Backstory: Cornwall's battle of the 'breaks'

In quaint Cornwall, surfers fight a plan to generate electricity from the ocean. Who owns the waves?

Traveling to St. Ives in Cornwall, on the very southwest coast of England – or the "toenail of England" as Virginia Woolf called it – is like traveling back in time.

Its Fore Street is as English an avenue as you'll ever find – curving, cobbled, draped with the salty whiff of the Atlantic and the constant squawk of seagulls. Rotund men with sun-reddened cheeks stand outside rickety shopfronts, imploring us to buy, buy, buy Cornish pasties, ice cream made from Cornish clotted cream, and big glass bottles of Scrumpy, a cider named after the local dialect verb "to scrump," or to steal apples.

It's Olde England preserved in formaldehyde except for one thing: the surf shops. Five of them on this one street – and they're the busiest shops of all. The preponderance of surfboards, wet suits, and shades, as well as straggly blond hair, bronze tans, and "Dude!" punctuating the salt air in this English surfing mecca, really punctures the stereotype of the pasty, bowlered Brit on summer holiday at the White Cliffs of Dover or in the beautiful-but-rainy Lake District.

"We do a roaring trade – well, in the summer at least," says David Hall, who has been running the Wind an' Sea surfing store for 15 years. "People have been surfing here since the '50s, but it has really taken off over the past decade."

Yes, Britain is an isle, but who knew it would have its own respectable surfing mecca? Woolf, who spent her first 13 summers – 1882 to 1894 – here, caught a hint of the appeal, writing of "hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach."

A century later, those waves continue to crash, but today they're carrying more than prose and pink and purple surfboards – they're carrying controversy. In what some are calling the "Battle of the Breaks," the waves themselves have become the subject of an increasingly bitter conflict between environmentalists and surfers.

A grand scheme to convert the power of Woolf's "one, two, one, two" into electricity is being developed by the British government and two British energy firms. Scheduled to be operational by 2008, the £20 million ($38 million US) project will anchor 20 sets of turbines, pistons, and pumps 10 miles off the southwest coast, where they will float in the path of the Atlantic swell, capturing energy.

The good news is that the "Wave Hub" is predicted to generate 20 megawatts a year – enough to power 7,500 homes, or 3 percent of Cornwall's overall demand, says Matthew Taylor, one of this region's parliamentary backers of the plan. The bad news is developers believe it will reduce the height of waves by more than 10 percent, affecting a 20-mile stretch of beaches from St. Ives to Newquay, a larger Cornwall town considered to be the "surfing capital" of England.

"Of course it may reduce wave size," says Mr. Taylor, "but Cornwall has so many fantastic surfing beaches that we can help save the planet and still have enough surfing for everyone."

So who owns the waves? Are there enough to go around? And should the thrill of catching a wave in a wet suit override the need to find new, greener ways to generate electricity?


Down at Porthmeor Beach, considered the best surfing spot in St. Ives, the middle of the beach – marked by two black- and white-checkered flags – is reserved for surfing. Here, Deano Mackay, who runs St. Ives Surfing School, shows students how to leap onto their boards as a wave approaches. "Balance is key!" he shouts over the constant crash of the surf. "Many of us are worried about the impact the Wave Hub will have," he says, shaking the sand from his blond locks during a break. "Anything that makes these waves smaller is bad for us."

Mr. Mackay was born and bred here in St. Ives, yet he's got a slight Australian twang to his voice – many British surfers seem as much influenced by Australian surfing culture as by American. As a teacher of surfing, Mackay is most concerned about the effect the Wave Hub will have on "learner waves," smaller crests favored by novices. They could be reduced to a ripple, he fears. And as a pro surfer who's been riding waves since he was 12, he worries the Hub might "lessen the punch" of the towering swells that can reach between 10 feet and 12 feet. "We care for the environment," he says. "But we also care very much for our sport. Some of us feel torn."

At the Sloop Inn, a harborfront pub once the haunt of artists and writers drawn to the stunning Cornwall landscapes and now dominated by the surfer gang, one cocky young man doesn't bother with a bow to environmentalism. "These are our waves, not the government's," says Rory Geoghan. "I mean, they could put the Wave Hub somewhere else, couldn't they?"

Actually, no, say environmentalists. The big waves surfers need are the big ones needed to power the turbines, and they need to be placed close to the population they're serving.

But not all surfers oppose the government's project. "Maybe a reduction in the size of the waves, in the name of greener energy production, will wake some surfers," says Luke Jennaway, who runs the Pro-Surf store on Fore Street. He says surfers should be more aware of the impact they're having on nature – and more prepared to do something about it. "Surfing boards themselves are bad for the environment, because of the kind of plastics and toxins they contain," he says.


In July, the British Wind Energy Association published a report predicting that, if done well and effectively, wave power from the Atlantic and the English Channel could generate up to 15 percent of Britain's energy needs. Already, a "seaflow" turbine has been operating off Lynmouth, generating 300 kilowatts of electricity per year from the tides. It's still a test turbine, but it is hoped that it will begin powering local homes soon.

So far, the surfers are the only constituency mobilized against the Wave Hub. Locals outside the surf set, interviewed on the street here, seem generally unaware of objections to the project.

Yet surfers by themselves can be a vocal, if not formidable, foe. Their presence here follows a long line of arrivals, from fishermen to painters, who flocked to St. Ives to live and breathe the sea. Where fishermen sought to harvest the ocean and painters to capture beauty, surfers aim to catch a wave – a more direct form of sea appreciation perhaps. The only question now is: Can the waters around Britain accommodate both green energy production and those taking advantage of the "one, two, one, two" for other reasons?

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