To ride a tidal wave
Swellnet reader Cass Selwood is currently bounding around Europe with his family in tow. The search for waves hasn't been easy - he's been there over summer after all - however his recent adventure was a sure thing as it involved a wave that comes like clockwork. It was the Severn Bore, the real tidal wave that roars, sort of, up the Severn River in south-western England.
This can’t be all there is to it.
Stood up to my waist in the muddy waters of the River Severn in Gloucestershire, England, I’m watching the Bore surge up the river towards me. But the giant balloon of excitement and anticipation that’s built up over the past couple of days is under threat of bursting flaccidly and flying off into a dusty corner of the room with the sound of a wet fart.
The pin comes in the form of an ankle-high ripple bearing down on me from down the Bristol Channel. Even the board I’ve brought with me, on which I’d planned to ride this “breathtaking” tidal phenomenon, won’t be enough to catch what I see now is barely a wrinkle in the river’s surface.
At 14m, the Severn has the world’s second largest tidal range and it doesn’t so much creep up on you, as charge at you head down like the front row of an All-Blacks scrum. Everything in the river gets caught up in it and carried along for the ride - tree trunks, barrels, the odd animal carcass. I had wanted to add myself to that list, but in a more controlled fashion.
Unfortunately it wasn’t going to happen. Not this time, at least. I paddle frantically for the bank, where the wave’s running cleanly along the muddy fringe. If I was a Tommy Mini Surfer TM I’d stand a chance, but as it is, my fin catches in the silt and I’m left floundering as the surge washes under me and past. I struggle to my feet and stumble along behind it in a futile attempt to catch up, but the moment, like the wave, has passed, so I turn for the car park and get off the mud before I’m overtaken by the rest of the tide.
How about we use a stock photo and pretend that's Cass charging the Bore?
The day before, months of half-arsed preparations and outreach to the local bore surfing community looked like it was all going to be for nought. I had arranged to borrow a board for my attempt, but at the last minute it fell through.
Drydocked before I’d even sighted the mighty Severn!
A feverish ring-around of all the surf shops in Somerset (there are more than I expected) uncovered Josh and Ollie at Phrenix Surfboards (link) who, while they didn’t have a suitable board themselves, put me in contact with bore riding veteran and all-round gentleman Stuart Matthews. Stuart is part of a band of bore-riding fanatics, the Muddy Brothers, who have been riding bores in the UK and further afield since the early severn-ties (collective groan) and he gave me some excellent advice on where and how to ride the Bore. This included repeated Yoda-esque reminders not to underestimate the power of the Bore.
“It’s nothing like your average beachbreak,” he stressed. “The Bore has the full force of the tide behind it and the level of the river can rise up to six feet in a matter of minutes.”
Understandably, Matthews wasn’t quite ready to hand over a board to some random Aussie who called him out of the blue, but he was able to put me in contact with someone who might be able to help. Matt Hammersley runs an outdoors shop in the Forest of Deane, about half an hour north of the Severn, close to the border of Wales. I called him - my last hope - but he too was cagey about lending a board to a complete stranger. Fair enough, but I hadn’t come this far just to give up at the final hurdle.
There were two days where tide was going to be big enough to create a surfable bore. As it was, I didn’t get a board for the first and larger of the two. Instead, I went down to the river and watched it, wishing every second that I was in the water. Afterwards, I drove up and visited Matt in his shop, to put a face to a name, hear some of his stories about bore surfing and get some advice on how I should go about ticking this item off my bucket list.
And thank Christ I did. For one, Matt has one of the UK’s most impressive vintage board collections, which we went through with a fine-toothed comb once he realised I was interested. He has some genuinely interesting items in his hoard, including an almost mint Aipa Stinger and a single fin shaped by Al Byrne in the early-70s before he moved to Oz. Had he been there, I’m fairly sure a certain Swellnet editor would have been making a tent in his trousers over those two, let alone the others.
Matt Hammersely with boards that will never ride the Bore.
But I digress…
We chatted for almost two hours, with Matt providing in depth analysis of the river and where the Bore could be best ridden. He even drew me a mudmap - quite literally; if you’ve seen the Severn, you’d know what I’m talking about. Of course I ate the map once I’d memorised it. Bore surfers are just as tight-lipped as their oceanic brethren when it comes to secret spots and I would never be welcomed back if it had been made public.
At the end of our chat, quite unprompted by me, Matt said “You know what? I’ve got my bore riding board here. Why don’t you take that with you and go and catch the beast? Boots, straps for your car? Sure, of course.”
I couldn’t believe a) my luck, and b) his extraordinary generosity. Here’s this bloke, lobbed up on his doorstep - a blow-in with no more than a story and a vague hope in the kindness of strangers - being given everything he could have hoped for and more. All these folk, from the moment I put the tentative feelers out about catching the Bore, have demonstrated a generosity of spirit and trust that is genuinely humbling. I’m an rusted-on old cynic from way back, but I tell you, the generosity I experienced during this escapade has gone a long way to renew my faith that there is still some hope for humanity. Not much, but perhaps just a glimmer.
Anyway, enough gushing. I strapped the board on the roof and headed for home base, ready for an assault on the river, come the morning.
Matt had recommended three spots for me to catch the Bore. With careful planning and if the traffic was kind to us, I’d be able to ride it in all three locations, driving from one to the next at the end of each ride. On the morning, not wanting to risk missing it completely, I decided to only do the first and last.
So there I was, waist-deep in muddy water at the first of these spots, known as Boatyards, which this time turned out to be a complete fizzer. Could this, in fact, be all there is to it? All my hopes now rested on the third site, the location of which is kept tightly under wraps by the Muddy Brothers, who don’t want their favourite bore riding spots turned into the circus often observed at the more popular reaches downstream.
With all this ricocheting around in my skull, we loaded the kids back into the car and raced the tide to a certain laneway where, miles upstream from Boatyards, the Bore would be higher as it was forced to squeeze into a much narrower channel. Some of its power would be lost to friction along the way, but it should still be easily big enough for me to catch.
Matt’s directions were very detailed:
“When you get to the bank you’ll see two willows next to a bush on the opposite bank,” Matt had told me. “Just downstream from the first willow, there’s a stump - Hammo’s Stump they call it.”
This said with a hint of pride - just a hint. Fair call though - who wouldn’t be a little bit stoked to have a surfing landmark named after them?
“Just sit out from the stump and you’ll be in the perfect take-off spot.” he finished.
Except when we got there, all I could see was willows. Bloody willows everywhere! And if there was a stump there, it had been swamped by grass, which in August had been growing unchecked since the beginning of the northern spring.
I quickly ran up the bank a couple of hundred metres, then as many back the other way. Go too far downstream and you’re in someone’s backyard. Upstream it’s just open farmland. This has to be the right spot.
With a couple of choice curses and a shrug, I surrendered to chance, sliding my way down the steep bank and landing flat on my back in mud as thick as any I’ve ever experienced. A quick paddle washed the worst of it off as I made my way to the opposite bank, to a spot that best fit the description of “two willows beside a bush”. I found a branch hanging over the water to anchor myself. As I waited, I noted several logs the size of telegraph poles floating slowly past downstream, to where, somewhere, the Bore rumbled relentlessly towards me.
I didn’t have too long to wait.
The first hint of its imminent arrival was the sudden appearance of a flock of white herons flapping languidly around the nearest bend. Soon afterwards I heard a rushing sound, like the wind had suddenly picked up. Just as Matt had predicted, the Bore arrived with a BANG as it hit a canal floodgate about 100m downstream, then it was right in front of me, walling up across the channel and churning up the bank less than thirty metres away. Now all that was left was to catch the bastard!
Enjoy muddy waters and other copyright infringements as Cass powers upriver
It might just be me, but I don’t actually remember many of the waves I’ve caught in much detail. After almost thirty years of surfing, there are so many (although not nearly as many as I would have liked), that most of them are just memories of rushing adrenaline, wiping salt water out of my eyes and, more often than not, a feeling of disappointment, knowing I could have ridden it much better than I did.
A few, however, stand out clearly in my memory, even decades later. I can, for example, still vividly remember the first wave I ever caught along the open face. It was an inside bank at The Pass and I probably only rode it for 20-30 metres, but I remember each and every one of them like it happened this morning.
I think the Bore will be one of those that I remember for years to come. The first few moments are a bit of a blur, but if I think back, I can recall the whirlwind of conflicting emotions as I turned my back on the wall of water bearing down on me and started paddling. Hope, anxiety, excitement and a hint of fear all competed for supremacy, and it was only once I’d felt the power of the wave lift me, then that unique weightlessness that comes when you catch a wave, that excitement triumphed. I threw a quick shaka towards the opposite bank, where my family stood cheering, then it was all about the ride.
Thankfully, I had a GoPro strapped to my wrist, so instead of having to rely on an increasingly shaky memory, I can now go back and watch the decidedly shaky footage and relive the event ad-nauseam. Once the excitement of actually catching the Bore had subsided a little, I was able to lift the camera and start recording the ride.
Stuart and Matt’s advice, to expect a very different ride than what I was used to from surfing ocean waves, was proven accurate. Apart from the obvious - that it lasted around two minutes and almost three quarters of a mile - the wave itself was unique in my surfing experience. The power driving an ocean wave, be it a reef, beach or point break, waxes and wanes as the bathymetry beneath the surface changes. The surfer adjusts their position on the wave, constantly shifting between glide, drive and stall in an attempt to harness this power most effectively.
The Bore’s energy, however, is constant. It’s powered by the tide and, as such, has an air of inexorability about it. The contours of the riverbed are by no means constant, shifting about seasonally in response to rainfall and tides, but they’re a fair bit more predictable than the sand on an open beach that can be completely altered by a single large swell event from one day to the next. What this translated into, in terms of the ride itself - at least where I ended up catching the Bore - was glide. I shifted my feet up and down a couple of times and managed a gentle turn or two, but for the most part I was pretty much on cruise control.
The tide I caught was, at 9.5 metres, categorised as a two-star bore tide (they go up to five stars), so it didn’t feel like a particularly powerful wave. But in saying that, it didn’t let up either. I knew that I couldn’t let my guard down because there was just so much water behind me, driving me upriver. Like a tsunami, the entire river level behind the Bore rises several metres and over the 30—odd mile course, from the Bristol Channel to the weir at Maismore, it constitutes a mind-boggling volume of water.
So, to cut a long story, well… long, how was it?
If you do a quick scan of the comments sections on many bore surfing clips, you’ll find any number of “real surfers” observing that it’s a boring, fat wave mostly being ridden by middle-aged kooks. And I’m happy that they feel that way. It means that the river is never going to be overtaken by hoards of testosterone-fuelled, self-entitled egomaniacs found at places like the Superbank. Instead, it’ll remain for most people a novelty wave - the preserve of a tight-knit group of die-hards and amiable nutters (and the odd curious interloper) who value the search for peak moments and experiences that take them outside their comfortable, familiar daily routines.
It’s an oft-stated cliche that the best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun. Well on that day, for about 1min 56seconds, I was the best surfer on the river. I was, as it happened, also the only surfer on the river, but one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.