Rob Small grew up surfing the beachbreaks of Perranporth, the Badlands & Newquay and quickly developed from a hot local to a sponsored surfer, competing on the National and International pro circuits. Now with over 35 years of non-stop surfing under his belt he is still active as a sponsored surfer and SUP surfer and also runs Crantock Bay Surf School using his experience as an ISA surf and stand up paddle instructor and RSLS beach lifeguard. He kindly took the time between working long days at his surf school and SUP surf trips to the Canaries to answer a few questions about big waves, stunt doubling for Ewan McGregor and why maybe using a paddle could be considered punk!
Rob, where did you grow up?
Like a lot of us Cornish boys, I was born at Treliske in Truro and lived in Helston and St Agnes before my parents settled on Perranporth. Perran is really the place I grew up. There was a little pack of us running about causing mayhem and surfing. I was driving through Perran the other day and saw a little gang of surfy kids skating about and thought; "Nothing really changes does it?"
What got you into surfing originally?
My parents bought me a surfboard when I was very young, 7 or 8 years old. It was a 7’0” Graham Nile pintail single fin. Classic 70s board, brown with pin lines and a wooden fin with the old council insurance stickers on it. Like most of the older guys I wish I still had it today. The Surf Life Saving Clubs were going strong in those days and many of the local beach kids learnt to surf through them. We also learnt water safety and water knowledge. I’m not sure about sending kids out with a hundred metres of rope attached to a reel on the beach though... But they are great community clubs and invaluable for the youngsters. Of course as soon as the surfing started to become all encompassing the SLSC went out the window!
Do you remember your first green wave?
I don’t have a recollection of my first green wave but I do remember discovering cutbacks and getting under the lip for the first time. My first tube (ha ha, head dip) was at Perran Sands with Steve Cant and first cutback at Droskyn. Those lefts under the cliff are pretty good for figure eight cutbacks, they formed my entire surfing repertoire for a few years. When I first started surfing Aggie I didn’t have a clue what to do on the rights there, full pooh stance too. I get asked this question a lot by my clients and I’m not sure that they always believe I can’t remember learning the basics.
Was surfing Perran in the 70s & 80s very different to now?
It was really different, but then the sport itself was in a distinct phase. I remember the first thrusters that John Heath had in Piran Surf in ’81, after Simon Anderson won Bells, strange looking things. It could even have been ’82, things certainly didn’t move as fast as they do today. It was definitely friendlier, less crowded but on the downside the equipment was shit compared to that which is available today. I think that the generation that are in their 40s today matured as surfing matured as a sport, industry and lifestyle. It’s fun, traditional even, to give it the old ‘It was better back along’ to the younger surfers but I’m sure that there’s never been a better time to be a surfer than now. There are so many more possibilities within surfing than we ever dreamed of back in the 70s and 80s.
|Rob, cranking off the bottom at La Santa Right.|
I can remember years ago, being up on the cliffs at Droskyn on a huge day, triple overhead, no-one out... And being amazed to see you paddling out on your own. Have you always been a charger?
Ha ha ha... I was very fortunate in that I had parents and most importantly an employer (John Heath of Piran Surf, thank you Baldy, I owe it all to you) that allowed me time to surf whenever I wanted and supported me with kit. John would fund quivers of boards for me when having more than one board was a luxury. So I had the opportunity and the equipment, all I had to do was jump off Droskyn and get a couple. Bigger surf always felt easier to me, room to move. If you look at the group of surfers I grew up around on a local and national level many of them are much more athletically capable than I am so keeping up with them in smaller waves was a challenge for me. I suppose at that stage of your life you’re trying to find something that’s yours and that can be a powerful motivation. Later on when I found out what really big waves are like and started to ride them, those '20 lines of whitewater' days at Perran came in pretty handy. Big Cornish beach breaks are very demanding physically and actually good training for tough situations.
|Rob Small at Big La Santa. Yes, that's Rob just visible, on another big day at La Santa Right (Clicky piccy).|
I’d like to say here that what the younger generations are doing now is incredible. What has happened in Ireland is mind blowing and I have enormous respect for surfers like Al Mennie, the Irish crew, Tom Butler, Tom Lowe and many more. These guys are real chargers and have made a statement at an international level. When I first went to Hawaii the locals couldn’t comprehend British or Irish surfers whereas now they know the names of the current crop of big wave surfers coming out of these islands. That’s a huge achievement.
|On promo duty (Rob on left) for the sponsors back in the day...|
Were you in an advert for SURF washing powder (80s?) - or am I imagining that?
I think you’ll find that was Spencer and Randall. I was always too grubby for a washing powder ad.
OK, but I'm pretty sure you were involved in the movie Blue juice?
Blue Juice came about after (another) semi final loss at some event at Fistral, the British or English I believe. I’d thought I’d got through, got a 3rd and was busy being a poor sportsman when these two guys all in black with goatees and horn rimmed specs came and started asking questions. I gave it the old; "If you want to see real surfers come to Aggie..." spiel. They’d suggested that they were making a surfing film and we thought they’d be good for a few beers. In the end they turned up driving some shitty little hatchback and camping... the beers came later ‘cause they had no cash at that stage. Carl Prechezer and Peter Salmi, two very cool guys, in fact I hear Carl is now a SUP paddler and I’m keen to hook up with him again. In the movie I think Sean’s character’s bad back is mine and his crisis about real life encroaching upon his surfer lifestyle was inspired by Steve England. I used to think that the film was a load of old tosh but recently I realised that it’s a document of a very vital time in the UK, albeit skewed by the surfing side of things... fuck knows what the Aussies and Yanks thought of it!
Talking of films, a few years later you were also in a big wave doco with Dr Tony Butt weren't you?
Tony and I got involved in the TV program ‘Into The Danger Zone’ the same year we got invited to Big Wave Africa in Cape Town. It was a fuck up really, too much time doing TV stuff and not enough surfing big waves. We should have ditched the TV production and got on with the job at hand. Tony is one of the most straightforward people I know, a Doctor of Oceanography, he doesn’t suffer fools and I think it was really challenging for him dealing with all the stuff that comes with doing TV. On the up side we did manage to lose an £40,000 HD video camera in the surf at Platboom. Hilarious to think that just over ten years later you can get a tiny video camera that shoots 4K for less than £300... the thing we lost was a metal box weighing about 4 kilos and they wanted us to take off on 20ft waves with it on the nose of the board. I was so relieved when we lost it.
Any ambitions to surf big waves still?
I still like to surf big waves but the opportunities are limited in Cornwall so I have to travel for big waves.
|Tow-in at Caleta de Caballo, Lanzarote (Click for bigness).|
With a business (Crantock Bay Surf School) that takes all my time in summer it doesn’t always work out that the windows I have to get away coincide with a big swell... Responsibility caught up with me finally! I’ve had a few semi days at The Cribbar and some heavy days out at Nusa Dua on a SUP in the last year or two but that’s it.The most memorable session recently was with Dave Schliefer from Montauk at biggish Nusa Dua. Dave’s a heller on a SUP in big waves and we had some fun and some beatings too, all part of the deal. I also went over to Ireland to stay with Al (Mennie) for a few days, completely bottled it at Mullaghmore and ended up getting washed in at massive Pampa. I had an 8’2” at Pampa and there was no way I could catch a wave, just too much water moving, too fast, drawing off the reef so heavily. It’s an intimidating place and was an eye opener for me. I’m hoping to get back to Ireland in early 2015, hook up with Al again and get some waves, maybe even some big ones.
I know you lived in the Canaries for a while - why the move over there?
I originally moved there to teach English and ended up staying for 15 years. Lanzarote (and the other islands) are some of the best places in the world if you’re a water person and I miss the climate and quality of waves every day. It’ll always be my second home. Once you get to know the Canarian people and how things work it’s a great place to live but you have to realise the fact that the Canarian people and in particular for me el pueblo conejero have had their home inundated by mass tourism and immigration from mainland Spain and the rest of Europe. It’s the same as anywhere, if you’re a guest then you have to respect your hosts. Oddly enough living on Lanzarote isn’t so dissimilar to Cornwall. Over 95% of revenue coming into the island is derived from tourism which is by far and away the dominant industry. So the parallels are there with somewhere like Cornwall because the resident populace is making a living through providing services for a transient tourist population whilst coping with the issues inherent in this type of economic activity.
|Rob feeling right at home on another juicy La Santa right.|
Do you have a fave break in Lanzarote or anywhere else from your travels?
Lanzarote has so many fantastic waves that it’s hard to pick a favourite but I suppose I was pretty closely associated with La Santa Right for 15 years or so. I surfed it from 2 to 20ft and probably understand the lineup there better than anywhere in the world. When Julie and I came back to live in Cornwall I realised what an enormous privilege it had been to live in one of the best places to surf in the world.
Fave Cornish wave without naming any secret spots?
I tend to surf Crantock when I can get a moment away from the school in the summer and around the area in the quiet months. I promised myself I’d make some more effort to go and get some good waves around the Duchy this winter. Cornwall has endlessly average surf, I know that’ll piss some people off but it’s the truth so when it really fires it’s magical. When I was younger and didn’t have much else to do it was always an adventure, driving around checking out hidden corners with the boys. Of course now I have to do adult things and that makes spending a day looking for waves all the more unlikely! I’ve had a couple of good sessions recently though, here and there!
You're an accomplished all-round surfer, when did you transition to SUP and why?
I was a hater like most of the surfers for a long time and I still occasionally see someone paddling and think how weird it looks. Initially it was a fitness thing, I was working for Bilbo (my sponsor at the time) and not getting in the surf so I got a cheap SUP just to paddle. Of course you paddle it down to Crantock along the Gannel and there’s a knee high wave and you start to surf, and then you surf it in waist high waves and so starts the insidious process of become a SUP surfer!
I genuinely think that SUP is the best thing to happen to board sports for a long time (but not necessarily in the surf). As a gateway watersport it’s fantastic to get people involved in the water, especially a much wider demographic than the one attracted to surfing. Personally it’s great to be learning new skills and adapting existing ones to a new mode of wave riding. It takes a long time to really understand the paddle whilst a good percentage of the board skills will be there if you’re an accomplished surfer. The difficulty of SUP surfing is routinely underestimated, both by those observing from the outside and those actually SUP surfing. It’s a challenge and it’s very, very good fun!
Do you spend more time on the SUP than your other boards?
I’m very much a tool-for-the-job sort of surfer. I’m not really so interested in what’s fashionable but more with what board most suits the circumstances. I ride my SUPs more in Cornwall than I might have done in Lanzarote because of the wave quality, but then again I never really rode a mal in the Canaries but I do here. It’s about maximising the fun to be had with what’s in front of you. I’ve got a whole bunch of Fanatic surfboards, traditional longboards, guns etc, so I try not to get stuck in one rhythm and prefer to mix it up a bit.
SUP is growing in popularity now, can you see it diversifying like other styles of surf ie: progressive, trad, retro, hipster etc - what's your view on the current state of SUP?
SUP is already about 5 different sports, or disciplines more accurately. Downwind SUP surfing and SUP surfing are such different ways to interact with the ocean and yet from a non SUP educated perspective they’ll get lumped together as SUP. It’s a real journey this whole stand up paddle thing and it wasn’t until I got really involved that I started to see the possibilities. Riding waves on a SUP board is the most familiar part of it as it’s really just another way of surfing, it’s all the other stuff that comes along with it that makes it such a great thing to do. And it has a massive positive feedback to your regular surfing too. I know it might sound cliched but when you start to think about everything you do in the water holistically then the benefits start to become apparent. As far as hipster SUPers... I don’t know. Is it that attractive to that crew? I reckon that SUP surfing is viewed as being so uncool that it’s actually the most punk thing you can do in the water because so many people still look at it with disdain. Paddle is punk!
From an instructing perspective SUP is still in a developmental phase being such a new sport. There’s a lot of uptake into the sport and there are schools and instructors springing up all over the place some of whom give great service and instruction and some of whom are not as accomplished and don’t have the chops. There’s a perception that once you have one of the various instructor qualifications that you’ve ‘arrived’, whereas in reality you’re just starting to learn. It might sound like sour grapes but there’s genuine concern that something will go seriously wrong. It probably won’t happen on an inland reservoir or canal but you really can’t take chances in coastal and ocean environments and there are definitely people touting themselves as something they’re not. There have already been incidents stemming from this in other locations and unfortunately it seems probable to occur here. I sincerely hope not.
What's better perched on the nose or smashing the lip?
Ha! I’m going to have to say smashing the lip as my noseriding isn’t that accomplished. I’ve got a great Fanatic 9’1” and an amazing 9’4” log (thanks Nomad) but just as I think I’m killing it with the footwork guys like Skindog, Bearman or Ciaran McQueen will paddle out and crush any improper ideas I had about my position in that hierarchy!. Again it’s inspiring to be able to see these guys surf and it gets you fired up. Oh and let’s not forget KB, Keith Beddoe... there’s a true waterman.
Is it more satisfying getting barrelled on an SUP or is being in the green room pretty good anyway, no matter how you got there?
Getting barrelled is getting barrelled. I get so few tubes in Cornwall that I don’t care how I got them. You need a bit more room on the SUP though.
|Tucking in at Hossegor.|
Are there any other surfers in particular that have inspired you?
I’m inspired by surfers who are inspired by surfing itself. Two people who come to mind are Ciaran McQueen and my friend Aaemon, both of whom have used surfing as a real force for good in their lives whilst experiencing very testing times. Al Mennie for being an uncompromising, single minded individual operating almost completely outside of the surfing establishment, his vision is different to everyone else. Locally, I look at Keith Beddoe as an inspiration for his all round ability and the way that he remains progressive and enthusiastic through the years. Tom Butler is stepping up too. He’s talented, dedicated, humble and has a great career ahead of him. Someone who inspires me directly is Ben Granata. Ben runs K38 UK, Britain’s most accomplished water safety company and is also a good, gung ho surfer, Kent’s Occy actually. He’ll make me surf 6ft NW onshore shite in January and he’ll make it fun.
You run a surf school - what's the best part of your job?
The surf school is a rewarding in so many ways, seeing the clients’ satisfaction as they start to put it all together never gets old. On a deeper level it’s interesting to coach people who are more invested in their sport too. The process of becoming a better coach is endless, my understanding not only of the sports themselves but how to be an effective coach is always improving. I think that there are some really, really good surf coaches about, when I was doing my Level 2 ISA there were a few very experienced people doing the course at the same time and to be able to interact and learn from them is inspirational in itself. To be able to facilitate improvement and development in peoples’ surfing or paddling, or even just to give them a safe, fun experience is a very special way to earn a living.
What is it about surfing that keeps you paddling out?
The next wave. What a fantastic and unique way surfers have to live their lives.
How do you cope with crowded line-ups?
Not very well! Which of course is a hypocritical statement as I’m one of those characters who makes a living from the popularisation of surfing!
Question I'm always very interested in - do you think there is such a thing as an all-round board? If so what makes it work?
Ahh that’s a very good question and one that’s harder to answer now than ever. There are so many variables that it has to be almost impossible, although ironically at entry level and elite level it can almost be true as you need equipment to facilitate very specific goals. It’s the huge range of experiences in-between these points that are less defined and so harder to pin down a board that will work in most conditions. I still think that in general the ‘keep it simple’ mantra will function best for most people. The ‘ride anything’ attitude can have positive and negative consequences. On the positive side it has given credence to the freedom to ride boards that 10 or 15 years ago you’d have been laughed off the beach for, which can translate into a better understanding of what most of us need under our feet. On the negative side it also allows a lot of inappropriate or just plain shit equipment to be sold. There’s a lot of guys struggling away with esoteric boards that are detrimental to their surfing experience but are apparently ‘cool’. That’s a shame.
And a few other personal interest questions:
Do you play music or have other creative outlets?
Playing music is something that is beyond my abilities, I would have loved to but it escapes me. I’ve got a few pieces to write for some SUP and surf magazines, something I avoid doing until I have to and then get into it and enjoy it once the process starts. Apart from that I’m probably most into my cooking. I don’t have time in the summer months to get into the kitchen so wintertime I like to get prepared, sharpen up the knives, have a wee glass of something and get going.
Ohhh impossible to answer, I do like my rock though so I’m going for The Stones... long may they roll on!!
Music you're enjoying today?
Loads and loads, a bit of Mark Lanegan, some Jon Hopkins and some Sturgill Simpson for a secret little country fix.
Do you read? And do you have a favourite book?
My parents always encouraged us to read. In fact my brother Alex has just got a creative writing degree so in his case it paid off. I don’t think I can pick a favourite as I tend to have about three or four on the go at a time. Currently it’s ‘Human Evolution’ by Robin Dunbar, ‘Ancillary Sword’ by Anne Leckie, ‘Letters 1951 to 1984’ by John Betjeman and the Spanish edition of ' La Segunda Guerra Mundial’ by Anthony Beevor. I try to read a book in Spanish every now and again to stop it slipping away.
Well, I’m looking forward to the Surf School picking up again in 2015. We’re looking to work more closely with the National Trust at Crantock and the Gannel and also have the opportunity to work with some other organisations bringing surf sports to different types of people. It’s going to be a challenge and a learning process but I’m very excited about broadening the range of people we engage with. I’ve also got a new SUP dedicated website that will run alongside Crantock Bay Surf School but offer slightly different options for SUP paddlers a bit further down the road from entry level, again something I’m looking forward to happening. And perhaps I’ll go surfing ...
You can contact Rob at Crantock Bay Surf School