While for many of us the ocean is a place to escape to that takes us out of our everyday, protecting it is something that Hugo Tagholm believes should form part of our daily life.
Hugo is the CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, an environmental charity that now mobilises the biggest beach clean initiative in the UK and is leading the fight against ocean plastic pollution.
Surfers Against Sewage formed in 1990 with a clear manifesto: to combat the sewage pollution affecting the water quality at UK beaches.
At the time, the UK's sewage system disposed of waste by pumping it out around the coastline, resulting in only 27% of beaches in the UK passing the minimum standard of water quality. Now that figure is 99%.
After successfully petitioning for the introduction of legislation to improve water quality and implement effective sewage systems, Surfer's Against Sewage (SAS) turned their attention to ocean plastic.
We spoke to Hugo, who has been CEO since 2008, about how he got into surfing, the work that SAS does, and his top environmentally-friendly surfing kit tips.
A life-long love affair with the ocean
“I first got into surfing the way that most people do. My parents used to take me to places where I could surf on holiday in the south of France or in Cornwall, where I now live.
I started off on an old-school polystyrene board and got hooked. 35 years later I find myself still chasing waves... It’s just been a love affair."
An environmentalist, not a surfer
“I put myself as an environmentalist before a surfer. I love surfing and surf as much as I can, but I’m no amazing surfer.
I grew up on the banks of the Thames and first started picking stuff up from the foreshores at low tide as a kid. It was there that I started that love affair with the coastline.
My room as a kid was filled with shells and broken birds eggs and rocks, anything that I found in nature, all labelled up in English and Latin. I was always passionate about nature and the environment before surfing, and then surfing came and took hold of me from ten, maybe eleven years old.”
Surfing is an immersion in nature
“Being in the ocean is an amazing privilege, and I think that anyone who is able to surf should consider themselves fortunate because it’s a great luxury to be able to spend some of your free time in the ocean.
What appeals to me the most about it all is that it's an immersion in nature; it’s a decoupling from some of the constructs of life today, from social media frenzy to the expectations on the individual. In the ocean those things cannot get to you.”
Turning the tide on ocean plastic
“The plastic in our oceans is a symptom of recycling and resource consumption gone wrong.
Surfer's Against Sewage have been working on the issue for well over a decade, and the huge public appetite has only really happened in the last eighteen months or so.
We should all be really pleased: we have got plastic pollution at the top of the government agenda, top of the business agenda, top of the community agenda, and broadly we’re all moving in the same direction to tackle this massive global issue."
A hotbed of innovation
“We’re in a hotbed of innovation at the moment about the solutions.
The solution probably won’t lie in trying to harvest all of the plastic that’s in our ocean, but ultimately by stopping plastics at source. Designing them out of products, but also creating a truly circular economy, where plastic is recycled and used for high value products time and time again.
Whether you’re talking Iceland supermarkets committing to go plastic free, or Adidas collaborating with ocean conservation groups to produce trainers and football kits out of recycled ocean plastics, you see all sorts of businesses reacting to the issue of ocean plastic pollution."
Making a difference every day
“Any day, anyone can make a difference by making choices that reduce their own personal plastic footprint: saying no to plastic bags, saying no to single use coffee cups, rejecting single use water bottles.
Surfers Against Sewage now mobilises the biggest beach clean initiative in the UK, with around 75K people getting involved. It’s a great weekend of activity – monitoring beach litter, picking up beach litter, meeting like-minded people and really being part of a community movement.
That’s something that anyone near the coastline or rivers can do, but if you’re in a city you can always organise a park clean; you can be part of it in whichever way you want.”
A new approach to surfing
“All things we produce have an environmental impact, including surfboards. One of the best things you can do with your kit is keep it for as long as possible and not keep buying, keep consuming. It’s really good to try and get something you love and get a lot of life out of it.
We see in the surf industry a lot of stuff being made out of recycled PET from bottles. We see surfboard manufacturers trying to reduce their impact where they can; we try and reduce air miles where possible. You can look at the places you’re getting your boards from and try to deal with it on that basis. There are all sorts of decisions you can make.”
With this is mind, we take a look at Hugo's surfing kit bag to help you find the best surfing gear that you'll love and will last.
"First and foremost, the biggest waves I surf would not be considered "big" on the international big wave scene... I'm a fairly low-level surfer. My favourite wave is a beautiful left-hander called Droskyn, just down the road. I'm not going to be out at Nazare or the Cribbar."
Hugo's go-to board is his Channel Island Pod Mod, "with quad set up". Designed for experienced surfers, the Pod Mod allows you to cut six inches off the length of your board. It features a wide tail to enhance small wave glide, but is equally well designed for larger waves.
The Channel Island Pod Mod is also available as an Eco Board, certified by the ECOBOARD Project. This eco-friendly surfboard offers the same high performance but has up to 40% less environmental impact than the original technology.
For bodysurfing, Hugo recommends a handplane from Truro-based manufacturer James Otter: "I surf on my James Otter hand plane a lot. It's an amazing piece of kit that really brings you close to the wave. That’s made out of locally sourced wood."
Handplanes are mini surfboards – usually no more than 19 inches long – and their purpose is to lift the rider out of the water, allowing them to ride faster and further.
All boards made by James Otter and his team are made from locally-sourced timber and up-cycled off-cuts from a nearby kitchen worktop manufacturer. The team also endeavour to use low-toxicity finish on all of their boards.
All of this, Hugo says, helps: "There won’t be an outright moment of no impact as even cutting down a tree and making a board out of wood will have an environmental impact. It’s all about trying to reduce your impact where you can."
You can also make environmentally-influenced decisions when it comes to choosing a surfing wetsuit, Hugo notes.
"Look for brands like Finisterre, Patagonia and Visslar. All of these brands are driving a lot of innovative environmental and more sustainable alternatives in the surfing industry and that’s to be celebrated.
I’ve got the latest yulex wetsuit from Finisterre, which is natural rubber, the alternative to the petrochemical driven wetsuit industry."
For winter surfing, Hugo recommends wearing wetsuit boots. In particular he uses a pair from wetsuit manufacturer Xcel.
Thanks to durable construction, external seams and drylock ankle seals that lock water out, a pair of Xcel boots will last you for years. So long in fact, that Hugo can't remember when he got his!
These drylock, split toe boots are especially good for surfing because their single rubber bottom allows you to feel the board beneath you.
Matunas is the original organic and eco-friendly surf wax, and it's the one that Hugo "would always recommend".
It's non-toxic and bio-degradable, meaning nothing nasty leaks into the ocean when you hit the waves on your board.
No chemicals or additives are used, and the scents come from organic strawberries, raspberries and jasmine so your board will smell less like rubber and more like a delicious scented candle.
Getting the right kit for when you're out of the water is just as important.
"We live in a windy, wet part of the world down in Cornwall and so you need to be equipped for that," says Hugo. "I wear a lot of Finisterre waterproofs, which are great kit for the winter conditions here when it’s wet and rainy. They're super well built, super waterproof, and that stuff is pretty important when you’re a UK surfer."
Our favourite of the Finisterre waterproofs is the Mistral jacket, which is made from two layers of 100% recycled polyester. It also features comfortable lining and a breathable mesh membrane, making it a coat you'll want to get back into after a surf session.
- If you'd like to know more about Surfers Against Sewage, get involved with a beach clean or join a plastic-free community, visit the website today.