If everybody had an ocean
Across the U.S.A.
Then everybody'd be surfin'
Not so fast, surfer boy. Some countries have oceans and no surfing, and some places—like the Severn River in England, 60-odd miles from the Atlantic—have no ocean and excellent surfing. Three or four days out of the year, that is.
Surfers convene in Gloucester to take advantage of one of Mother Nature's wonders, the Severn Bore, a phenomenon of tides and rivers. The Severn River empties into the funnel-shaped Bristol Channel, and when the tides rise in the spring and fall during the equinoxes, a buildup of water occurs, a quasi-tidal wave that turns back the flow of the river and makes for a three-to-six-foot wave surging inland up the Severn.
O.K., so three feet isn't exactly the Banzai Pipeline, but what the Severn Bore lacks in height it makes up for in duration. When it works perfectly, the Severn Bore is the Endless Wave dreamed of in Beach Boys songs: a wall of water traveling 21 miles upstream. And the bore wave is a tricky wave, turned at a 45-degree angle to the banks; the surfer has to zigzag away from the sides or risk being swept onto the riverbank.
November 17, 1986
"Yes, surfers come from all over the world to try to ride our bore," says Fred Rowbotham, a resident of Stonehouse, a village near the Severn. Rowbotham is an acknowledged expert on the subject and has written a book, The Severn Bore, which is now in its third edition. "Surfing on a river, needless to say, is an entirely different matter than ocean surfing," he says. "The bore gets treacherous in the narrow parts of the river; it becomes a formless surge in the wide parts. Sometimes adverse winds or a lot of rain make the Severn too strong and the bore too weak; it's often disappointing. But some years, ah, it's a sight to behold."
There are about 260 Severn bores a year, some surfable, most not so surfable, and there are some real standouts among the surfable ones. Like the bore of March 21, 1976, which local storytellers recall as being 8-, 9-, 10-feet high and which was accompanied by tales of surfers caught in tree branches, smashed into bridge pylons, swept away and nearly drowned in the debris-filled wake of the bore. Roger Jayne of Minsterworth, who likes to take on the bore in his 16-foot speedboat, watched that bore sweep by his cottage at a crest of eight feet. "It washed over the banks and took up residence in my basement," he said. "It would have been dangerous to do anything but get out of its way." Indeed, local bore calculators figure that the '76 bore was the biggest in 400 years, benefiting not only from the Jupiter effect (when the planet Jupiter aligns with the moon, sun and the earth to create an unusually high tide), but also from being driven forward by a force-9 (47-54 mph) gale. When the bore hit the bend at Minsterworth, the wave sloshed some 20 or 30 feet over the banks, depositing one canoeist neatly on his boat rack—on top of his car in a parking lot.
And it's for monster waves on that order that hundreds of hopeful bore watchers line the river when the bore's expected. A four-lane highway crosses the Severn two miles out of Gloucester and when an exceptionally big bore is expected, there's not a place along the roadway to park or stand.
Those unfamiliar with the phenomenon go down to the river itself, spreading out a picnic on the grassy banks. No matter what the surfing is like, the sight of picnickers scurrying for higher ground as the river rises six feet in a matter of seconds is considered by the locals to be a spectacle equal to the bore itself.
March 28, 1986, 10:21 a.m. A group of about 20 surfers gathers at the final bend before the bridges, waiting, as are hundreds of spectators, for the bore. The Severn-Trent Authority, which manages the waterways, has predicted the biggest bore of the year, a 3 on a scale of 4.
It's a bust. Strong rains earlier in the week have ruined the effect. A pair of surfers up from Cornwall, where there is ocean surfing, attempt to ride the shapeless surge but finally surrender, sinking into the frothy mud churned up from the river's bed. As it starts to drizzle, the spectators scatter back to their cars.
March 29, 10:58 a.m. A 2 is predicted and the people of Gloucestershire prove loyal, lining the bridges again. "Everyone knows the bore after the 'big' bore is the best," says one camera-laden man.
Sure enough. And what a surreal spectacle it is. Picture the English countryside, complete with rolling green hills, a sleepy river meandering through meadows filled with sheep. Suddenly there's a tremendous rushing sound. Where the river bends there is a Big Sur type of breaker that sends the sheep scrambling, then another breaker, as the water that precedes the bore itself rebounds from the banks of the winding river.
Finally the bore comes into view: a wedge of water, a vast V-shaped swell in the middle of the river with two nicely formed waves on either side. The crowd applauds; the surfers have survived the corner and are up, hanging 10.
Stuart Matthews of Wincanton, Somerset, has a good claim to being King of the Severn. The 36-year-old physical-education teacher has ridden the bore 86 times since the late '60s. On the secret of bore riding he says, "The long-board riders have the edge. The more drag, the more inertia you can get, the better, particularly as the wave fades out in the wide, deep stretches of the Severn.
"The bends are the dangerous part. As the wave swings around a river bend, it picks up speed, and if you're not careful, you can find yourself in a tree, a bank or worse. I surfed beside a guy who fell off his board on a turn and was dashed against some rocks, breaking his leg."
In addition to injuring surfers, the bore has snapped kayaks in two and capsized boats, once drowning two canoeists when their craft, trapped by brush at the edge of the river, wouldn't turn upright. Swimming the bore is sheer folly, as surfers who fall off their boards discover, because the turbulent mud and debris make control impossible. And then there's the landmark everybody has a story about, the Maismore Bridge, which is only about 13 feet above the river under normal conditions. If the river rises, say, eight feet and a surfer is six feet tall, that doesn't leave him any headroom.
But the danger is almost as much a part of the appeal as the idea of staying up on your board for miles and miles. Matthews's personal best is 2.6 miles. Rowbotham estimates a good bore in the most cooperative stretch of the river can yield a ride of four or five continuous miles if the surfer can do it without making a single mistake.
There are two different ways to get a long ride out of the Severn Bore. One is to have an assisting motorboat nearby so that when the bore fades in the wide stretches, the boat can whisk the surfer upstream to meet it again when it reforms. Matthews has ridden the bore this way more than 11 miles and thinks that 12 is likely.
The second way, for the surfer on a budget, is a process known as "chasing the bore," a spectacle in itself. The Severn Bore typically moves at about 11 mph. The idea is to catch the bore near the mouth of the river, ride it until it fades, run to a waiting car, speed to Minsterworth, catch and ride it again until it fades, run back to the car and try to catch it again at Overbridge. Sightseers and veteran bore watchers participate in the race as well, making the narrow country roads and dirt lanes of Gloucestershire seem like a road rally course. This bore-induced grand prix is best observed from a pub near Minsterworth called the Severn Bore, an English country alehouse with the times and dates of all visible bores (some less strong bores only affect the water beneath the surface) posted near the fireplace. "You can tell the bore is acoming on the river," says the barmaid, "when you see that circus pass by out yonder on the road. You never seen such daftness in your life."
And it should be noted that not everyone likes or approves of this daftness. At the Gloucester tourist information office, when a visitor asked for directions to the bridge to see the surfers, he was received coolly. "Oh you're not going to surf on our bore, are you?" asked a motherly woman, a look of polite disappointment on her face. "All that nonsense on the river is so unseemly, not to mention dangerous. The Severn Bore is one of the natural wonders of the world, and all those boats and canoes and surfers ruin the effect of it every year." And she has a point, because too many boats can disrupt the flow of the bore, influencing its effect upstream, and with small bores, spoil them altogether.
But the tradition of bore riding goes on. The thrill of it has so infected Matthews that he has undertaken to surf on one of the best bores in the world, on a tributary of the Yangtze in China. Having received permission from the Chinese government to do so, he plans to make a documentary film of the phenomenon when he finds the funding. And yet the Severn is first in his heart.
"There's something about the Severn that makes it the perfect challenge," he says. "It's almost as if it was a designed course—the bends, the bore constantly changing and of course, the crowds."
Or as one of the intrepid surfers from Devon told an American visitor, "Except for the sun, the beach, the ocean and lots of lovely surfer girls, what's California got that we don't have right here in Gloucester?"
Free-lance writer William Barnhardt rides the waves in Oxford, England.