It’s quarter to six on a cold Monday morning and I’m standing in a North London tube station waiting for a train to Heathrow. All the while, my body reminds me I should be at home in bed. Why am I here? Well, if anyone asks... Tell ’em I’m Surfing!
The call came four days earlier. Did I want to attend the European Surfing Championships in Rossnowlagh, Eire? A sudden vision of waves rolling under a blazing sun, bronzed surfers with their gleaming boards and blonde surfer girls in bikinis flashed through my mind. Yes, yes, yes... And there I was, waiting for the first tube of the day without a single bikini in sight.
But this is true journalism; flying visits abroad... okay, across the Irish Sea, but a journey into the unknown nevertheless. My passport was primed in my pocket, ready to flash at any officious immigration officers. Profession — reporter. I didn’t need it once.
Five of us were flying out, courtesy of Irish newcomer to the software scene, New Concepts, who were launching their surfing simulation. Surfing? Listen, the only water I like is a wee drop with my scotch. I’ve listened to the Beach Boys in my time, but never forget that Brian Wilson was up in his room writing all their best tunes, not risking his neck in the waves.
The tube took longer than the flight. I celebrated touchdown with a breakfast glass of fresh orange juice, neatly spiked with vodka. After all, it was nine am and high time to prepare for the five hour drive to the Atlantic breakers. I already had a vision of that pale foam — yes, my first pint of Irish Guinness.
Time to introduce ourselves. Robbie from SID, the distributors, Paul from C&VG, and Bill and Jim from Sinclair User. And there was New Concepts’ top man, Norman McMillan, a softly spoken and instantly likable chap with his fourteen year old son, Doug. Robbie and I were to travel in his car.
The cross country trek, surf boards attached to the roof, produced strange contrasts. Somehow, it was difficult to relate microchips to all those winding roads. And as we crossed the heavily armoured border, it was impossible to reconcile bloodshed and terror with the rolling green fields. We ate lunch in a cafe facing a blackened shell of a shop, advertising a ‘Bomb Damage Sale’.
Here was a chance to quiz Norman. Why surfing? “I wanted to get into sports simulations but I wasn’t sure how until June of last year.” But do you surf? “Yes. For the last five years... all that wasted time,” and he wasn’t talking about the hours he had spent on the waves. But surely the swell isn’t big enough in the sceptered isles. “I’ve ridden ten foot waves,” so has Doug. I was in the company of fanatics and it was too late to stave off the inevitable invitation. “Would you like to try it?” I smiled sweetly. Not while I’m sober, thought I.
We arrived at the hotel just before dinner. It was like walking into a colony of Californians, a surreal gathering of bronzed, blonde young men and women who talked with American or Australian accents — even if they came from Sweden. I heard a rumour that they used Vim to get that sun bleached look. Not an application I’d recommend. Instead, I thought of inner comfort with that glass of Guinness.
During the evening, one thing became obvious. Surf is not a sport. It’s a religion. The competitors formed a close knit community, bound by the search for the ideal wave. And that spirit began to communicate itself as I watched surfing videos and marvelled at the way they mastered the rolling ocean.
In the lounge, another contest was in full swing. New Concepts were offering a specially airbrushed surf board to the highest scorer in their simulation. Four televisions and rubber keyed Spectrums had been set up and knots of spectators cheered their teammates on. The on screen surfer is controlled by a keyboard overlay, shaped like a surfboard, which responds to the position of your hand in much the same way as a real board responds to body weight. So pressure on the side makes you turn. Norman told me there was no way the game could be played via traditional means; twenty keys have to be read to calculate how you’re positioned and allow for stunts like trailing your hands in the wake of the board. I made a mental note: “Let your fingers do the surfing.”
I didn’t get a chance to try my hand (an attempt at wit) that night but I did sample a few more pints, just to confirm my initial impression. It had been a long day and as I lay on my bed, the waves gently rocked it... or was it just that last Guinness?
Tuesday and up with the lark and a pounding head. Still, the sea breeze was bracing as I walked across to breakfast. There I was in for a nasty shock. “We’ll be seeing you in the water today, then?” I vaguely remembered that while all around me were making excuses, last night the lure of the surf had overcome common sense and I had said I would have a go. Let this be a warning against the inebriating effects of Dutch Courage... sorry, Irish Guinness.
Luckily for me, but to the competitors’ frustration, the sea was like a mill pond. Not enough to move a matchstick, let alone a six foot fibreglass surfboard. The blonde posse continued to whoop it up on the Spectrums until the time came for the swell, which give us hacks a chance to get down to the programs.
I always find public demonstrations of my inability to master micro-games profoundly embarrassing. It took half and hour before I was able to paddle out, “porpoising” under the incoming surf that tried to sweep me back to the shore. Even then, I could only stay on the wave for a few seconds, gliding gracefully down and off the bottom. But at the next monitor, Sinclair User’s Jim was proving himself to be a natural, performing a ‘360’ — that’s a complete turn on the spot. I made a note to buy him some Vim for his too-dark locks.
On the grounds that even inter-magazine rivalries fade between drinking partners, and with bribes of promised pints, I squeezed into Bill Scolding’s hire car. We failed to locate the beach where most of the competitors spent the morning paddling about on a serene sea (poetic huh) so we went on a detour to conduct another interview of which more next month.
Later, re-united with the surfing fraternity, we actually saw some action, including our hosts Norman and Doug, gliding into the beach. As I scrambled down the headland to get some piccies, I again admired the grace of the wet suited figures balanced on the narrow boards. Okay, so maybe I couldn’t ‘hang ten’ (that’s hang ten toes over the side of the board, for the uninitiated) but... well, it looked kinda fun.
The evening ended at a celebratory dinner for the contestants and the New Concepts surf board was presented to Jed Stone of the English team. He was marked out of ten on the waves and while the micro mirrors the judging criteria it scores out of 100,000 — much more satisfactory for the arcade player.
Afterwards I cornered Jed, who was keen to sing the praise of the game’s accuracy, but then again you’d expect him to — he was holding his gleaming new board. However members of other teams backed him up. New Concepts have taken a lot of care in this respect, even at the expense of graphics sophistication, but there’s a lot of science, from wave behaviour to human energy expenditure, being calculated. What really matters is that the mini surfboard provides a satisfying link between player and on screen action.
Norman McMillan sees this as educational. “Sport is a relationship of body and mind — not something which has been properly addressed by computers except pressing buttons quicker, and that’s just finger exercise.” You’ll learn just as much from choosing the right equipment for the conditions and discovering which are the best waves to ride. The higher the wave, the better your scoring potential, so it’s worth waiting for one set of rather puny waves to pass and then catch the big one. Wave direction plays a part too, as on the left of the screen there are some rocks and you wouldn’t want to get washed up on them, would you? Meanwhile, your energy is being used up and, while this shouldn’t present any problem to the experienced surfer, the novice wearing only ‘pods’ (shorts) in the wintry water won’t last long. There’s a lot of practice before you graduate from the stable, single fin boards to ones capable of riding off the lip and performing aerial manoeuvres before plunging back into the soup. But once more unto the bar, dear friends; once more unto the beer... and once more the feeling that surfing can’t be that hard, can it?
This time I’ve done it. Now there is no backing out. During the previous night’s revelry, Jim said that he’d have a go. So now it was up to me to defend the honour of Newsfield. Luckily, I came down to breakfast with a handful of specially selected straws which ensured that he drew the short one first. It was nine am as he paddled out into the grey Atlantic, clad in Norman’s wet suit. A thought: if he forgets to stop before he gets to New York, I won’t have to go. But he turned. Another thought: will CRASH pay for my funeral? By the end of his turn, Jim was riding back to the shore, lying on his stomach.
Norman and Doug had been very disappointed with the sea. As I stood chest deep in salty water, I couldn’t understand why. Each successive breaker lifted the board and I realised that my attempt to master the sea was somewhat less successful than Canute’s. The Atlantic is BIG. “Get on the board and find your balance,” Doug told me. Lying on a flat surface two feet wide shouldn’t be much of a problem, but when the board has a life of its own because of the surging swell beneath it, it’s a different matter. Many attempts and then, I had it. For five glorious seconds I was surfing on the wave... too soon, I was off. White water over my head as it flew above me. Then a tug on my ankle from the leash and I was gasping to the surface.
It had not been an auspicious start. At least Jim hadn’t been there to see me walking back to dry land and a warming whisky bottle. But did it matter? Not a bit. If we had not been rushing for a flight, I’d have been there until I got it right. On the way back, Norman told me of future plans, including a few finishing touches to the program.
“Would I like to write some music?” You bet! And there will be prizes for people who break the high score. New beaches from around the world will be added to the program. Each beach has its own characteristics and one will include a ‘tube’ — that’s when you surf along the hollow below the curving water. Most spectacular!
Okay, Norman, Doug, I’m hooked. One problem though, the only tubes we get in London are crowded during the rush hour. But I begged a pre-production copy of Surf Champ and since then I’ve learnt how to control the board as I ride the rubber keys of my micro. I’ve given up alcoholic excess, bleached my hair and changed my name to Christopher Wave. Like I said, surf is a religion — and I’m a convert. Surf’s up!