I can’t see the bore wave as it races up the river because I’m facing away from it, paddling furiously against the flow, desperately trying to pick up some momentum. But I can hear it.
And I can tell from the excited reactions of people watching from the bank that it’s a big one, just as predicted for this equinox morning. As it bears down on me, the roar of the relentless rolling wall of water keeps getting louder, obliterating the squawks of spectators.
Even without the sinister sound effects, it’s really unnerving waiting to be picked up by a wave that’s being recklessly driven by the moon. Not least because the warnings given to me by more experienced river surfers about the potentially deadly consequences of getting forced into the branches of overhanging trees are still ringing in my ears.
But more than anything, I’m anxious because I know I only have one shot at this. If I don’t get on this wave, I won’t get another chance to ride one this good for at least six months when the next equinox comes around.
Luckily, there’s not too much time to dwell on fear or fatalism. Because before I know it, the bore wave is lifting me up by the legs, and I have to grit my teeth, grip my board and put my game plan into action.
What's a tidal bore or bore wave?
While many rivers are great for exploring on a stand-up paddleboard, you can’t surf such waterways because… well, there isn’t any surf. Which is a problem.
However, once a month, around the full moon, a natural phenomenon known as a bore occurs in certain estuaries. This is essentially the leading face of a large incoming tide, and as it rolls up the river, it creates a wave, which, if the stars align and the circumstances are right, is very rideable. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, these waves can get big, and it’s possible to surf them for miles. Quite literally.
The River Severn – Britain’s longest waterway, which slithers for 220 miles between England and Wales – boasts one of the best bores in the world for surfing. This is due to the size of its tidal range (a frankly frightening 15 metres) and the angle and shape of its enormous estuary, which gapes wide to get a massive mouthful of water as the bore comes up the Bristol Channel, with the weight of the North Atlantic behind it. The estuary funnels this onslaught of water up the river, which rapidly narrows, turning the tide front into a fast-moving wave.
And there, waiting in the water at various places along the river, you will find a particular breed of surfer. Welcome to the weird world of the Muddy Brothers, a freshwater boarding fraternity.
One wave, one chance
Unlike catching a break at the beach, where sets roll in all day, river surfers have one chance to get on a single wave. Miss it, and they have to wait at least until the next tide, but potentially a full month or more, until the lunar cycle, the tide table and the hours of daylight all align and combine to deliver the right conditions for the bore to be rideable.
But catch that elusive white horse, and they could be in for the ride of their life. The distance record for surfing the Severn Bore is over 9 miles, a journey that took an hour and 45 minutes. Just imagine standing up on a wave for that long – surfing up a river, past farmers’ fields, flood meadows, woodlands and wide-eyed onlookers on the banks.
I’d heard lots of legends and stories about the Severn Bore over the years, and it had long fascinated me, but while I’m an experienced paddler and SUPer, I can’t claim to be much of a surfer, so the thought of trying to ride it was a bit intimidating.
I knew that kayakers sometimes surf the bore too, and I did think about taking this approach, but I got the impression that not everyone was super stoked about the presence of paddlers on the wave. If it goes wrong, a large plastic boat can wipe out several boardriders – and I didn’t want to be that person, especially since some surfers will have travelled a long distance and waited months for their chance to experience the phenomenon.
I’d also heard the wave can get crowded, especially around the equinox, and assumed that there would be a bit of protective localism on display. But then, through a photographer mate called Ollie, I met some of the Muddy Brothers, and it turns out they’re a lovely, very welcoming bunch. Sure, they don’t really want to be knocked off their boards by rookies in boats, but they immediately extended an invite for me to come along and suss the situation out. So I did.
The bore wave happens every month, but it varies in size from a little ripple to a roaring 6-foot wall of water, depending on various complicated factors connected to the lunar and tide cycles. Helpfully, the Severn Bore website tells you what date and time the wave is due to roll in and how large it’s expected to be. Stars are awarded according to the size of the wave, with 5 stars being the biggest and best.
People do surf the Severn bore at night, wearing wetsuits and waterproof head torches, but that didn’t seem like a sensible thing for a noob like me to attempt. So I was on the lookout for a good-size wave in daylight hours. As the spring equinox approached, I was in luck, with 4-star waves predicted just after dawn on two consecutive days.
On the first day, I arranged to meet two regulars, Tom and Steve, who have both been surfing the Severn Bore for over 20 years. We rendezvous at Steve’s place, a houseboat moored just off the Severn, in a place where the wide estuary starts to narrow into a river. I arrive at daybreak, just in time to find Steve standing by the broad majestic river, watching the wave go past, with a lone kayaker riding the crest.
I’m worried we’ve missed it, but Steve is totally relaxed. He’s not yet in his wetsuit, and Tom hasn’t even arrived. When he does, the boys still don’t seem in a hurry, and over a viciously strong coffee, Tom explains that, although the wave moves at around 12 knots, the river takes such a serpentine route that we’ll easily overtake it and get to the put-in point before it passes through. Steve says that back in the day, he would regularly surf the wave in several spots, jumping in his car every time he fell off and racing ahead to catch it at the next put-in.
Eventually, we do leave and drive to a spot just past the Severn Bore Inn, where several campervans are parked up, with people pulling on wetsuits next to them. Steve and Tom do likewise and get their boards down to the riverbank by a house owned by the parents of a friend. “I don’t mind sharing the wave,” grins Steve. “It’s what surfing is all about. But we do have our secret put-in places.”
I’m just here to watch and take photographs today, but the boys are joined in the water by a bloke on a SUP and two kayakers who have drifted downstream from a different put-in. “Oh no… boats!” Tom groans. But he’s only joking.
Within minutes of them getting in the river, the wave appears, racing past the pub, and the guys start paddling with purpose. A good 5ft tall, the wave picks up the guy on the SUP first and nearly sends him into a nosedive. He recovers but forces Steve into taking evasive action. Despite the near collision, Steve skilfully springs to his feet and joins Tom on the wave. And then they’re gone.
Behind the wave, a confused, messy mass of water, full of whirlpools and eddies, continues to surge up the river, completely reversing the direction of flow. It’s incredible to watch and contemplate that this is all being powered by the moon.
Twenty minutes or so later, Tom and Steve reappear, full of beams and banter, having ridden the wave for about 500 metres – well shy of the record, but a good, fun run by all accounts.
“You going to have a go tomorrow then, Pat?” Steve asks. “The wave is going to be even better.” And how could I say no to that?
Taking the plunge
As mentioned, I’m not much of a surfer. I’ve dabbled, had a lesson or two over the years, and managed to stand a few times. But that’s it. Recently, however, I have been perusing some of the best beginner surfboards with a view to putting that right and actually learning properly.
Immediately after watching Tom and Steve ride the bore, I invested in an 8ft Foamie (retailer link) made by Two Bare Feet, a Devon-based beach and boardsport brand. I’m worried the lads will laugh at me when I show up with this classic newbie board the next day, but they don’t (much) and instead reassure me that it’s perfect for the job. Most river surfers use longboards because the extra buoyancy compensates for the lack of salinity in the river, and it makes it easier to catch that all-important one-shot wave.
Clad in my 3.5mm Picture Organic wetsuit, I get in the water, and Steve gives me a crash course on how to surf the bore. Get well back on the board, he stresses, or you’ll be thrown right over the front of it by the force of the wave. “And don’t rush to stand up,” another regular river surfer called Ben tells me. “Make sure you catch it, and ride it prone [laying down] for a bit. If you try to stand up too soon, you might fall and regret it.”
“And mind you don’t get taken into those dangling tree branches,” Tom adds, suddenly looking serious. “If you do, rip off your ankle leash and just let the board go – it’s more important to save yourself.”
It all feels a bit real now, and that must show on my face. “Don’t worry,” says Steve. “Just aim for the middle of the river, and we’ll make sure you don’t go past the get-out point. We keep an eye on each other here.”
When the wave grabs and lifts my legs, I’m instantly grateful for all these words of wisdom. As instructed, I’ve positioned myself well back on the board, but I still almost get sent into a nosedive. My body levels out, though, and once I’m confident I’ve actually caught the wave, I take my time and stay in a horizontal position for a while, feeling the force of the wave propelling me along.
Whitewater chaos surrounds me, and I can’t see what the others are doing, so I just stay in my own zone. After what feels like several minutes, but is almost certainly just seconds, I start to stand. And, just as Ben cautioned, almost as soon as I’m on my feet, I fall and find myself bobbing in the boisterous aftermath of the wave.
I’m well clear of the trees, though. And Tom is right behind me, having taken an early tumble himself. Steve stays on the wave all the way to the get-out and then waits for us. Despite our mixed fortunes, we’re all buzzing. My ride may have been short, but it was sweet.
“You coming back for another go next month?” Steve asks as we carry our boards back to the cars. Too right I am.
Hanging with legends of the bore
Heading off for a post-surf slurp at the waterside Stables Café at Saul Junction, I find the place full of river surfers, including Ben, who had given me the sage advice about not getting to my feet too earlier, which had proved so prescient. Ben makes bespoke boards (external link) designed specifically for river surfing, so he knows his stuff.
He introduces me to another guy who says he only ever surfs rivers, never gets his board salty in the sea, and regales me with stories about riding bore waves on rivers in France, India and Brazil. We chat for ages before I clock that I’m talking to a genuine Muddy Brother legend. My new buddy, Steve King, holds the record for surfing the Severn Bore. In 2006 he rode the wave for an amazing 9¼ miles (just under 15km) in an epic run that lasted one hour and 17 minutes.
Steve grew up on the banks of the Severn (before the bridges were built, his grandparents used to operate a ferry service across the river) and still lives on a property right on the riverbank.
“Let me know the next time you come down,” he says. “You can camp at my place if you like.”
So much for my fears about localism. The Muddy Brothers are the friendliest surfers I’ve ever met in my life, and I can’t wait to immerse myself deeper in the subculture that swirls around the boardriders of the Severn Bore.
I bid the boys farewell. Until the next full moon.