Interview: SUP Mag UK
Photos: Julie Small
Rob Small is noted as being a hard charging surfer. A Cornishman at heart, he upped sticks and disappeared to Lanzarote for a number of years, but recently returned to his favourite haunt of Crantock – only this time with a stand up paddle board under his arm.
Smally isn’t just a wave head though; fully embracing the sport of SUP as a whole he’s regularly out huffing downwind when south westerly storms hit. He’s also known to indulge in a bit of flat water sweeping fun along one of the most underrated spots in the whole of the south west – the River Gannel. An open minded individual who speaks his mind, Rob also offers sit on kayaking at his surf school on the beach in Crantock.
Our Ed caught up with Rob to find out what makes a red bloodied Alpha surfing male suffer the risk of ridicule from his peers and adopt a paddle.
When did you discover stand up paddle boarding and what made you decide it was something you wanted to get into?
I was selling surfboards for Tunnel Vision and Bilbo, my sponsors at the time, and their shop was next door to Tim Mellors’ in Newquay. Tim would tell me all the benefits of SUP but I didn’t want to hear, like most surfers. Eventually we went for a paddle and here we are now…who’d have thought. Later on John Hibbard was a huge influence, he hooked me up with some kit and showed me that SUP was really four or five different sports. Both those guys have been instrumental in the sport’s growth in the UK.
How did you find SUP at first? Were you mercilessly taunted by your surfing mates or did they respect your decision to try something new?
SUP surfing is much harder and more demanding than it’s given credit for – especially by regular surfers. At first I couldn’t even turn the thing around, paddling through surf was a nightmare. I held the paddle like a spear or a guitar for months. As a surfer your water and board knowledge is there but you have to learn about the paddle – it was a trip to be learning so much after so many years of surfing. As for the boys giving me shit? Water off a duck’s back. I’m all for the banter but have no patience with the sneering. We all start these type of pursuits for fun – surfing, SUPing, sailing or whatever. When the sticker on your board or your inclusion in a certain clique becomes more important than the joy of riding waves and being in the water then perhaps you should look at why you’re there. I do have a chuckle at some of the more contrived characters stalking the beaches.
Lanzarote is known as the ‘Hawaii of Europe’ – for good reason. How was it tackling some of those meaty waves on your stand up paddle board?
Stand up paddle is well suited to bigger waves. Increased mobility, vision, speed all aid riding big waves. We’ll see a steady increase in stand ups being used to ride big and giant waves. On a local level just look at Nick Healy at the Cribbar, Finn Mullen in Ireland and internationally Kai’s performance at Jaws this winter was amazing. On a less positive note, the high board volume and paddle make for brutal wipe outs and plenty of punishment.
Did you get much hassle from locals – known as being extremely protective over their breaks?
The Canary Island locals have a connection to their islands going back hundreds of years that needs to be respected and understood. Lanzarote is a small place and everyone knows everyone else’s business so when you’re part of the community you generally find a way to get along. Learning the language and a bit of culture and history will help too. Surfing when it’s 20ft and no one wants a piece doesn’t hurt either – but truthfully I try to be mindful of the environment I’m in and the currents flowing through it. I guess it’s a result of getting older.
What’s the heaviest wave you’ve ridden in Lanza on your stand up and how do you approach those kinds of wave with a paddle in your hands and an oversized board under your feet?
I’m afraid I can’t tell you but I can say that the Canary Islands have some of the most fearsome, demanding waves in the world and can have very serious consequences for the unprepared. I approach them with respect and caution.
‘The Rock’ is perceived as a hardcore surf spot, with its myriad of gnarly reef set ups. Would you recommend it to intermediates or should it remain an expert only destination?
The marquee spots are really off limits to SUP surfers without a very high level of experience and ability, preferably some command of Spanish and a local contact. However there are plenty of other waves, good coastal flat water paddling and some of the best downwind surfing anywhere. In short it’s a SUP paradise and I miss it terribly when it’s cold and grey here! Anyone thinking of going should contact Christian Diaz at SUP Lanzarote, he’ll change their ideas of what the island offers.
What made you decide to leave Lanzarote after so long and return to the UK, and why did you settle in Crantock? What makes that spot so special?
I was over mortgaged on a property and the recession, la crisis, forced us out. As fantastic as Cornwall is it’s very difficult to have some of the best surf in the world on your doorstep and then have to adjust to endlessly average Cornish conditions. I sometimes feel like I’ve had a limb lopped off! Thankfully Crantock offers a lot and is the perfect location for the school. We have good surfing waves on its day, a river mouth break and an incredible estuary for flat water and kayaking. We’re very fortunate that the National Trust work in partnership with us and we have exclusive use of the beach. It might not have grinding lava slabs but it’s not too shabby.
As someone who has a handle on both the surf and SUP scene in the UK do you see more acceptance from prone riders of stand ups?
Crantock, generally, is a pretty mellow place with all types of water craft in the line up. Crantock has become the focal point of SUP surfing in this area so there’s a greater degree of acceptance than at some other spots, however, you still have to play the game and respect other water users. As far as acceptance from regular surfers goes, it’s actually irrelevant to me. I try to break down preconceptions and not reinforce them but if someone isn’t enjoying their surf because a stand up paddle surfer is there then that’s their issue.
What’s your opinion of the UK’s SUP surf scene as a whole? Do you think we could get to the same level as the stand up paddle boarding super powers of this world?
We have some good SUP surfers. Aaron (Rowe) has a great future. Guys like Al Mennie and Tom Lowe can hold their own against anyone, especially if it gets heavy. I just hope that SUP surfing avoids the problems surfing has faced: lack of funding, lack of an integrated and cohesive plan to raise performance levels, lack of ambition, vision and confidence. We have some great surfers but our standing in Europe has been sliding for well over 20 years despite positive developments like the UK Pro Surf Tour. I mean, we have private companies supposedly coaching the next generation of hopefuls and in reality they’ve achieved almost nothing. It would be nice to see SUP surfing avoid these issues. We need to sort out who our governing body is, what its motivations are, what the perceived goals for the sport (all disciplines) are and how to achieve them. It’s complex though because there are so many arms of SUP and some existing organisations that have been involved for some time. They will have a deserved sense of ownership and certainly won’t want to relinquish control if things change. SUP is still uncharted territory and growing pains will surely happen.
How do you see stand up paddle boarding in general here in Blighty? You mentioned before you think it’s a subtly different scene to elsewhere in the world. What did you mean by this?
SUP is actually pretty healthy in the UK. It’s starting to penetrate inland and coastal regions not traditionally associated with board or surf sports, which has to be a good thing. Correspondingly there’s a definite lack of respect and understanding in some areas. I think the surf community can be very resistant to change, especially when that change is viewed as a threat. I also think that some UK surfers mimic attitudes expressed in the (foreign) media. Ultimately SUP is finding its feet and is developing here at more or less the same rate as in other parts of the world. Hopefully this will give us the ability to forge our own identity within the global scene.
Will SUP explode and which areas of the sport need attention to help increase growth?
I’m not so sure we’ll see an explosion as much as a sustained growth. Racing is going from strength to strength and recreational paddling will only get bigger as more folks realise what a fun thing it is to do. SUP surfing and downwind paddling will grow too, but these are more technically demanding and I imagine we’ll see growth there as the average level of paddlers increases. Perhaps we’ll be looking back at these years as ‘The Golden Age of SUP’ before the masses ruined it all!
UK SUP is steadily growing but it hasn’t quite reached the heady heights it was predicted to (yet). Why do you think this is?
Let’s face it, the UK is a cold Northern Hemisphere country with volatile weather and unpredictable sea states. To get to a good level of proficiency you have to be prepared to deal with this in pursuit of your fun. It’s not for everyone is it? Expense is a factor too, not just the cost of equipment but the secondary costs such as fuel and an investment of time. The economic situation has been a factor too. The rewards are worth it though don’t you think?
What mode of wave sliding transport do you choose (mostly) for riding at Crantock and your surrounding spots? Do you still surf as much or is it more about stand up paddling these days?
I have everything from a 5.7ft groveler surfboard to a 14ft downwind board in or on the van. I’ll take what’s best for the conditions or my mood on any particular day. I’ve sort of stopped distinguishing between surfing and SUP surfing – it’s all just riding waves.
What’s your ideal SUP wave – at home or abroad?
I like to ride the same sorts of waves on SUPs as I do on surfboards. A bit of push and some room to move. But if it’s head high then that’s fine too. Generally my favourite wave is the one I’m on.
Although you love Crantock, and Cornwall in general, would you rather be elsewhere or are you happy to stay put now? What, if anything, would tempt you back overseas?
As much as I miss the Canaries I’m so tied to this area through professional and family connections that I can’t see another period of living overseas soon. One thing that was negative about the Canaries is that you don’t want to leave such an idyllic life and consequently you miss out on some other opportunities. I only made my first visit to Ireland this year – the 44 year old Irish virgin!
You own Crantock Surf School, which offers a diverse group of activities. Surfers can sometimes be narrow minded and closed off to any other form of watersport. What made you decide to offer SUP and kayaking alongside surfing?
Well I was already heavily involved in SUP when I took the school on so that was a natural step as the Gannel is probably the best location for SUP on the Cornish North Coast. The Gannel kayak tour we do has turned into something more in depth. I try to tell visitors about the history, flora, fauna, Cornish place name meanings and the like. They seem to enjoy it and I enjoy offering something unique in this part of Cornwall. Sit on tops are great with a little bit of care and safety – another avenue for people not attracted to surfing to enjoy the water.
Which is the most popular sport at your school and, broadly, what type of person do you get coming along on your sessions – kids, families, young adults, ladies or other?
The school’s clientele is really families whilst my higher end stuff is small groups and individuals who have already some investment in their chosen sport. Surfing is still king. SUP is growing slowly and the kayak tour is always fully booked, but then we only work with small groups to preserve quality and safety standards. I’m very interested in higher end coaching and training both in SUP and surfing and shall be introducing more involved one off or periodic clinics with specific goals. Watch this space!
Do you have any burning stand up paddle boarding ambitions to knock off your bucket list – waves or other?
I’m itching to get to Ireland, Scotland and the North East more. I don’t think it’s compulsory to go to Hawaii for your big wave fix or even credibility. Look at Al Mennie, a world class big wave guy who’s never set foot in Hawaii. I’m also suffering from a downwind problem; I guarantee it’ll get under your skin and become an obsession.
Talk to us about your supporters – Fanatic International and ION – how did their sponsorship come about and what do you have to do for them?
I was actually paddling around in good surf at Gwithian filming for my friend Ol Beach, lead singer of Yellowire. It was for the Mercury Phoenix Trust and I was dressed as Freddie Mercury, Wembley ’86, red piping on the trousers, buckled yellow jacket and duct tape moustache. The surfers must have be spun out by the whole thing, or at least thought it was a piss take. Anyhow the surf was pumping and I was snagging a few waves, one of which was good enough for the moustache to take flight. Ant Baker was on the beach and seemed impressed. He put me in touch with his brother Nik who is distributor for the UK and I’ve been with them ever since. So a huge thank you to Ant, Nik and Ollie. (I still wear the Freddie outfit sometimes).
I don’t view my relationship with Fanatic (ION or Volkan Watches) as sponsorship. It’s really a form of employment. Clearly the younger team members bring the highest levels of performance, or innovation, to the team but I think that with the older guys there’s some heritage – a journey if you like. Personally I think it’s as much about connecting with people and being an ambassador for the sport(s) as showing that the product works and getting exposure. I feel very fortunate to have this support especially at a time when marketing budgets have been smashed and team riders have been losing their backing all over the place. There are a lot of surf instructors around these days.
Do you have any input into the design process of SUP kit?
Fanatic require feedback from their team riders. I’m not part of the R&D team but I do make my evaluation and comments known to them. It’s something that I’d like to be much more involved in, I have so much experience in surfboard design that I know the numbers pretty well and certainly for the surfing part of stand up paddle there are parallels. With computer cuts and design software it allows you to be a designer rather than a shaper. For sure it’s a shortcut compared to pre-computer shaping but the hard fact is that the numbers are the numbers and if they work then the machine will make a more consistently functional board than by hand. However Fanatic have guys like Luke Egan, Kyron Rathbone and Belar Diaz on the team so they’re not wanting for expert product analysis.
Are stand up paddle boards as performance orientated as you’d wish?What would you change if you could and how would this benefit the average stand up paddler?
Each board should be as performance orientated as the rider requires, this is why the prestige manufacturers like Fanatic have comprehensive ranges. Honestly, the levels of performance that we see today in elite SUP surfing will seem normal in five years and I think that design will be the major factor here. Custom ordering will become more prevalent at the highest levels and it will be interesting to see how the market and the brands adapt to this. At the recreational level the boards we have today are already covering all the bases and so we’ll see less change in design and production models will remain the best option for the casual rider. Race and downwind are a whole other area that could just go crazy. Look at the 2014 Fanatic Falcon; it sure appears weird but it’s one of the best downwind boards ever.
Do you have any specific design traits in mind to increase your own enjoyment of the sport?
From a wave riding perspective I think we’re only just starting to really figure it out. Volume distribution, foils, rail shapes and volumes, bottom contours and rocker haven’t been as on it as they might have been. There’s a wealth of knowledge from the last 50 years of surfboard development, much of which can be adapted to SUP surfboard design. Certainly the idea that paddling stability is derived from high volume rails and flat deck lines is changing. There’s stability to be had by having your rail lower in the water, the trick is to get the board to paddle well enough and be stable enough to stand on it. If you look at the very low volume boards some guys are riding at the moment they don’t stand on them until they paddle for a wave, surely this is just surfing with a paddle in your hand. A huge part of SUP surfing is that you’re in a standing position whenever possible, let’s not lose sight of that.
What do you love about SUP and what don’t you like so much – if you could change one thing what would it be?
If you look at SUP objectively you see that it’s a way for people to connect with their surroundings almost anywhere there’s a body of water. You have weekenders put-putting about on the local reservoir, guys rushing white water rapids, surfing from 1ft little peelers to massive Aileen’s, glorious long distance downwind runs and full on jock style races. It isn’t just that older bloke on a 10.6ft any more. What other board sport is impacting so many people over such a geographical and social range? And why change it? It’s got its own impetus.
If you had to choose just one sport to do for the rest of your life what would it be and why?
Any final shout outs and acknowledgements?
My long suffering wife Julie, I love you! Fanatic, ION, Volkan Watches and K-66 – thanks for believing in me. I also love good sipping rum, like summer in a bottle, my after session vice.
You can find out more about Rob by visiting www.crantockbaysurfschool.com