Surfing the Cribbar

Many who lived and surfed in Newquay remember 1966 as the year of “The Great September Swell.” Huge lines stacked up to the horizon from a deep Atlantic hurricane. It was the biggest clean surf many people had ever seen. The long distance ground swell closed out the whole of Newquay Bay at 10 foot. The Cribbar reef, off the end of Towan headland, was breaking at 20 foot.

Australians Pete Russell, Rick Friar and Johnny McElroy, plus the American Jack Lydgate, couldn’t resist the challenge. They paddled out from the lifeboat slip, where raw sewage was gushing out around the headland. They all looked back in disgust as if to say, “What are we doing?” But their attention was totally focused on the long paddle and huge heavy swell. Australian Pete Russell was an outstanding regularfooter already renowned for his love of big waves. “Surfing the Cribbar in ’66 was a highlight that I vividly remember to this very day. Although I have surfed on a lot of big days since back home (in Australia) I have never experienced the adrenaline rush of that day. In the glassy mist of that cliff face it was surreal.”

The Cribbar, Newquay, Cornwall“Jack Lydgate was first out,” says Pete. “He was a superb paddler. But he went too deep in the lull and a sneaker set caught him. I can still picture him paddling under the lip of a huge wall and getting absolutely creamed. His timing was way off but boy did he show some heart.” Jack was cleaned up and left swimming. His board (pre-leash era) thundered in against the rocks and broke in two. He got straight to work on the long swim ashore.

Rick Friar and Johnny McElroy tackled a couple of smaller lefts. Johnny caught a clean inside wave. It walled up for a beautiful long ride. Just before it closed out, Johnny used all his speed to climb the face and throw himself over the lip. He made it, but the board didn’t. By now Pete was way outside. Before anyone realised a giant left hander was being ridden, he was half way down the wave. It was so big everything seemed to move in slow motion. Pete was a mere dot leaving a long snaking white foam trail down the face of a 20 foot wall. He charged right on a few more monsters. On one enormous shoulder Doug Wilson clicked a photo. It looks eerily like Sunset Beach in Hawaii. This type of big wave surfing was totally new to Britain. “Then, of course, I got caught inside and thought I was gone,” says Pete. “Fortunately the wave that smashed me, as I naively tried to bury my head into the massive foam ball while clutching the nose of my 3 stringer, was the last in the set, or I might not have lived to tell the tale.”

All four surfers eventually made it ashore. Iron man Jack, who had learned to surf in Hawaii, gained lasting respect for his gruelling one-hour swim against the rip to reach safety. He finally clambered up the lifeboat slip at Towan Head, absolutely exhausted, his face etched with relief. Pip Staffieri had been watching the whole show from his van. He scooped out a big ice cream for Jack. “On the house,” said Pip with a wink. Nobody in the enthralled crowd on that headland on that momentous day for surfing in Britain knew that Pip was Britain’s first surfer. Pip kept his secret to himself and handed ‘Mahogany’ Jack the ice cream, beaming with pride.