Words by Luke Gartside
Tales from the World Belly Board Championships, a highlight in Cornwall’s surfing calendar.
I’m in conversation with Nick Holden, contest organiser of the now famous World Belly Board Championships, an event he has helped to run for over ten years. Standing proudly at the helm as it has grown from a small gathering into the south west’s most celebrated alternative sporting spectacle; an all-out bonanza of tea, cake, classic cars and vintage swimwear, centred around the humble art of riding waves on a 4ft wooden plank.
The story of how the event came to be starts with a group of unassuming holidaymakers, who would meet up every year throughout the 90s on the same week in September and go bellyboarding at Chapel Porth beach. They hailed from all corners of the country, but each shared a deep fondness for riding waves, fostered over many decades of trips to the Cornish seaside. Among them was Arthur Traveller, a London-based mechanic, who would travel down each year with his elderly mother. Every day at the crack of dawn, no matter the weather or sea conditions, the group would head for the beach. Upon arrival, Chris Ryan, the Chapel Porth parking attendant – who got to know them well over their many visits – would wave them in and park them up along the wall. Except for Arthur’s car, which Chris would place right at the front, so his mother could observe as the crew strode down to the water’s edge – boards underarms, bare skin bracing against the September chill – and embark on their morning slide.
In 2003, the crew were getting ready to assemble as normal when they learnt the sad news that Arthur had passed away of a heart attack. When they arrived in Cornwall that summer, they decided to hold a memorial belly board competition in his honour. It was just a small affair; the usual holiday gang, a few of the staff from the café on the beach who’d got to know Arthur, plus Martyn ‘Turnip’ Ward, a local lifeguard and Chris, the car parking attendant, who took it upon himself to fashion a few trophies for the occasion.
After attracting a bit of interest from local friends of Chris and Turnip, the event returned the following year. But this time, they decided to change the name from ‘Arthur’s Memorial Hand Board Contest’ to the slightly catchier ‘World Belly Board Championships’. It was tongue in cheek, of course, but they figured if Gloucester could host a world championship in cheese rolling, then why couldn’t they do it for bellyboarding too?
It was during its inaugural year as a bonafide world champs that Nick Holden first found himself at the event, rubbing shoulders with the gang and getting his first taste of bellyboarding culture. It was 2004 and he’d just settled in St Agnes after a few years travelling the world, surfing his way through New Zealand, Australia and Indo. His roots in the sport, however, were decidedly less exotic, having learnt in his early twenties on weekend trips to north Wales from his home in Manchester. Witnessing the unbridled enthusiasm of a wave-riding crew from similarly landlocked locales resonated with him instantly. “Just the way they were when they came back out of the water,” he says of the group, “the pure enjoyment and the thrill they got from it. These were people who were much older than me. But I felt some kind of connection to them.”
While surf culture has slipped into a more fun-centric, ride-what-you-like mould over the last decade or so, back then, that seemed a long way off. In fact, stand-up shredding was in its peak-seriousness phase at the turn of the millennium. It was competitive. High performance. Thrashy. The World Belly Board Champs were the perfect antithesis and accordingly, most of the core badlands surf crew kept well away from the event as it slowly gathered pace over the following years. Instead, the original band were joined by a hodgepodge of holidaymakers, fringe surf enthusiasts and more senior belly board savants (including the local postman, Ben Stockley, who later had the coveted ‘Spirit Of Bellyboarding Award’ created in his honour after he sadly passed away). The judging was generally undertaken by a few ladies from the village, plus whoever they could grab off the beach. “Chris would run up to someone and say ‘Fancy judging a couple of heats for us?’ and thrust a clipboard at them,” remembers Nick. “‘Well what am I looking for?’ they’d ask. ‘Whatever you want’, we’d say!”
By 2008, Nick was working as a ranger for the National Trust, who owned the beach at Chapel Porth, and after a few years lending a hand at the event, he convinced the organisation to throw some of their managerial and promotional might behind it. Soon after, he took up the role of lead organiser, alongside National Trust surf ambassador Robyn Davis. However, according to Nick, it was Chris the parking attendant’s charisma and deep understanding of the event’s original appeal – articulated jovially on the tannoy throughout the day – that was really responsible for the Champs taking off in the years that followed. And take off they did.
By 2011, the event was attended by hundreds, with a collection of marquees, a yurt, a bar and a cinema tent all clamouring for space down in the valley. Of course, this didn’t leave much room for cars, so people would leave them up in the village and get shuttled down the hill in the small parish minibus, spilling out onto the sand upon arrival, regaled in period swimsuits and assorted fancy dress. The press loved the spectacle of it, and Nick remembers corralling an ever-growing throng of journalists from the national media into their own improvised press area. Local businesses were similarly keen to get involved, from big brand backers like the RNLI and Skinners Brewery, who laid on a special beer for the event, to traditional belly board makers, Dick Pearce & Friends, a company established in 1929, who continue to make classic plywood steeds to this day. According to Nick, they were “tickled pink” by the resurgent interest in their ancient craft. “The Pearce family were great supporters of it,” says Nick, “they’d always send me a little note beforehand with a couple of dozen boards to give out to the winners.”
Despite all the developments on land, in the line-up, tradition reigned supreme, with the rules for entry the same as they ever were: No leashes, no fins, no wetsuits and wooden boards only. Nick loved hearing the stories behind each little plywood plank – many as old as the hills – often reclaimed from a relative’s shed or dug from the depths of an attic in honour of the event, still resplendent with original artwork. “That side of things was fascinating,” he says. “You’d get drawings on boards that kids had done when they were eight years old, that were still there 50 years on. When their mum and dad had passed away the board had become something special that they got. They were such treasured possessions within the family.”
Meeting people who’d travelled from far and wide was also a high point for Nick. “We had a long-distance prize,” he explains. “It was our party joke at the awards do. Chris would say, ‘So, anyone here who’s come further than… Mingoose?’ And I’d go ‘No one’s come from further than Mingoose!’ And someone would shout ‘Perranporth!’ And someone would say ‘Hayle!’ And we’d go ‘Hayle! You’ve come all the way from Hayle?’ Someone would say ‘Hampshire’ and we’d go, ‘No! Can’t be true.’ And then there’d always be an Aussie or a Kiwi. There was this guy who came from the British Virgin Islands for about four years in a row, and a lad called Nick who came from New York three times.”
Master shaper and international wooden board aficionado Tom Wegner even turned up one year, after receiving an invite from Cornish bellyboard maestro John Isaac. “Tom was like, ‘Can I stand up?’ I said ‘Nah mate it’s prone.’ He said ‘Well can I wear fins? we said ‘No you can’t wear fins man! Push off the bottom!” In the end, though, they decided to create a special expression session in his honour, designed for alternative board enthusiasts to experiment with an approach that fell outside the original decree.
While any sense of performance was always secondary to the carnival atmosphere, in later years, the event began to draw in a smattering of talented wave riders from different disciplines. Among them was Jack Johns, one of Britain’s finest bodyboarders, who won the Belly Champs in 2010. “Jack was insane,” remembers Nick. “We had the best waves we’d ever had the year he won, and he was just riding it like he would his lid.” He’d kick in early, scoop off the bottom into the pocket, even tucking into little tubes and throwing spray off the lip with a flex of the nose when the occasion called. And what did the older attendees, themselves dedicated to the traditional straight-in-the-white-water approach, reckon to these new-fangled moves? Was there a grand-schism afoot, I ask Nick, as one often finds in wave-riding styles where a new element of performance is suddenly introduced? “Oh no, they loved it,” he laughs. “The older crew would come and stand on the beach and if someone got a wave that really stood out, they would never say ‘Oh that’s not proper bellyboarding,’ they’d go ‘Blimey! Did you see that?’”
There was always a sense of mutual admiration between the generations, of which many were represented. The beauty, of course, was that anyone could be the world champ. Whether you were eight or 80, the crowd would cheer just as loudly. “One year we were doing this massive awards ceremony,” remembers Nick. “Best patina, best swimsuit, best hat, it goes on and on – we had a million trophies. Finally, we came to World Belly Board Champ and we called out his name. And someone said, ‘He’s gone home!’ ‘Where’s he live?’ we shouted back. ‘Mount Hawk!’ they said. ‘Shall I go and get him?’ ‘Yes! Go and get him,’ we said! So someone thumbed through the sheets and got his details. Then, they had to run all the way up the hill because the café phone wasn’t working to give him a ring.”
After a minute, they shouted back down the hill, excitedly alerting the crowd of hundreds gathered for the ceremony that he was coming back. “We had to radio through to the top of the hill – because the road was still closed,” says Nick, “and tell them that the next guy to arrive was the winner, so they should let him through.” After a short wait – palpable tension alleviated at least somewhat by a few pints from the bar and a quick sit down on one of the many deckchairs – a car appeared at the top of the hill, sending the crowd into rapturous applause, as the new belly board world champion descended to his thrown.
The following year was to be Nick’s last as the organiser and the event’s final showing at Chapel Porth. “It’d just outgrown the beach,” he says, “and the Trust pulled the plug to focus their time and resources on core work, protecting places and nature conservation.” He left the event in the safe hands of friend and original organiser, Martyn ‘Turnip’ Ward, who took over the running of things, along with the RNLI, in 2018, moving the Champs up the coast to Perranporth.
Nick reflects on his years at the helm with an affection that swells with each anecdote. Listening to him now, it’s clear the appeal he recognised in bellyboarding the first time he encountered is exactly what’s led it to its growth in popularity in the 20 years since. “Back then, it was completely alienated from mainstream surf culture, but at the same time it’s the essence of it; just riding a wave and getting that fun into your soul,” he says. “I’ve never belly boarded and not come out with a smile on my face.”
Dick Pearce and Friends are makers of wooden belly boards and beach goods. Their new initiative, Surf Wood for Good, offers free wooden belly board rental as a sustainable alternative to cheap polystyrene bodyboards, thousands of which end up broken and discarded on our beaches every year.