March 29, 10:58 a.m. A 2 is predicted and the people of Gloucestershire prove loyal, lining the bridges again. "Everyone knows the bore after the 'big' bore is the best," says one camera-laden man.
Sure enough. And what a surreal spectacle it is. Picture the English countryside, complete with rolling green hills, a sleepy river meandering through meadows filled with sheep. Suddenly there's a tremendous rushing sound. Where the river bends there is a Big Sur type of breaker that sends the sheep scrambling, then another breaker, as the water that precedes the bore itself rebounds from the banks of the winding river.
Finally the bore comes into view: a wedge of water, a vast V-shaped swell in the middle of the river with two nicely formed waves on either side. The crowd applauds; the surfers have survived the corner and are up, hanging 10.
Stuart Matthews of Wincanton, Somerset, has a good claim to being King of the Severn. The 36-year-old physical-education teacher has ridden the bore 86 times since the late '60s. On the secret of bore riding he says, "The long-board riders have the edge. The more drag, the more inertia you can get, the better, particularly as the wave fades out in the wide, deep stretches of the Severn.
"The bends are the dangerous part. As the wave swings around a river bend, it picks up speed, and if you're not careful, you can find yourself in a tree, a bank or worse. I surfed beside a guy who fell off his board on a turn and was dashed against some rocks, breaking his leg."
In addition to injuring surfers, the bore has snapped kayaks in two and capsized boats, once drowning two canoeists when their craft, trapped by brush at the edge of the river, wouldn't turn upright. Swimming the bore is sheer folly, as surfers who fall off their boards discover, because the turbulent mud and debris make control impossible. And then there's the landmark everybody has a story about, the Maismore Bridge, which is only about 13 feet above the river under normal conditions. If the river rises, say, eight feet and a surfer is six feet tall, that doesn't leave him any headroom.
But the danger is almost as much a part of the appeal as the idea of staying up on your board for miles and miles. Matthews's personal best is 2.6 miles. Rowbotham estimates a good bore in the most cooperative stretch of the river can yield a ride of four or five continuous miles if the surfer can do it without making a single mistake.
There are two different ways to get a long ride out of the Severn Bore. One is to have an assisting motorboat nearby so that when the bore fades in the wide stretches, the boat can whisk the surfer upstream to meet it again when it reforms. Matthews has ridden the bore this way more than 11 miles and thinks that 12 is likely.
The second way, for the surfer on a budget, is a process known as "chasing the bore," a spectacle in itself. The Severn Bore typically moves at about 11 mph. The idea is to catch the bore near the mouth of the river, ride it until it fades, run to a waiting car, speed to Minsterworth, catch and ride it again until it fades, run back to the car and try to catch it again at Overbridge. Sightseers and veteran bore watchers participate in the race as well, making the narrow country roads and dirt lanes of Gloucestershire seem like a road rally course. This bore-induced grand prix is best observed from a pub near Minsterworth called the Severn Bore, an English country alehouse with the times and dates of all visible bores (some less strong bores only affect the water beneath the surface) posted near the fireplace. "You can tell the bore is acoming on the river," says the barmaid, "when you see that circus pass by out yonder on the road. You never seen such daftness in your life."
And it should be noted that not everyone likes or approves of this daftness. At the Gloucester tourist information office, when a visitor asked for directions to the bridge to see the surfers, he was received coolly. "Oh you're not going to surf on our bore, are you?" asked a motherly woman, a look of polite disappointment on her face. "All that nonsense on the river is so unseemly, not to mention dangerous. The Severn Bore is one of the natural wonders of the world, and all those boats and canoes and surfers ruin the effect of it every year." And she has a point, because too many boats can disrupt the flow of the bore, influencing its effect upstream, and with small bores, spoil them altogether.