First Session: History of England’s Big Wave The Cribbar

Tom Vaughan

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Updated 134d ago

Our First Session series peels back the legend on the first surfers at various famous spots from across the globe. We've already covered TeahupooWaimeaAnchor PointCloudbreakBaliJ-BayPuerto EscondidoMundakaHossegorJawsByron BayHuntington BeachGermanyTofinoChicamaMalibuMaldivesBells Beach, Thurso, Skeleton Bay and Punta de Lobos. Let us know in the comments if there is anywhere else you'd like us to shine a spotlight on.

If you’re English, 1966 was a pretty great year. The world cup was won, for the first and only time in England’s history, but if you were among those in the fledgling stages of the UK surfing community, the country's most famous big wave was surfed for the first time not long before Bobby Charlton lifted Jules Rimet.

While English football fans will pray for more success in this winter’s World Cup, we can quietly assume that the Cribbar will come alive most Atlantic swell seasons. With autumn now upon us, let's wind back the clock to the first session at the Cribbar and discover the impact little England’s big wave had on UK surfing.

Live cam: Fistral

© 2023 - Chris Levi

1970 British Surfing Champion Roger Mansfield, who was 14 at the time and witnessed the Cribbar’s first session, described the scene in his book The Surfing Tribe.

“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.

In my memory it was monstrous, it was miraculous, it was a wonder of nature.

“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.”

Tom Butler has trained out here for years.

Tom Butler has trained out here for years.

© 2023 - Clare James.

The Headland has been a popular spot to watch the UK's big wave spectacle for some time. Here it is back in 2011.

The Headland has been a popular spot to watch the UK's big wave spectacle for some time. Here it is back in 2011.

© 2023 - Photobrook Photography

Roger, who still surfs at 70 years-of-age, remembers the first time he laid eyes on the Cribbar.

“I remember the long walk out of town to the headland. Word had spread through the relatively small and intimate surfing community of that time that some of the good foreign surfers in town were going out to the headland to ride big waves.

Pulled back version, from the Towan headland in Newquay, Cornwall.

Pulled back version, from the Towan headland in Newquay, Cornwall.

© 2023 - Concrete Ocean.

“Once, I broke the summit of Towan Head I could see enormous lines of white water rolling in from the open Atlantic. I ran the rest of the way to be in time to see my surfing heroes Pete, Rick, Johnny from Australia; plus Big Jack from USA assemble to enter the ocean on the sheltered side of the headland.

“Then came the paddle out to sea and around the end of the promontory to face the open swells that rolled over the Cribbar reef to break and then roll onto the rocks that fronted the headland's low cliffs.

Rob Fowlie cliff diving.

Rob Fowlie cliff diving.

© 2023 - Surfers Planet

“As soon as I saw the size of these waves pushing through I was overwhelmed by the spectacle. I didn’t believe people could ever surf in conditions like this. I had not seen pictures or film to show surfing, let alone big-wave surfing! In my memory it was monstrous, it was miraculous, it was a wonder of nature."

Roger wrote the story of the Cribbar with photos from the day in his book that was published in 2009. This exposed the story to a bigger world for the first time.

It can even look all groomed sometimes. How sick does this look?

It can even look all groomed sometimes. How sick does this look?

© 2023 - Harry Lowery

“In 1966, I was a boy-surfer, always trying to emulate and even exceed the skills of my elder peers. I was honestly impressed by what they did that day. It was raising the bar of British surfing way above its then established standard. It was the start of UK surfers considering riding bigger waves.

“They all were hyped-up and so glad to be back on shore having survived this challenging experience. Hawaiian Jack swam in having lost his surfboard paddling over a big wave, exhausted and pleased to be alive. I rescued both halves of it from a rock gully in the headland.

“The idea and example of big-wave surfing had been planted in Europe at a point and place in time. But who was to know that? No magazine coverage, no TV coverage, no film made. Just a few photos by Doug Wilson. It really was down to the participants and the observers to spread the story through word-of-mouth.

“With the passage of time, the existence and challenge of the Cribbar has become common knowledge. In the world of big-wave surfing it has become one of Britain’s venues for the task, with frequent sessions over the last twenty years. It remains the European big-wave surf-spot with the longest heritage stretching back to that day in September 1966.

“I love the ocean and I have three wonderful children who love the ocean. One of which, Leon, has ridden the Cribbar at 20ft in more modern times. I watched that too, but with more consequential emotions than in 1966.”

It's dark, foreboding, but yeah, you get the picture.

It's dark, foreboding, but yeah, you get the picture.

© 2023 - Clare James.

That element of danger earned the Cribbar its name The Widowmaker. If you didn't stick the drop, you'd end up on the rocks that jut out from the headland. In the past few years, people have broken boards and bones, punctured lungs and had to be airlifted from precarious spots on the reef. But the actual meaning of the word is far softer. Cribbar is actually a form of kribow in Kernewek (the Cornish language) and means reefs. Self-explanatory.

To get the best views of the Cribbar, wait for a mid-sized Atlantic swell to bee-line towards the UK and Ireland, head to the Towan headland in Newquay, to the east of Little Fistral, pull up a chair and soak it all in.

How Does it Work?

MSW forecaster Tony Butt breaks down the Cribbar.

Big waves need big storms. Here's out North Atlantic chart for February 1 2021.

Big waves need big storms. Here's out North Atlantic chart for February 1 2021.

The Cribbar is probably England’s biggest surfable wave. It is pretty fickle and only gets really good a few times a decade. It needs a lot of factors to coincide before it gets good. For example;

− The swell needs to be big enough for it to break outside of the headland and off the rocks: anything under about eight or ten feet will just break on the inside, over the rocks.

− The swell has to be clean and lined-up as well as big, which is not very common in Cornwall. For this to happen, a low pressure needs to track across the North Atlantic from west to east, and it needs to intensify before it gets anywhere near the coast.

− The swell needs to be generated from a storm that tracks far enough south so that the swell enters the relatively narrow window. Too north and it will be blocked by Ireland.

− The storm needs to weaken or veer away before it gets too close, so that the long-period swell isn’t contaminated by locally-generated short-period swell, and so that local winds aren’t an issue.

− The tides are crucially important. In southwest England, tidal ranges can be huge (up to 7m between low and high). To give the Cribbar a better chance of breaking for longer during winter daylight hours, you need a big low tide around the middle of the day. Luckily, in Cornwall, when it’s a spring tide, low tide is always around the middle of the day. But that’s only a few days a month. Other times, unless the swell is really, really big, the tide might never get low enough for the Cribbar to break.

To get a big, clean, lined-up west swell with good local conditions, the general atmospheric pattern in the North Atlantic needs to be just right. The upper airstream (the atmospheric ‘super-highway’ that helps to steer the low pressures) needs to be shifted quite far south, so that the lows themselves track further south and pump swell into Cornwall.

If the upper airstream is strong as it exits the North American continent out into the Atlantic, this will make the lows intensify way over on the far side of the Atlantic. As a result, the swell will arrive at the coast lined up and with long periods.

​One of the best Cribbar swells recently was on Monday February 1 2021. The storm that produced the swell deepened explosively while it was still way over on the other side of the Atlantic. It reached peak intensity northwest of the Azores with truly humungous open-ocean wave heights, before continuing in a more or less straight line towards Ireland. Then, suddenly, it swung south into the Bay of Biscay, which kept local wind conditions good.

Periods were extremely long, hitting 25 secs at the beginning, and still around 19 secs at the peak of the swell on the coast. This gave an extra punch to the swell and would have made individual breaking wave heights bigger due to the focusing effect of the Cribbar reef. Finally, and miraculously, it coincided with spring tides, with low water between about 13:00 and 14:00 (see full edit at the top of the article).

Cover image by Clare James.