It has been the wettest January since records began in poor old sodden Britain, and the freak weather continues. Not that it is unusual for it to rain in the nation of umbrella carriers and macintosh wearers, just not this much for this long. Those living on the Somerset Levels – a man-made flood plain – are the worst affected and have been underwater since Christmas. Access to many homes and villages is by boat or across pontoons.
This weekend has brought yet more rain with strong winds that have created huge tidal surges. Benefitting from this combination are the surfers and kayakers. Although it is highly dangerous, and discouraged, they have been having the rides of their lives.
None more so than those brave souls who have taken to the water to surf the Severn Bore, in the River Severn estuary, by Bristol. It should be pointed out that they were expressly told by the Environment Agency not to do so, but for experienced surfers who know what they are doing, the chance is too good to miss.
Steve King is the most successful of the Severn Bore surfers. In 2006 he created a new world record by staying up on it for nine miles. The river is a whole metre deeper this year than it usually is, at 10.3 meters, and the wave was predicted to be the biggest ever. In the event, it rose to an average of six feet, earning it a five star rating. The highest height ever was 9.2 feet in October of 1966.
The wave is a lot slower than a traditional beach or reef break, and the atmosphere is very different, with so many, sometimes up to a hundred, surfing on the same wave. One of the big dangers is the debris in the water, which can be hazardous. Items spotted in the past have included fridges, oil drums and dead animals. One year there was even a coffin, that was thankfully empty.
Unlike ocean waves, the river waves last a lot longer, and it can be possible to surf for an hour or more. The first recorded surf of the Severn Bore was by WWII veteran Jack Churchill. It was Australian lifeguards, travelling in England in the 1960s that really popularized the sport in the UK. For those not lucky enough to get picked up by the wave, they can always jump in a car and race down the river to try their luck again. Of course there is only one wave, but it runs for miles, so it is a unique opportunity to try again.
There was danger for spectators too, with three severe flood warnings along the river, meaning lives were at risk. Onlookers were standing too close to the banks and were reluctant to move on when asked. Police helicopters were on standby. In the wake of the bore comes a surge, and more riverside homes and roads got flooded. Thousands turned out to see the bore go by.
The bore forms when there is a rising tide and the water gets funneled upstream going against the river current. It is effectively a shock wave. The largest ones are usually seen in the springtime with the neap tides.
The freak weather and flooding has been disastrous and difficult for many households and businesses, but for surfers, they don’t care, as long as there is a wave to catch.
By Kate Henderson