Surfing and Paddling England

The view of Looe.

On our first full day in Looe, a 12th century fishing village along Cornwall’s southeast coast in England, my cousin Toby suggested we go for a paddle around Looe Island.

It was a perfect day to be on the water and was unusually sunny, warm and glassy. Toby, who is an active volunteer with the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) guided me and my two sons, Israel and Daniel, out on two kayaks, a standup paddleboard (SUP), and a paddleboard.

Toby (left) on patrol with the RNLI on the Looe River. This boat had been donated by the family of a young surfer who had been killed in a car accident.Photo courtesy Polly Stock photography.

The waters of Looe River were crystal clear. While passing the Banjo Pier as we paddled out to sea, Toby said, “Sometimes when the tide comes back in and there is a little swell you can surf the SUP in on little river waves that break off the pier.”

Sailing and paddling the Looe River.

The boys and I, along with my father, were in Looe, to visit my large group of cousins who live and work there. My mother was English and her elder sister, my Aunt Jackie, had moved to Looe from London with my Uncle Ken after WWII.

I had spent the summer in Looe when I was 15 in 1979 working at the family sporting goods store, Jack Bray & Sons, for my cousin Zena and her husband Martin Bray, Toby’s parents. I reveled in the ocean lifestyle of Looe where everyone seems to either sail, water-ski, fish and surf.

The most remarkable part of Looe for me was listening to the accent of the fishermen in their blue smocks who worked the waters of Looe. You’ve heard these accents—the ‘Ar-matey” and “shiver me timbers of the classic Pirate movies. That accent is essentially a copy of the true Cornish or West Country accent.

I even spent a few days surfing Newquay on the north coast with England’s then national champ Nigel Semmens. Nigel is currently one of Europe’s most well respected shapers through his label NS Surfboards.

There was no better way to reaquaint myself with Looe than paddling around the charming village and its seaside. After crossing the mile-long channel, Toby, the boys and I explored the paddled the tree-lined and rocky island, while great black-backed gulls dive bombed us as we explored sea caves below their cliff-side nesting areas.

A view of East Looe and my cousin's shop.

Looe Island had first been settled by an order of monks sometime around 1139 and had been a hideout for smugglers and pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries. Now the island is a nature reserve owned and managed by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and a critical component of the Looe Voluntary Marine Conservation Area.

Fierce looking and large-snouted grey seals inhabit the waters of the island. The Latin name of Britain’s largest mammal, Halichoerus grypus, means ‘hooked-nosed sea-pig’. As we circumnavigated the island, we spotted a seal basking on the surface. It certainly looked fierce, but disappeared as we came close.

We headed back to town and headed up the Looe River. Dividing the once separate towns of West Looe and East Looe, the river is bordered by old shops, fishing boats and timbered docks that look like they were built a few hundred years ago.

The boys enjoy playing in the West Looe River.Photo courtesy Matty Bray.

The tree-lined West Looe branch of the river that we turned is part of the Trenant Wood that is managed by the Woodland Trust. Herons flew away as we silently paddled past. Large schools of mullet swam beneath us.

After a mile, we turn around and leisurely paddle downstream back to the Banjo Pier. We stopped on the way to say hello to Toby’s sister Gaby and her two young towhead sons, Jack and Drew who were playing along the banks. Drew is appropriately dressed as a pirate.

The view from Constantine Bay. The rocks on the right were later submerged at high-tide and became a fun semi-point right.

A few days later, the boys and I drove northwest of Looe to Constantine Bay, a broad and open beach that is considered one of Cornwall’s most consistent surf breaks. I had surfed there on a visit in 1983, when my brother Nick and I had camped in a nearby field and spent a couple of days sampling super fun waves.

The left at Constantine.

After a torturous trip through rolling hills and ancient villages, with one-lane roads bounded by tall hedges, we found Constantine. The tide was low (tides are extreme in England, with average tide differences over 13 feet). The water was an emerald green and glassy and there were 3-5’ La Jolla-shore style peaks rolling in on the sandbars.

While the beach was crowded with tourists (the English love their seaside holidays) the lineup was almost empty. The boys and I surfed for a couple of hours and then took a break to eat lunch and wait for the tide to rise.

Due to the extreme tides, surf conditions in England can change at a moment’s notice.

Sure enough, the west end of the beach that a few hours earlier had been exposed rock was now covered with water. Suddenly out of nowhere, a set broke revealing left point-reef set up that looked good.

The boys and I quickly threw on our wetsuits, grabbed our boards, and paddled out.

For the next couple of hours, we shared the super fun head-high lefts with a small crew of very friendly locals. The boys exchanged stories with a local grom, while I scratched into a few long lefts. Later I paddled over to the opposite side of the beach that was a high-tide right semi-point.

The western end of Constantine that later became a left point at high tide.

I caught a variety of lefts and rights, and the semi-point offered up long head-high rights with fast sections perfect for snaps and cutbacks. It was hard to believe I was surfing by myself.

For me, our last surf in England was the most pleasant and unexpected of our surfing adventure in Europe. And s the boys and headed back to Looe after our all-day session, I realized that the surfing experience we take for granted in Southern California is overrated.

Daniel at Constantine Bay.

There are thousands of beaches worldwide that offer a surfing experience that is just more than about riding waves. These spots help surfers connect with the spirit of adventure and friendship that is at the core of our sport that due to pollution, overcrowding, and coastal development we have largely lost in Southern California.

An espresso cart at Constantine. I love this sign. Maybe all beach signs should be pleasing to the ey rather than an official bummer message about what not to do.

So get out and enjoy the waves and surfing experience the world has to offer. You won’t regret it.

My Surf Mum


Me, my mother and my brother Nicky in West Hollywood before a wedding in 1979.

I wrote about my mother recently in a Surf Mum posting. I spent a lot of time with my mother before she passed away. But as I wrote in my story about her, much of my childhood was spent at the beach with in the company of my mother, my dad and brother Nick.

Josephine Alexandra Fournier Dedina, 73, passed away at her home near the beach Feb. 23 from ovarian cancer. Known as Jo to family and friends, she lived in Imperial Beach with her husband of 54 years, Michel Dedina.

She was born in London, England, in 1937, the youngest of three daughters of Lou and Dorothy Fournier.

My mother and father on their wedding day in 1957 in New York City.

German bombing raids during World War II and the experience of being evacuated to the north of England later influenced her anti-war and environmental activism as well as a future career on behalf of children’s welfare.Upon moving to Imperial Beach with her family in 1971, Jo quickly became involved in ultimately successful efforts to preserve the Tijuana Estuary from development, during which time Jo met Mike and Patricia McCoy.

“I really loved her. I really did,” Patricia said.

The two woman had a lot in common. Both grew up in World War II England and shared a “wicked” sense of humor and love for the environment and justice.

“It’s hard to put it into words but she was a very spirited and principled person, and she taught her boys to fight for what was true and right and I think that it shows,” Patricia said. “She brought them up to respect these things, people rights and that sort of thing.”

My mother and my little brother Nicky at Carlsbad State Beach in the late 1960s.

In 1974, Jo and her family moved to El Salvador in Central America for a year.

There, she volunteered in an orphanage. The poverty and injustice witnessed played a role in her decision to earn a law degree at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

For 30 years, Jo specialized in juvenile justice to aid children and families across San Diego County as a public defender and judge pro tem.

The Dedinas traveled widely and lived in Paris, London, New York City, the Cornish Coast of England, Los Angeles, El Salvador and Morocco.

My brother Nicky, my mother, my Swiss Uncle Emile Moura and me. San Felipe around 1972 or 73.

Both warmhearted and quick-witted, Jo loved cooking and entertaining for family and friends.

After retiring, she spent time gardening, doting on her three grandsons, reading mystery novels and doing the daily crossword puzzle. She loved visiting family abroad, before advancing multiple sclerosis made travel too difficult.

Family members, including her niece, Zena and her husband, Martin Bray, frequently traveled from England to Imperial Beach to see her and help care for her as her health declined.

“She kept her spirit until the end and she never let people see it get her down except for close friends,” Patricia said.

Jo is survived by her husband, Michel Dedina, their two sons, Serge and Nick, and three grandsons, Israel, Daniel and Paolo.

A memorial service will be held Sunday, March 6 from 1–4 p.m. at the Dempsey Holder Safety Center in Imperial Beach in the lifeguard station.

In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the Imperial Beach Boys & Girls Club.

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