Has surfing lost its edge?
With one exception. In the distance a dark speck punctures the horizon and gradually bobs towards the shoreline. Then it vanishes. And then it reappears as a lonely surfer picking his way out of the January waves. "I haven't been in the water for a week," smiles 26-year-old Ori Matas, wrapped in a black wetsuit, as he shivers past me to the car park above. "I was hungry."
In the summer, surfers stuff Newquay in Cornwall, the capital of Britain's wave-catching community. Today, the first Tuesday of the new year, it is empty. Only hardcore surfers such as Matas have stayed to brave the chill. With surfwear long absorbed into conventional high-street fashion, and surfer slang indistinguishable from mainstream diction, diehards such as him remind us that the sport is, at its extreme, a wonderful eccentricity.
But for how much longer? Starting this year, professional surfers are to be drugs-tested before major competitions, thanks to regulations announced in November by the sport's governing body, the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP). For some, this move sounds the death-knell for a pastime that, according to cliche, has long been associated with the underground.
"Part of its appeal is that it is counter-cultural, marginal and in some way subversive and that's where the association with drugs comes in, whether real or mythic," Andy Martin, author of surf book Stealing the Wave, told the Guardian recently. "But the commercial imperatives require [surfers] to be straight. How mainstream can surfing be before losing its soul?"
It's this question that I'm trying to find answers to, this windy morning in Newquay. But for most of the surfers I speak to, the answer is fairly simple. The more mainstream, the better. Max Hepworth-Povey, 27, a local boy who runs a surf school called Errant, thinks the sport's rise in respectability will bring him more students.
"I see this as a massively positive thing," agrees Corinne Evans, a 23-year-old who hosts introductory surf sessions for kids in the summer, and models surf equipment in the winter. "The more seriously the sport takes itself, the more companies will be willing to invest, and the faster the sport will grow. This has been a long time coming." Sipping on a suitably soft orange juice in a bar called Belushi's, Evans thinks it is time to shed surfing's druggy stereotype once and for all. "People think we're all layabouts who get high the whole time. But the vast majority of us just enjoy the healthy lifestyle that comes with the sport."
Alan Stokes, one of just half-a-dozen Britons who make their living from competitive surfing, concurs. "British surf culture is pretty clean," he says, shortly before leaving for a tournament in Nicaragua. "People here just want a natural high."
But worldwide, that hasn't always been the case. As recently as 2000, marijuana allegedly played a large role in the Hawaiian surf community, according to Martin, who lived on the island at the time. "There was a view in Hawaii that marijuana smoking in particular was actually good for surfing because you increase your lung capacity with all that drawing in of the smoke," he claims. "The more marijuana, the better the surfer."
It was a culture that the ASP did little to confront publicly. "There was zero drug-testing, period, done by the ASP," Melissa Buckley, the association's media director between 2005 and 2009, claimed in a recent interview. "There were just too many guys that wouldn't pass." Most notoriously, triple world champion Andy Irons died of a heart attack in 2010 after taking a cocktail of methamphetamine, methadone and cocaine. Last year, Anthony Ruffo, who pioneered the surfing scene in Santa Cruz, California, admitted to dealing methamphetamine. Peter Davi, another high-profile Santa Cruz surfer, had traces of meth in his blood when he drowned in 2007, while Darryl Virostko, a contemporary of Davi and Ruffo, has spoken of overcoming a meth addiction. Ruffo himself claims drug-use was rife on the pro circuit during the 90s. "Going to Brazil and getting $9 grams of cocaine was part of the fun," he has told the New York Times. "Guys were coming out of their rooms loaded for their heats."
In a coffee shop in the centre of Newquay, Hepworth-Povey introduces me to 19-year-old Matt Rodwell, a Zimbabwe-born semi-pro. Rodwell is an example of how times are changing. He is currently trying to qualify for surfing's most elite competition – the ASP world tour, a series of 11 tournaments contested by the 36 highest-ranked surfers in the world – and when he finally makes it, he wants the competition to be as rigorous as possible. "There are people who party, surf; party, surf. But I want to make a living from it. So I don't drink. I don't do drugs. I want to be the best I can." With arms like pythons, he goes to the gym six times a week, and spends up to eight hours a day in the water. "If people want to party at night, and go surfing the next day," he says, "they're still going to be able do that. But if you're in the top 36, you can't be out there off your face."
So much for recreational drugs – what about performance-enhancing steroids? "I haven't known of anyone taking drugs that affect their performance," says Stokes. "You're in an environment where drugs aren't really going to work: you're immersed in the ocean." Besides, he notes, the British professional scene is so small, the effort would be a waste of energy: "There's no one to beat."
Rodwell doesn't think the new drug tests will affect surfing's wider party culture. But he does believe it will accelerate a divide between those surfers who want to compete at the highest level, and those who have the talent to do so but prefer to make their money from sponsorship deals, rather than competitive surfing. He cites the example of Dane Reynolds, the surfer who quit ASP competitions last year in favour of a more relaxed lifestyle, financed by sponsors more sympathetic to rebellious types such as him.
On the other side of town, in one of the few surf shops open, I run into a couple of people who are more tentative about drugs-testing. Jamie Mather, 20, semi-pro surfer, and part-time shop assistant, thinks it would be a shame if the world tour's qualifying tournaments lost their decadence. "It's like a ritual for the younger surfers to party at that age." His colleague Ben Baird – 36 and a former European youth champion – says something similar. "If they drugs-tested the whole of surfing," he says, "they'd lose a lot of its heritage." But, then again, he can't bring himself to be too sentimental. Drugs testing was sometimes used at certain competitions, even when he was a youngster. It just wasn't as formalised as it will soon be. Baird remembers being around drugs at parties, and having to hide underneath his hoodie to avoid coming into contact with anything illicit.
One thing everyone agrees on is that the new laws will give surfing a greater chance of one day becoming an Olympic sport. "If they want to be at the Olympics," says Matas, down on the beach, "it's important for them to do this, to have the same standards as other sports." Rodwell is particularly excited by the idea; representation at the Olympics would give elite surfers the recognition he feels they don't currently have. "In my opinion, Kelly Slater is the best sportsman of all time," he says of the man who has won more surfing world championships than any other. "He's better than Michael Jordan, and yet people just say: 'Oh, it's just surfing.' He's going out and risking his life every day, but all people remember is that he went out with Pamela Anderson." Hepworth-Povey agrees: "If this is a way for some of the world's best athletes to get some of the attention and money that footballers get, then that's great."
For her part, Evans hopes surfing's cleaner image will encourage more women than ever to get involved. She doesn't remember seeing many female surfers when she first moved to Newquay 12 years ago. "It was quite intimidating." Today, she says women have become an accepted part of the surfing community – but they're still in a slight minority, and they're still underfunded. Even though the skills gap between male and female surfers is narrower than in other sports, both sponsorship and prize money are significantly lower in women's tournaments than in men's. Evans doesn't think drugs testing will tackle this problem directly. But she nevertheless hopes that the good publicity sparked by the new rules will encourage more women to take up surfing, and more companies to sponsor them. It will be about time, argues Evans's friend Kerry Powell, a tournament judge: female surfers have long led the way to greater professionalism. "Women's surfing is already quite clean," says Powell. "We already take it so seriously because we have to make the most of what little resources we have."
Down on Towan Beach, our lone surfer seems far removed from this argument – or indeed any set-to about surfing governance. Ori Matas isn't here for the drugs or the sponsorship or the prize money or the reputation. He works as a waiter in a local hotel, and moved to Newquay last year because the waves in Barcelona weren't high enough. What makes him brave the near-freezing waters on the first Tuesday of the new year? "I just really wanted to get in the water."
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