WORLD BELLYBOARDING CHAMPIONSHIPS: Reviving the lost art of having fun

PUBLISHED: 11:14 24 September 2014 | UPDATED: 13:13 30 August 2017



The world belly boarding championships take place in September every year in St Agnes Cornwall, how to belly board (or boogieboard)

Writer and surfer Martin Dorey looks forward to The World Belly Boarding Championships, which took place on 7 September 2014 at Chapel Porth near St Agnes, and explains why, for him, it’s what Cornwall is all about.

There are many things that make Cornwall special for me. I won’t list them all, as I’ll be here forever. But I don’t mind wittering on about the day in September that’s at the very top of the list, the World Belly Boarding Championships, so, if it’s okay with you, I will.

The WBBC has taken place on the first Sunday in September since 2003. For me it epitomises the Cornish spirit. It is quirky, fantastic, stylish and creative and takes place in a beautiful, if sometimes wild, location. It has a big heart and requires a hardiness of spirit. It’s audacious too, punching well above its weight in world contest stakes. You can’t get more Cornish than that, can you?

This is a day when you can relax on the beach, enjoy the elements, meet old and new friends, nibble on a cucumber sandwich, put on a summer frock and brave the Atlantic surf. Thinking now about this year’s contest, I can hardly wait to be a part of it all. If I’m honest I will dream a little too, because this is the once chance in my life when, genuinely, I have a shot at a World Title.

Not just another surfing contest

The World belly Boarding Championships is a surf contest, but perhaps not the way you might imagine it. It celebrates traditional surfing in memory of one Arthur Traveller, a Londoner who was a regular visitor to Chapel Porth, always choosing to surf its waves on his wooden belly board. That so many turn up (over 300 competitors last year) to keep the tradition alive is testament to Arthur and his preferred craft. This is the surfing of yesteryear, where deckchairs, decorated cakes and good manners are all part of the experience. It’s surfing with a sense of humour and grace. It’s the way your grandmother did it in the 1920s, in a flowery swimming cap and a woollen bathing suit.

The location, Chapel Porth near St Agnes, adds an equally timeless quality to the proceedings.

A steep single track leads down a beautiful, heather and broom-clad, post-industrial valley to a tiny cove that reveals a huge expanse of sand at low tide. Here, the azure blue Atlantic greets golden sands with white capped waves and the smell of seaweed and salt. When the sun shines, and the greens, blues and yellows shine too, there could be nowhere more beautiful. Yet when the wind blows and the sky darkens it can be terrifying.

The wind and the rain: democracy in action

You might think that September would be an inauspicious time for a back-to-basics contest but, as many know, September is the best time to be in the west. It’s quiet, the sea is at the warmest it’ll be all year and there’s a good chance of really decent weather. Mind you, there’s every chance of really bad weather too, as there was on the first day I attended the competition in 2011.

A very democratic yet apocalyptic lash rained down on the beach just after lunch, sending competitors and spectators running for cover. If you were thinking of coming this year, that’s your cue to remember a brolly.

Mind you, who, having spent any more than a little time in Cornwall, minds a bit of rain anyway? Not us. Like the temperature of the sea, the sting of the wind and the sand in your sandwiches, the rain affects us all in the same way. We get wet, we smile through it.

We are all equal under Cornish skies

There are no short cuts or dodges to make winning any easier at the World Belly Boarding Championships. Yes so you might pick up a prize for your iced buns in the cake baking competition, and yes you might get a special mention for travelling the furthest to be there (I think the record was New Zealand). You might also win a prize for the quality of your craft in the Best Finish, Best Paint, Best Patina and Best Artwork categories. And you may even pick up some silverware for appearing in vintage swimming smalls. But there is no getting away from the fact that, to walk away with any of the belly boarding categories, you will have to strip off down to your swimmers and hit the sea with nothing but a wooden bellyboard.

Wetsuits are forbidden and no flippers or fins may be used to help you catch the winning wave. That means everyone has as much of a chance of glory as anyone else.

The biggest smile wins

So how would you go about winning such a contest? To be honest it seems like a mystery to many of us, but there are rules and judging criteria. The entrants are divided into six categories according to age and then compete in 10 minute heats. The judges award points for length of ride, working with the wave, doing manoeuvres, and style, finesse and enjoyment.

The key, for me, is in the last of these criteria. If it’s lashing with rain, the wind is whipping up a fury, your vintage trunks are threatening to leave you uncovered and you are still having as much fun as the next man, you’re already winning.

Wish me luck!

A potted history

Swimming and surfing (bellyboarding) were extremely popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were seen health giving activities.

Some mentions of wooden belly boards even go back as far as the 1860s.

The earliest boards were often simply made from planks of wood about 5’ x 12” x 1”. Some were known as coffin lid boards because of the way they were made.

The WBBC had humble beginnings, with just a few riders getting together to surf a memorial contest to the late Arthur Traveller, a Londoner who was a regular visitor with his wooden board at Chapel Porth.

That first event was organised by Martyn Ward and Chris Ryan. The World Contest’ status was firmly tongue in cheek..

Today the contest is run by contest director, National Trust Warden Nick Holden, as a National Trust event, attracts over 300 competitors and is reported all over the world in print and online.

How to bellyboard

Wade out into the waves until you are waist deep.

Turn your back to the waves and hold your bellyboard out in front of you with both hands at the top.

The bottom of the board should rest approximately at your waist or thighs.

When a wave comes along, wait until it is about a yard or so from you, then project yourself towards the beach, lying prone on your board as you go.

The wave, with any luck, will pick you up and transport you towards the shore in a rush of watery excitement! Now you’re surfing.

TIP: Catching unbroken waves (before they become white water) will give you more speed and a better rush.

Comments have been disabled on this article.

Latest from the Cornwall Life