The reasons why we surf

Guest writer and Cornwall local, Emma Fraser Bell ponders the reason we surf. Why do we return to surfing even when it fills us with so much frustration so much of the time?


One weekend this summer, I was fortunate enough to spend a few days surfing one of my favourite breaks with some of my favourite people. A weekend spent living every moment in the outdoors. Bunking up at a friend’s caravan, set on the verge of Cornwall’s largest dune system. Lying only a stone’s throw away from the surf. The minute we woke, we were out the door stretching on the dewy morning grass. Boards of every shape and size splayed out waiting for their moment of play. We sipped strong, fresh coffee, as the steam rose into the early morning’s damp atmosphere.


Surf house england


We surfed two to three times a day, trekking over undulating dunes down to the beach and back up again to the caravan. We passed through tall dune grass, deep in Adder territory, where at one point we came face to face with an Adder working his way through the sunlit sandy path. Rearing up at the sight of our foreign neoprene-clad bodies, we stumbled back with a shriek, allowing the creature to slither back along its route through the dunes, relatively undisturbed.


The steep climb up and down the dunes rewarded us with lines of empty swell. This spot, a favourite of mine and my friends, is one of the best beach breaks on the North coast of Cornwall; picking up the most amount of swell majority of the time. We surfed overhead left-hand peaks, heavier right-hand peelers and a heavy ass shore break that had me held under for longer than I normally care for. These days spent enjoying every last drop of surf offered up, were unforgettable. Peaky lefts, rearing up and peeling relentlessly, with a solid right working just a short paddle away too.


Surf in Cornwall UK


We were free to play in this ocean playground for as long as our bodies could handle. Hours upon hours spent relishing every solid left hander on this powerful beach break. I surfed until my limbs weakened, until my paddle power diminished. I could feel my arms fighting a losing battle against the strengthening currents. Eventually, I became frustrated wasting every wave I paddled for. I was either unable to catch it or ruined my chance to ride the perfect, glassy wave I caught.


I became so frustrated I had to get out the water. Why was I struggling so badly when, only hours earlier I had been riding the walls of these overhead left handers so freely, so happily? Exasperated, I hauled my heavy legs out the water to have a stern talk with myself.


Later that day, I talked with friends about the frustration so often felt when surfing. Some days you have the surf of your life, and others, the absolute worst. It got me thinking; why do we return to surfing even when it fills us with so much frustration so much of the time?


I decided to fire some questions my way and ask myself, why surf? Why return to the ocean; to surfing in particular? Why dedicate so much time to surfing, and not the same amount to the other sports I enjoy? There have been many conversations with friends about this, so I wanted to write it down not only for myself, but so other people who don’t surf (yet) can understand exactly why. There are many misguided preconceptions as to why people surf. I have spoken to people who believe it is a very egotistical sport. But that’s only what’s portrayed by the media; the bikinis, the butt shots, the tropical beaches… to understand why, we have to ask those who do it for the love of it.


Girl surfing El Salvador
Emma catching a glassy one in El Salvador.
Photo Piolo Flores


Reasons why we surf…


#1 There is help, strength and community within this surfing culture.

The surf culture in Cornwall, and likely all surf spots, bears a strong sense of community and passion between individuals. It holds a tight-knit group of people who although regularly battle it out in the water, also share (the majority of the time) a sense of community and a shared love and passion for the ocean and environment in which we play and feel a need to protect.


The Cornish surf scene is a great example of people joining together to drive change forward. Driven by a shared love, passion, and respect for our environment and the ocean; inspiring people are making changes for the better with companies such as Surfers Against SewageFinisterre and The Wave Project all seeking to create a positive impact for people and environment.


Surf crew Finisterre UK
Shot taken by Greg Dennis from the Women’s Wetsuit Tester weekend with Finisterre


There are groups such as Surf Senoritas, set up by a couple of women who wanted to create a community for other women of the sea to join forces and surf together. A chance to meet like-minded women and discover surf buddies along the way. They aim to connect women all over, to create a sense of community and allow everyone to feel like they can become involved.


If I didn’t surf, I doubt I would have met many of the inspiring, passionate and beautiful people I have along my journey so far. Loving relationships have strengthened and friendships have blossomed from surfing; it is such a special and unique experience to be a part of this culture.


#2 Don’t panic. Stay focused & take the drop (Whether surfing related or not!)

For me, surfing is a mixture of so many varying feelings. Some days I find myself calmly paddling out understanding exactly what I aim to achieve from my surf. Sure enough, when I feel confident, everything else clicks into place. I catch set waves, make the drops and feel myself beaming from the inside out.


At other times, I step into the water riddled with anxiety. I can feel it overriding my senses, doubting my ability. Perhaps it’s bigger than what I’m used to and I feel inadequate. As a result, my mind shuts off and my body follows suit. Immediately I stiffen from the inside-out; muscles contracting, breath shallowing. I am limiting my own performance with this highly unnecessary negative mentality. When I don’t believe in my ability, my surfing takes the hit. I don’t take the drop because I believe I will fall. I find myself constantly worrying about the future, which becomes so limiting. We need to live in the moment, with regards to surfing anyway.


At moments such as these I have a quiet word with myself and take a few deep breaths. Process those thoughts, those fears and understand where they’re coming from. Am I tired? Am I freaking myself out unnecessarily? I try to find the source of the panic, and work from there. Sometimes this works for me, and other times I have to leave the water. That surf isn’t for me, and it doesn’t have to be. I’m still learning to accept it’s ok not to have an amazing surf every time. I can’t think of a single person who has never had a bad surf. These moments happen, and you’re not alone.


It is enough to paddle out there; to be within the elements and allow the salt water to rush over you. Allow your body to sit on your board and wait patiently for the set to arrive. Give yourself the time to engage with the surroundings and become comfortable with the waves, you don’t have to catch the first one that comes your way.


Girl surfing wave


Every new surf is a new experience. If the surf is larger than you’re used to, then at least you’re out there making the effort! Be proud of that! Personally, I have a tendency to panic if I feel unsure or uncomfortable in certain conditions. I’m trying to teach myself to slow down, to breathe, take my time, stay calm, have the confidence and just get out there. Another good tip, is to embrace the wipeout. Once you’ve had the first wipeout out the way all the fears will subside; most of the time anyway.


#3 Mindset. Believe In Yourself.

On a surf trip to El Salvador earlier this year, I pushed myself way outside of my comfort zone. On my first morning, I made the long paddle out to a right-hand point break I’d never surfed before. The line up already crowded at 6am. I was excited to get out there and catch my first El Salvadoran waves, yet I felt anxious, wary, and ultimately doubted my own ability. Was I good enough to be surfing this spot? Would the locals be pissed I was out there adding to the crowded line-up?


Sure enough, that first surf I struggled to catch a wave. It was big surf, but the waves weren’t as heavy as I initially expected. With every wave I missed my confidence in my own ability diminished. It sounds ridiculous, but I doubted my ability so much I truly believed I was never going to catch a single wave on my whole trip. As my dearest surf friend says “Negativity breeds negativity”. So stop breeding negative thoughts!


This was a moment where I needed to inhale a few deep breaths and release those negative thoughts. That morning wasn’t my morning, I had to accept that.

Fast forward to the next morning, I paddled out with determination, positivity and confidence in my ability. I caught some of the best and biggest waves I’ve ever caught. I paddled out that second morning in El Salvador with a belief in myself. Yeah I took a few wipeouts, yeah I screwed up a few waves, but I also made some of the heaviest drops and surfed some of my longest rides.


Surfing continues to teach me that having the confidence to believe in yourself will never be a detriment. Life will knock you back countless times. School, bullies, damaging or heartbreaking relationships, jobs, negative people; they can really get under your skin and wither away at your confidence. Persevering and rising up against life’s obstacles (or the ocean’s larger waves) will make you a stronger, more confident person… And of course, a better surfer.


#4 Surfing & awareness of our natural environment

Since I began surfing, I have become far more aware of my natural environment and ultimately I like to believe I am a more eco-minded individual. Once you spend more time in nature, whether this is playing in the ocean, on the beaches or wandering the coastlines you become more in-tune with your surroundings. We are more perceptive to any slight changes within the environment; a change in the sandbanks after every storm swell, or rock falls after a large swell and spring tides. The most saddening of all, is the damaging effect we are inflicting on our natural environment.


Swimming with a whale
Photo courtesy of Peter Marshall

The amount of plastic pollution on our beaches and oceans, which we are free to wander and play within so freely, is so heartbreakingly noticeable in our everyday life.


Small, simple actions will greatly impact our environment; opting out of single use carrier bags, bringing your own reusable bag, refusing the plastic straw, keeping a reusable bottle, making a conscious effort to use as little plastic as possible. It is a long journey, but simple day-to-day changes such as these have the ability to impact our natural environments so positively, it cannot be ignored.


If it weren’t for surfing and the opportunity to meet inspirational people striving to achieve better things for our natural environments, I don’t think I would’ve been as aware of this devastating environmental situation.


Working at a company like Finisterre, who strive to make a huge impact and create a change in the fashion and surf industry is just another example of the positive aspect surfing has had on my life.


#5 Education through surf travel

Since I began surfing, I have been incredibly fortunate to have traveled to beautiful countries all over the world. Many of these I would have never visited if it weren’t for the urge to find the next best wave.


I have fallen in love with countries, with quiet, sleepy towns, with secret surf spots and ultimately, with the local people I have been so fortunate to have met along the way. I believe surfing allows a deeper level of travel; the type that allows you to form connections with the people and places you visit because of this shared passion for the sea, for the wave and for the outdoors.


Beach shack at sunset


Perhaps this is due to what I mentioned earlier; that surfing allows you to develop a deeper connection to your environment and your surroundings when you choose to spend the majority of your time within it. Whatever the reason, surf travel has shown me how incredibly fortunate we are to be able to travel to these beautiful countries.


Although travel can be a selfish and indulgent attribute in our modern lives, it can also be a source of giving back to the community in the country you are travelling in. Whilst travelling, opting to stay in locally run hostels, or home-stays rather than splashing out on the most expensive hotels helps the local economy. Eat in the locally run restaurants and buy from the local markets.


Man selling fish on the beach


Whenever I feel less than my normal self, when life gets too much, I find myself returning to the ocean. Whether to be held within or to remain at the ocean’s side. This is where I find myself returning for peace of mind, more than any other place I can think of.


Life throws all sorts of adventures, sorrows and incredible opportunities at us. For me, surfing and the ocean are the greatest healers, and the greatest sources of inspiration and creativity.


Surfers on the beach


As surfers, we are incredibly lucky to be able to return to the water, to play so freely and be a part of this booming culture. The energy expended through surfing sends endorphins pulsing through your veins; leaving you satiated, glowing and beaming from the inside-out. It’s likely these endorphins are the reason we become so enraptured. For me, this isn’t the only reason I return to the ocean, it is also the people, the community, the environment, the knowledge, the growing confidence… All these factors help contribute to the addictive power of surfing.


We are incredibly lucky to have this opportunity, and it is something that must be shared and written about. It has the potential to change so many other lives for the better, just as it changed mine.


This is why I surf.


Girl surfing at sunset



*All water shots taken by Piolo Florees & Rudy Ortiz

*All land shots taken by Clare James.
I am a surfer, writer, fitness trainer and outdoor enthusiast currently based in Cornwall, UK. I am passionate about our natural environment and persuading as many people as possible to spend more time outside exploring, rather than inside, stuck behind the TV. I believe time spent outdoors,or within the ocean is a natural healer for the body, mind and soul. I write in the hope that I will inspire others to travel, explore and lead a healthy lifestyle.


  1. It’s good to know that surfing creates a strong sense of community. My sister has been telling me about how she wants to learn how to surf in the coming months. I’ll share this information with her so that she can look into her options for professionals who can help her with this.


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