If everybody had an ocean
Across the U.S.A.
Then everybody'd be surfin'
Not so fast, surfer boy. Some countries have oceans and no surfing, and some places—like the Severn River in England, 60-odd miles from the Atlantic—have no ocean and excellent surfing. Three or four days out of the year, that is.
Surfers convene in Gloucester to take advantage of one of Mother Nature's wonders, the Severn Bore, a phenomenon of tides and rivers. The Severn River empties into the funnel-shaped Bristol Channel, and when the tides rise in the spring and fall during the equinoxes, a buildup of water occurs, a quasi-tidal wave that turns back the flow of the river and makes for a three-to-six-foot wave surging inland up the Severn.
O.K., so three feet isn't exactly the Banzai Pipeline, but what the Severn Bore lacks in height it makes up for in duration. When it works perfectly, the Severn Bore is the Endless Wave dreamed of in Beach Boys songs: a wall of water traveling 21 miles upstream. And the bore wave is a tricky wave, turned at a 45-degree angle to the banks; the surfer has to zigzag away from the sides or risk being swept onto the riverbank.
"Yes, surfers come from all over the world to try to ride our bore," says Fred Rowbotham, a resident of Stonehouse, a village near the Severn. Rowbotham is an acknowledged expert on the subject and has written a book, The Severn Bore, which is now in its third edition. "Surfing on a river, needless to say, is an entirely different matter than ocean surfing," he says. "The bore gets treacherous in the narrow parts of the river; it becomes a formless surge in the wide parts. Sometimes adverse winds or a lot of rain make the Severn too strong and the bore too weak; it's often disappointing. But some years, ah, it's a sight to behold."
There are about 260 Severn bores a year, some surfable, most not so surfable, and there are some real standouts among the surfable ones. Like the bore of March 21, 1976, which local storytellers recall as being 8-, 9-, 10-feet high and which was accompanied by tales of surfers caught in tree branches, smashed into bridge pylons, swept away and nearly drowned in the debris-filled wake of the bore. Roger Jayne of Minsterworth, who likes to take on the bore in his 16-foot speedboat, watched that bore sweep by his cottage at a crest of eight feet. "It washed over the banks and took up residence in my basement," he said. "It would have been dangerous to do anything but get out of its way." Indeed, local bore calculators figure that the '76 bore was the biggest in 400 years, benefiting not only from the Jupiter effect (when the planet Jupiter aligns with the moon, sun and the earth to create an unusually high tide), but also from being driven forward by a force-9 (47-54 mph) gale. When the bore hit the bend at Minsterworth, the wave sloshed some 20 or 30 feet over the banks, depositing one canoeist neatly on his boat rack—on top of his car in a parking lot.
And it's for monster waves on that order that hundreds of hopeful bore watchers line the river when the bore's expected. A four-lane highway crosses the Severn two miles out of Gloucester and when an exceptionally big bore is expected, there's not a place along the roadway to park or stand.
Those unfamiliar with the phenomenon go down to the river itself, spreading out a picnic on the grassy banks. No matter what the surfing is like, the sight of picnickers scurrying for higher ground as the river rises six feet in a matter of seconds is considered by the locals to be a spectacle equal to the bore itself.
March 28, 1986, 10:21 a.m. A group of about 20 surfers gathers at the final bend before the bridges, waiting, as are hundreds of spectators, for the bore. The Severn-Trent Authority, which manages the waterways, has predicted the biggest bore of the year, a 3 on a scale of 4.
It's a bust. Strong rains earlier in the week have ruined the effect. A pair of surfers up from Cornwall, where there is ocean surfing, attempt to ride the shapeless surge but finally surrender, sinking into the frothy mud churned up from the river's bed. As it starts to drizzle, the spectators scatter back to their cars.