The most successful surfer Britain has produced; Russel Winter would have been just getting a feel for his first board around the time Nigel Veitch was crowned national champion in 1985. A year later, after legally changing his name to just Veitch, he joined the ASP World Tour and set off around the globe. With history waiting to be made and the word seemingly at his feet, who would have imagined that within a few years, it would all go tragically wrong.
Born in 1965, Nigel Veitch grew up to adopted parents in Gosforth Newcastle, on the northeast coast of England. Plagued by an ear infection and incessant bullying through his school years, Veitch resisted the urge to join his classmates chasing a career in professional football and instead turned his attention to the icy waters of the North Sea.
Supremely talented, it took Veitch just four years from his first wave to reach international acclaim, recognised by 30,000 readers of Surf Scene Magazine, as the European surfer who had contributed most to the sport in 1984. He became British champion the year after at the age of 20 and earned his spot on the World Tour for the 1986 season.
With so much publicity and a ticket to the big leagues, there was understandably commercial interest. Local brewers Newcastle Brown Ale, eager to align themselves with the region’s rising star, gave Veitch the funds that would take him to competitions as far away as Japan and South Africa, in exchange for their logo on his board.
A season of contests later, some breath-taking shots, notably from Pipeline in Hawaii, and with Gul now providing his wetsuits, Veitch was ranked 33 in the world. Not a bad jump from around 140 the year before.
It was here however that the fortunes of Britain’s most promising young surfer began to turn. His financial backing disappeared, leaving him with no option but to return to Tyneside and the sobering realities of life as a gifted athlete without the resources to compete.
Veitch’s passion for surfing endured as he reintroduced himself to his hometown waves, pulling off perfect carving turns and critical floaters in the cold and uninspiring conditions he must have thought he had left behind. Unfortunately for someone so at ease in the water, life on land became a struggle, with an unfulfilling stint as a doorman and ambitions to train as a police officer scuppered by his lack of height.
Fractious relationships in his personal life were perhaps the final straw and on an otherwise forgettable day in April 1991, Veitch scaled the cliffs at the southern end of King Edward’s Bay in Tynemouth and jumped 40 meters to his death. He was 26 years old.
He may have led friends and family through an excruciating, horrifying ordeal that day but this was no drug or alcohol fuelled catastrophe, the type that has claimed the lives of so many talented individuals. Veitch is described by those who knew him as ‘clean living’ and ‘ahead of his time’. But also as an extreme character, for whom “just getting by” was never likely to be enough.
What Veitch does share with a galaxy of stars is an ongoing legacy. Inspiring others to follow in his footsteps; only now with a network of care and support, of the kind he was not afforded. Two time national champion and one of the UK’s most consistent performers, Sam Lamiroy knows Veitch as ‘an icon’, while to professional big wave charger Gabe Davies, he was a ‘mentor’, who cleared a path that future northern surfers could tread.
Watching on as talented youngsters from our now established surfing communities struggle to make an impact on the global stage, one has to marvel at what a kid from Newcastle achieved in the mid-80s. To believe that he could rival the world’s best on a playing field where he had no role models, nor footsteps to follow in, is remarkable in itself. Maybe he was not around long enough to appreciate the significance of what he was able to do, but we can look back on Veitch’s success with admiration and view his story as one that epitomises the precept that where you come from should never limit where you can go.
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