As competitive humans, we always think we can be stronger that it. But there are bigger forces at play. You have to accept your worst nightmare and go with it. There’s nothing more life affirming”.
Far from panicking when being held under, he casually remarked that one time he even caught a fish. While some of his friends pretend they’re in nightclubs… Which makes sense, given that fear and excitement are basically the same thing. It’s all about learning how to turn a potentially toxic emotion into an energy-giving, positive one. And that’s when Cotty needs a boost of Red Bull the most. To provide him with wings, quite literally when he needs them. Why it’s the chosen tonic of super-hero athletes, as opposed to a substance to be abused with shots of Jägermeister.
The first night we dined at Q Bar, though, being a local, I would have suggested Le Bistro de Coin, a family run French bistro to rival Le Gavroche. The Moule Frites are a particular favourite.
The next morning we worked through a dynamic yoga practice with Blakey, as builders at Saunton Sands Hotel drilled busily while we lay in Savasana. I couldn’t help thinking it was in protest to the fitness gathering that rivals it’s own gym and spa complex, launching in September.
After a nutritious self-serve breakfast of berries and granola, we headed out to Braunton Burrows, the largest sand dune system in the country, that serves as a demanding, albeit sandy, outdoor gym. For an hour we worked through rounds of bear crawls, crab walks and bunny hops – all up hill, between sets of plank holds and mountain climbers. All great exercises for building upper body strength that surfers require when paddling out to waves.
Finally for the pièce de résistance… Surfing. 1ft and clean. I approached our lesson cautiously. After a stint in Australia where I was swept out, I lost my nerve and haven’t been back on a board since. But, living here, the activity is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. I soon found that it’s hard to go wrong with beginners boards, or should I say… boats. After a couple of attempts I was back up surfing and met with that all familiar high. It’s safe to say I’ve got the bug again and i’ll be swapping darkened studios for the Atlantic this summer.
As Cotty says, “surfing is the most humbling thing in the world. Yes, it gets you fit but it’s also fun. It’s the greatest gym you could ever ask for.”
As for that create of Red Bull cooling inside my fridge, i’m working my way through slowly and responsibly. Only using my wings when I need them most.
Chalet Saunton’s SurfFit Retreat takes place on Friday 13th – Sunday 15th July and costs from £1,299 per person including two nights’ accommodation, all meals and training, plus surf safari and lesson. £100 of the booking cost will go to charity Surfers Not Street Children. To visit Andrew Cotton’s athlete page click here.