In January 2009 I was surfing at a very cold Saunton beach. In the line up I could see two stand up paddle surfers. They were having a great time, swapping waves and chatting to the other guys in the line up.
In the car park afterwards I introduced myself to James and Rob, and got chatting about stand up paddle surfing, Devon and the Hotdoggers Longboard surf club. I returned to Devon twice more before I managed to get some time with James so he could tell his story. James has been a professional travel photographer his whole life, building up a huge library of photos that have been used in newspapers, books and magazines as far back as the 1960s. His travels have taken him all over the world, but it was a trip to Hawaii in the 1960s where he first saw surfing and gave it a go, which lead to a passion he has been unable to shake, and has made him one of the pioneers of surfing and stand up paddle surfing in the UK.
SUPGlobal: I’m sitting here at Saunton Beach with James Davis who has been surfing for…How long have you been surfing down this neck of the woods for?
James: About 45 years.
SUPGlobal:You are originally from Bristol (UK)?
James: Near Bristol, just south of it.
SUPGlobal:Have you always surfed here, was this your regular spot then before you moved down this way?
James: Yes, when I lived up in Somerset almost every summer weekend we used to come down and surf, usually heading for Woolacomb or Putsborough. But also Croyde and Saunton as well depending on the conditions.
SUPGlobal:Was that with your buddy Rob who you used to surf a lot with?
SUPGlobal: You are both from the Hotdoggers Club aren’t you?
James: Yes we are both long boarders from the Hotdoggers Long board club. That’s a good friendly crowd there.
SUPGlobal: So what was it like when you first started coming down to these beaches then. You must have been the only people surfing then. It must have been very quiet.
James: Yes, Tiki was the only shop here originally; they were the original surf shop. Surfing down here was Tim (Heyland) and his partner. There were very few surfers. In those days when you passed another car with boards on you used to wave out because it was that unusual so waves were a lot less crowded.
SUPGlobal: I’ll bet they were, it must have been nice. And then a couple of years ago, you got into Stand Up Paddling?
James: Well some friends who go to France every year to Biarritz for a holiday suddenly came back with a story I think in 2006. They came back and were raving about a paddle boarder they’d seen out there. They were just gobsmacked. These 2 friends surf and they were just awe stuck about this presumably French guy that was surfing along there and catching the waves way before the surfers. And getting rides double the length of surfers and at the end of the ride just paddling back out again casually and then doing it all over again. He had appeared from no-where or somewhere right down the beach and when he’d finished he paddles off all the way down the beach again. So they came back with this story and I thought it sounded quite something. I had vaguely heard about it before, in fact I had been out to Hawaii during my travels over the years and I’m quite sure sometime many years ago I saw a stand up paddler on Waikiki Beach cos that’s what they used to do in the old days and of course that’s where it’s really been revived from.
SUPGlobal: So when were you over in Hawaii?
James: Well I was at sea as a photographer on a liner back in the mid sixties and I started travelling via that. As a photographer we used to photograph the passengers enjoying themselves and then we’d get time off in the ports which was great, and then lucky enough to get to Honolulu and um so, I’d always been struck by surfing from reading about it and seeing pictures from way back and I gave it a try in Waikiki and to my amazement found that I could stand up but the board standard length the was about 12ft.
SUPGlobal:So this is like going back to your roots then getting onto a big board and going paddle surfing. So the beach boy guys were paddle surfing then were they?
James: Yes, yes I’m quite sure in the back of my mind I can see a stand up with one of the old guys doing it. And then my friend saw it in France and then very soon after that Bob, who I go out with paddle boarding, he saw a great shot of Adam Zervas on a paddle board riding Watergate I think it was. And then we thought well let’s have a look into this and then I found out about Olaus (McLeod), that he was intending to become a dealer if he could but I think he found it too complicated. At that time, 2 years ago, 2007…early 2007 we found out that he was a good guy to see. In fact we heard about his long distance paddle, that he’d been sponsored by Reed the wetsuit maker for canoeist, they do a special suit and they’d given him a lot of stuff and they put me onto him. Bob and I went down to see him, he took us out and we had a paddle about on the river where he used to live. He’s moved now but it was at Hayle and we had a paddle around and I found I liked the Jimmy Lewis. I got that, ordered it straight away.
SUPGlobal: How did you find the transition from surfing to paddle surfing? Was it quite a natural one?
James: Yes it was, when I was little I was lucky enough to have a little river going past our house so my elder brothers and I sort of grew up on homemade canoes and so on. We’d paddle up and down the river on these homemade water craft and I always really enjoyed that and I continues canoeing in the Bristol channel near Bristol. I did sea canoeing just for a laugh really and then that was years ago. So I think it’s the paddling part I felt an affinity to and really took to the paddle boarding straight away. Another reason was that I’m not very bendy and was getting a lot of trouble with my neck when I was prone paddling. I was getting very bad headaches, since I’ve been paddle boarding they have virtually gone.
SUPGlobal: Oh fantastic, so it’s a way round it and getting out in the surf.
James: It’s been just fantastic to get the waves much earlier and get longer rides. It’s what long boarding was all about and it’s what paddle boarding is.
SUPGlobal: Yeah it’s exploding on the south coast for that very reason because our waves…they haven’t really got that much power and with the stand up boards you can actually surf them. Even with the long boards these guys never get going fast enough to really get a decent wave so I suppose I’m not entirely surprised that it’s not really taken off here because of the big surf scene. Do you think it will…can you see it getting bigger?
James: Well we thought it would already. This is the third summer that Bob and I have been going and it’s not really seriously taken off.
SUPGlobal: Have you travelled at all with your stand up boards ?
James: I haven’t at all. I like Saunton so much. It’s just so right for paddle boarding that I haven’t really travelled anywhere. Keep thinking it would be nice to go down to Cornwall and try a couple of beaches but it’s tearing one’s self away.
SUPGlobal: I know and on its day it’s just such a great wave as well. The sessions I’ve had down here this year have just been brilliant, really good fun.
James: But next winter I should be travelling out to the Far East and I’m thinking seriously of coming back via Hawaii and probably Waikiki. There is a beautiful wave out there.
SUPGlobal: So how has the reception to it been down here?
James: OK one or two have got a bad name for hogging the wave and not giving way a bit. It’s essential that you share the waves there is no doubt. I’ll always try and get out a bit further looking for a take off to myself and when I come through I’m not going to be aiming straight at anybody. Inevitably I pass people who can’t get the wave and I’m on it but that’s their rules. As far as I’m concerned and I’ve not heard anybody complain but I do try and not cause any argument.
SUPGlobal: Yes, I think there are a few people who have come into it thinking it’s a quick way to learn how to surf and they are not really aware of the respect of making sure that everyone can get a wave and drop in rules.
James:I am sure that is the case
SUPGlobal:To change the subject – you have always been something of a waterman – you did a lot of windsurfing in the 1980s ?
James: Yes on the south coast, I was living there at the time, local competitions and so on. And then I got to missing surfing. I’d always kept a surf board and very occasionally come down here too North Devon and introduced a couple of friends from the south coast to the surfing scene. But then started to find if you picked the right days usually in the winter, you could get a wave at a beach just east of Christchurch and that got me back into surfing once again.
SUPGlobal: Did you ever go to Kimeridge when you were round there?
James: No never really did get to go down there. I tried it once with windsurfing but it wasn’t the right conditions. I didn’t have a lot of time to spare and then in 1996 I really felt that I could make the move down there and thought about going back to Somerset where I used to live but didn’t really like the idea of going back as it had become an over spill of Bristol, very built up so I though right – Down to Devon. Photography was going digital and I knew people didn’t publish so much.
SUPGlobal: So you moved down to the Braunton area?
James: Braunton yes, ten years ago.
SUPGlobal: No regrets?
James: No regrets
SUPGlobal: The other thing I noticed was you have got a Takiama Board as well.
James: Yes, I’ve always liked the Jimmy Lewis from the word go – it’s so much like a surf board and it’s so turnable and everything. That’s a 10ft Jimmy Lewis but I thought what would it be like to have an 11ft also for the small days so I though second board wouldn’t go a miss, having the 2. I took a bit of a chance that the 11ft was the one I wanted you know, I looked at several models, judged the volumes and the weights and the 11’6 is quite a bit heavier and the 11 should catch the smaller wave. The fact is I got that one and it works really well.
SUPGlobal: Good. Yes I think Elliot Dudley rides the smaller one. The 10’4.
James: Yes. He was down for a competition a couple of weeks ago and Bob and I had a look at his board.
SUPGlobal: He is an amazing rider. So what do you think to next year? You’ve got the trip coming up…is that to escape the grim winter?
James: Timing it right. Yes I’m not very keen on the winter but having said that we had a good winter surf last year and with paddle boarding you are not down in the water so you don’t get as cold. You fall off but you are straight back on and you are out of the water and not down in it like a surfer. That another advantage. You just don’t get as cold. Last winter was good fun and the whole of this year since Christmas has been good surf we’ve been very lucky. But then again we’ve had years that have been awful so…
SUPGlobal: Yeah, you never can tell. It’s really mostly Saunton you’ve been surfing though?
James: Yes. Occasionally we’ve been round to Putsborough but neither Bob nor I rate it for paddle boarding. It usually closes out too quickly.
SUPGlobal: The Saunton wave just goes on forever. The Malibu of Devon I think.
James: Yes, some on the longest waves in the UK I think.
SUPGlobal: Do you find SUP is more physical than prone surfing?
James: No – the great thing is I can go out for far far longer than prone surfing. Especially in recent years where I had a back injury about 5 years ago and the prone paddling, I’d just end up with a stiff neck and stiff shoulders and a stiff left arm where I broke it skiing years ago. But it’s a revolution really for me with stand up because I can go out for hours and if I feel tired at all the next day it’s an all over tiredness which is evenly spread. It’s not just across the shoulders it’s just you know you want a days’ rest. No real aches or pains. And I think that’s fantastic. A total revolution to me. I can’t think of any disadvantages of paddle boarding against surfing. I honestly think it’s got all the advantages. Perhaps one tiny disadvantage is when it’s windy you are acting like a sail so you get blown but then again when it’s windy it’s not very good on a prone board.
SUPGlobal: Paddle board wins hands down! Have you sold all your surf boards yet?
James: I have 3 boards and I’ve just sold one!
SUPGlobal: You had a bit of a genius idea for a paddle protector you were telling me the other day?
James: Oh yes. I try not to bang the rail though it happens inevitably from time to time and I think the best thing going is old bicycle inner tube and I went along to our local bike shop in Braunton and I said could I get a couple of old bicycle inner tubes from you. So I came away with 2 or 3 different thicknesses. Chose the one I wanted and carefully cut a long strip. Put it on with evo stick which is always removable and it’s lasted about 2 years. It’s headed toward replacement now but it absolutely does the job. All it cost was the tub of evo stick.
SUPGlobal:An excellent tip ! Well thank-you very much for talking to us, and I hope you have a good trip to Hawaii
James:Its a pleasure, I will let you know how I get on !
All photos by Richard Gregory, www.wavedreamer.co.uk.