Cornwall bellyboarding championships get a 'cool' edge

Jack Johns Former champion Jack Johns at the cutting edge of bellyboarding

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Competitors from all over the world have travelled to Cornwall for the 10th annual World Bellyboarding Championships.

The event on Sunday at Chapel Porth beach at St Agnes saw a record 350 people take to the sea.

"They were a bit of a joke five or 10 years ago," says Devon bellyboarder Sally Parkin, showing her plyboard wood.

"Surfers would never have dreamed of going on them."

And you can see her point.

Yet the skinny boards that many learned to surf on as children are now being taken more seriously, and a new wave of surfers is lining up to have a go at the sport of bellyboarding.

BELLYBOARDS

Bellyboards
  • Plywood, about 4ft (1.2m) long
  • Used in British waters as early as the 1800s
  • Design based on Hawaiian Paipo boards - meaning short or small board.

Among them is former pro bodyboarder Jack Johns, 26, who was crowned 2010 bellyboarding champion.

"It's being picked up a younger generation as a super-cool and different way to ride waves," said the former professional surfer.

"It's still regarded as quite eccentric, but professional surfers are really starting to enjoy them.

"It's something I picked up for fun and really loved it."

Newquay surfing instructor Laura Hamblin reckons bellyboarding is a "blast" and highly rated Porthleven surfer Sam Boex is also among the converts.

Organisers said they had to cap the number of entrants for the first time since the event started in 2002

So bellyboarding is deemed cool in some quarters, but what about the costumes?

After all, wetsuits are banned and the retro look is de rigeur at the contest where there is a prize for the most nattily dressed bellyboarder.

The event, described as a very British celebration of the traditional art of surf riding, even has a prize for best baked cake.

Ms Parkin, 52, admits: "It is quite eccentric.

"But it is incredibly sociable. It is about having fun in the waves.

"You have to have a certain talent or be a certain age to stand up on a surfboard, but this is really inclusive."

'Special atmosphere'

Bellyboarding has become a career for the former graphic designer.

Her Devon-based belly board firm, The Original Surfboard Company, has sold 1,300 boards since it was launched in 2008.

"I went to the world championships in 2007 and loved it," she said.

Belly boarders The event has retained its eccentricity with a prize for best baked cake

"You are more in the wave because the boards are thinner.

"I have been getting up at five o'clock and working all day because it is something I feel passionate about and enjoy."

All you need to compete at the championships is a 4ft (1.2m) piece of wood, a swimming costume and perhaps a little bravery.

It was started by local lifeguard Martyn Ward and surfer Chris Ryan in 2003, when about 20 competitors gathered for a memorial contest to Arthur Traveller.

Mr Traveller, a panel beater from London was a regular visitor to Cornwall and would bellyboard the waves of Chapel Porth whatever the weather.

The championships have now grown and this year include an international field aged from eight upwards.

National Trust Ranger and contest director Nick Holden said: "Regardless of where they place in the heats, hundreds of competitors will be guaranteed to leave the water with wide smiles.

"It's just a special atmosphere which a growing number of people help to create."

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