It's embarrassing enough that Russell Winter has been told to
stand atop an undulating surfboard on a London soundstage in his
wet suit as BBC lackeys hose him down. What's worse is how the
game show's studio audience sniggers while a couple of
blindfolded contestants try to guess--by feel--who he is. "Is it
a seaman?" asks one contestant, groping Winter's rubbery crotch.
"It's a surfer!" says another, patting his butt.
"Ah, is it the Silver Surfer?"
Time runs out without either contestant coming up with the name
of England's greatest surfer, and when they remove their
blindfolds and see his face, they seem equally clueless. "I was a
little disappointed nobody recognized me," Winter later says in
his chirpy Cockney. "I was hoping someone would at least know who
November 12, 2001
Then again, the term British surfer is as oxymoronic as Kauaian
cricketer. "Who'd have thought some London lad could surf?" asks
Winter. "There's no water there." At the country's annual
nationals, swells sometimes don't rise above 18 inches. Instead
of South Pacific sharks, Brits have to contend with North
Atlantic sewage and radioactive waste.
Winter, 25, is the only Englishman ever to compete on the World
Championship Tour (WCT), the sport's highest circuit. He is also
the WCT's only European, a scrappy, streetwise tough bobbing in a
sea of shaggy surfer dudes from Australia, Hawaii and Southern
California. "I have no mentor, no path to follow," he says,
showing rows of tiny teeth that look oddly feral. "I do feel
lonely, but that's the way it goes."
Fellow surfers say Winter is perfectly balanced--chips on both
shoulders. "Russell isn't good at communicating with people,"
says board maker Gary Linden, his former coach. "He comes across
Or is it just distant? The loneliness Winter speaks of has been
compounded by a world-class fear of flying, an estrangement from
his parents and depression over the recent failure of an
eight-year romance. Yet at home in the Cornish town of Newquay,
Winter is as cordial and courteous as a gentleman's gentleman.
"The truth is, I don't mix or mingle with other pros," he says.
"Rather than wait for me to come to them, they should come to
Compact as a bowling ball, the 5'7", 150-pound Winter goes by the
handle the British Bulldog. It's not only for his dogged
determination. "I'm like a gypsy dog," he says, baring his
choppers again. "Small, muscular and hungry."
Winter likes to nip at the big waves with a dynamic style
encompassing speed, fluidity and brash maneuvers. His
slash-and-gouge repertoire ranges from gorkin flips to stale
fish, aerial coups de theatre in which he skyrockets above the
lip, sometimes twisting completely around. "Russell has a unique
approach to riding," Linden says. "He's really flexible and can
put his board on lots of places on the curl."
His form has allowed him to beat five of the top 10 ranked
surfers in individual competitions this season, his best since
joining the WCT four years ago. In July he carved rings around
Mark Occhilupo, the world No. 2 and 1999 world champ, in a
head-to-head at Jeffrey's Bay, off South Africa. "Russell is a
minor character among the superpowers," says Leonard Ingram, a
veteran of the British surf scene. "As an Englishman he
constantly has to prove himself."
Winter has been bulldogging ever since he qualified for elite
status in 1998, after four years in the surfing bushes. Until
this season he did what Englishmen do surpassingly well: come in
gloriously and irretrievably last. Of the 44 pros competing in
'98, he just missed being 45th. Injury cut short that rookie
season. Attempting a late floater on a chunky wave off Western
Australia, Winter lost it at the bottom and hammered his left
knee. He was out for four months with torn ligaments and had to
spend the following year qualifying for the 2000 tour.
He did, only to scrape his ankle on coral during last year's
event in Tahiti. The wound became infected, resulting in blood
poisoning and two weeks in the hospital. "It was quite
life-threatening," recalls Winter, who again would finish 44th.
"Well, not life-threatening, but there was the possibility that
my leg would have to be chopped off. I don't know what I could
have done for a living then. Maybe become a one-legged surfing
coach. Or a porn star."
He's pondering the possibilities while gazing at the Cribber, a
mythic roller at the north end of Fistral Beach in Newquay. Named
for a reef off the Cornish coast, the Cribber can be taller than
a double-decker bus two or three times a year when wind
conditions are perfect and the tide is low. This isn't one of
those times. "When I was nine, I was awed by these waves," says
Winter, who has moved up to the top 30 this year for the first
time, thanks to a couple of ninth-place finishes. "I was a feisty
kid. My aggression came from my parents. Some surfers haven't got
that sort of oomph in 'em."
Winter's father, Mick, misspent his youth as a London Mod.
Wearing Savile Row suits and straddling a Lambretta scooter, he
partied, posed and punched out members of a rival motorcycle
gang, the Rockers. "Dad was a tough lad in his younger days,"
says Winter. "He worked as a porter in the Brentford market and
was sort of a petty villain, what you'd call a gangster type."
Mick's wife, Anita, was pregnant with Dean, the first of their
three sons, when Mick got arrested for burglary, for which he did
two years in jail. "I got married thinking it would keep me out
of prison," he cracks. "I've been married 33 years, which is a
long, long sentence."
By 1990 Mick had had enough of London villainy. One of his
partners in crime got shot dead. "It was either put up or shut
up, and I shut up," Mick says. "I'm basically a coward. I know
when to run."
He and his brood dashed off to the sleepy seaside town of
Newquay, which bills itself as the Surfing Capital of England.
Over the last 11 years Mick has run a clothing store, a cafe, an
Indian take-out, a silk-screen factory, a surf shop.... "Dad came
from London, where he had quite a bit of money, and just went
down, down, down," says Winter. "These days he does a bit of
this, a bit of that. He's in and out. He wheels and deals and
All three Winter brothers learned to surf in Newquay, but
Russell, the baby of the lot, learned best. His parents would
drop whatever they were doing to watch him compete. On at least
one occasion Anita nearly dropped a contest director for being
biased against her son. "Basically," Winter says, "she didn't put
up with any crap."
Russell took after his old man, breaking into shops to steal
booze and cigarettes. "I'd always get caught," he says with a
shrug. "I never got away with anything."
Except blowing off homework, cutting class and skipping school.
"From the age of 12 to 16 I showed up about half the time," says
Russell. "Mom and Dad would say, 'You don't have to go, but you'd
better be surfing, and you'd better make sure you win.'"
Russell did, winning nearly every amateur competition he entered.
He'd ask the headmaster to present the trophies to him at school
assemblies. "My teachers thought I'd never amount to anything,"
he says. "Those trophies were sort of a backstab to all the
people who had doubted me."
At 15 he became the first English surfer to hold three division
titles--cadet, junior and open. His ambitions were already clearly
formed: "Shred waves, get chicks and go on the tour." Ambitions 1
and 3 were no problem. It was number 2 that brought on Russell's
Winter of discontent.
He left school at 16 to seek his surfing fortune and moved in a
year later with an older woman, Jackie. His parents never warmed
to her. In fact, they were downright hostile. There were a couple
of ugly incidents. One ended in a scuffle between Jackie and his
brother Steve, the other with his mother waving a broken bottle
at Jackie. Winter got badly cut while attempting to mediate the
second fracas. You hear the anguish in his voice as he relates
the episode: "It was horrible. I was so angry, I didn't speak to
Mom and Dad for almost five years."
Last year he forgave them. Jackie couldn't, prompting their
breakup. Over the winter Winter began dating Suzie Lean,
granddaughter of Lawrence of Arabia director David Lean. His
folks are smitten with her. "Now my parents and I get on
brilliant," he says. "They've really mellowed."
Winter has too, in a way. He can actually get through plane rides
without turning into a raving loony. Four years ago, on a
connecting flight from London to Rio de Janeiro, where he was
competing, he had a panic attack. "This is it!" he screamed.
"We're going to die! We're going to die!"
At a refueling stop in New York City, airport security would not
allow him to reboard the plane. "I was told the other passengers
were frightened for their lives," Winter says. Since then he has
consulted a hypnotherapist and attended a fear-of-flying course
offered by British Airways.
It's all helped. Today, before entering a plane, Winter pats it
affectionately. After sitting down, he lowers his CD case to his
feet, places his book--which he never reads--into the seat pocket
in front of him and flips through the in-flight magazine, being
careful not to look at the final page. "If I do, the plane will
crash," he says, only half kidding.
This week he flew to Honolulu to prepare for the G-Shock Hawaiian
Pro, the first event in the season-ending Triple Crown. "It's my
time," he said shortly before leaving for Hawaii, showing off
those sharp little teeth again. "World champion would be nice,
but if I can make the top five, which is quite realistic, that
would be a great accomplishment. I'm at the top of my game. I can
give it some stick."
"If my leg was chopped off, I don't know what I could've done
for a living then. Become a one-legged surfing coach. Or a porn