With matching language, media and presumably therefore general outlook on life, the island of Jersey shares a lot with the UK. Like Britain, it has surfers and being in the same part of the Atlantic, it would be sensible to assume it also has surf.
This might be where the similarities end however because Jersey, it turns out, has a very different relationship with the sport of kings. In fact, people here were riding waves long before it was done in Cornwall, and for a time around the middle of the 20th century, this seemingly insignificant island was the surfing capital of Europe.
It began in the 1920s, when Jersey born Nigel Oxenden returned from his travels, eager to replicate a fascinating practice he had witnessed on the beaches of South Africa and Hawaii. Using the only materials available to him, Oxenden crafted plank like body boards, fitted with simple leashes and painted with his unique designs. Soon after, he launched what may well have been the continent’s first surf club, and as the 30s arrived, surfers up and down St Ouen’s Bay were standing up on boards made from teak and balsa wood.
Nigel Oxenden with his board in 1923
Tragically, the wartime occupation put a stop to surfing in Jersey just as it was taking off. German mines littered the shoreline and it was only thirteen years after the Nazis left that three young South Africans would make their way into the line-up.
Born in Durban, Shorty Bronkhurst, Bobby Burdon and Cliff Honeysett were miserable. They had travelled to England in search of sun and surf, only realising a few months into their stay that it had been a woefully misguided pursuit. They registered for emigration to Australia and would likely have left, were it not for a night at the cinema, where they watched an advertisement by the Jersey Tourism Board that showed perfect waves peeling into St Ouen’s Bay.
Excited to discover the paradise they had been searching for, the trio boarded the ferry from Weymouth and got themselves jobs lifeguarding on the beach at Watersplash. On arrival, the group set about building their own boards, using odd bits of plywood and old floorboards. Standing fourteen feet tall, these hollow constructions weighed little under 30 kg when they were dry, and had a cork at one end that was removed to drain the water after a surf.
Belly-boarders, unsurprisingly grew tired of leaping clear of these torpedos as they rampaged through the shallows, and before long were demanding protected swimming areas. This in turn created a closer community among the growing number of surfers, and in 1959, a boardriders club was inaugurated.
At first a social group of Jersey folk and travelling lifeguards, the club’s members had boundless ambition. From 1963 they hosted national competitions, and before the decade was out, Watersplash would be the venue of successive European Championships, bringing spectators in their thousands, to see local Gordon Burgis, crowned on both occasions.
This however, would prove to be a peak for surfing in Jersey. Shaper Steve Harewood made the island a major exporter of surfboards to the continent through the 1970s, but in the water it proved difficult to replicate the glory days of the previous twenty years. France and Spain slowly awoke to the potential on their doorsteps and by the end of the 20th century had overtaken the tiny island.
A good day at the bay
Fortunately, with a multitude of superb set-ups, crammed onto a wave-catching coastline of less than twenty miles, losing the attention of the wider surfing world doesn’t seem to be keeping the locals up at night. They keep the spirit of times-gone by alive through the Channel Islands surf team; currently ranked 5th in Europe, and with a junior squad one place below, Jersey looks set to continue a tradition of punching well above its weight.
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