If you’re reading our blog then you already know that Cornwall is a haven for surfers and beach enthusiasts alike. While surfing tends to steal the spotlight, there's an age-old water sport that has been bringing joy to people for generations and is experiencing a well-deserved resurgence at the moment. We both bought a bellyboard back in 2022, so it feels like a good time to share the things we’ve learnt so far in the hope it encourages more people to have a go.
I (Chez) first tried a bellyboard with Gather and Glide surf school, I have to admit I was nervous as I was inexperienced using surf fins and had never been on a wooden bellyboard. There was no leash so how was I going to swim and hang onto the board if a wave tumbled me? Alan and Sam were fantastic instructors and I found it was surprisingly easy to swim out back, duck dive under waves and hold onto the board in white water. The boards have a low buoyancy and a slim profile so it takes very little effort to push them under a wave in front of you, or you can simply turn them side on to the wave for it to pass you by with little drag. Thanks to Alan and Sam I had a brilliant introduction to bellyboarding! (That's me on the far right in the picture below during the lesson!)
Sam and I have since been out on bigger days and have loved bobbing about in the water, meeting fellow ‘fringe’ surfers and, for me, riding waves I wouldn’t have felt comfortable on with a surfboard. Here are a few reasons you should give it a go:
Accessible to all
All you need is a bellyboard, which can be easily hired around Cornwall and in many other places for free thanks to Dick Pearce’s Surf Wood For Good campaign. The other great enabler is that bellyboards can be used in most wave conditions too; you can enjoy the white water, try some small clean waves or head out back to ride the set waves. You can be much less fussy about your wave conditions than perhaps you might be when going for a surf.
Easy to master the basics
For those new to surfing waves, bellyboarding is an excellent starting point. In a short space of time you can learn to catch white water waves, master turning and riding along a wave which opens up your repertoire to unbroken ‘green’ waves. There’s no tricky pop up to master and aside from being able to swim you don’t need good upper body strength and flexibility which is where many struggle with surfing. Bellyboarding will also teach you more about wave selection and placement on waves which is vital for surfing.
Another benefit is that you can ride waves within the lifeguards’ red and yellow flags where surfers with larger, heavier surfboards cannot go. This is one of the greatest perks as out back between the flags is generally quiet with lots of space to catch green waves. As you master the art of belly boarding, you'll build confidence and water awareness, potentially paving the way for more advanced water sports in the future.
A nod to tradition
Bellyboarding is a part of Cornwall's coastal heritage, dating back over a century. Long before modern surfboards became popular, locals and tourists alike got a thrill riding waves on repurposed pieces of wood, such as planks from old doors or discarded wooden panels. In Hawaii, a similar style of wave riding known as "paipo" also emerged around the same time. These paipo boards and the bellyboards in Cornwall shared similarities in design and riding style, despite being developed independently on opposite sides of the world. The Museum of British Surfing in Braunton, Devon is THE place to go to find out more about the sport’s history.
The modern-day fringe surf community
Cornwall has a vibrant alternative surf community which welcomes newcomers. Whether you’re into body surfing, mat surfing, hand-planing or bellyboarding you can often find a crew of likeminded people in the water – look between the red and yellow flags! Joining local groups and events will build your confidence and help you meet people. Check out Fringe Surf Shop’s social media for news on meet-ups and the inspiration to try something new.
So what are you waiting for?!
What do you need to get started? The bellyboard is the absolute minimum but as with any sport there’s other stuff which might be useful. A wetsuit is the obvious one and our advice here would be to wear your thicker one if you have a choice, you’re submerged in the water the whole time so you’ll get colder quicker in the cooler months. Fins are useful although some people don’t get on with them and choose not to wear them, they’ll need to be shorter “swim” fins rather than the longer fins you might use when diving. If you’re wearing fins then some neoprene socks are a gamechanger for keeping your feet warm and comfortable in the fins. Many people don’t go out back without a helmet to protect themselves if a surfer runs into them. Lastly, in the colder months and if you’re not wearing a helmet, a wetsuit hood is really helpful for keeping you warm and the cold water out of your ears. We’d advise going to see Steve in Fringe Surf Shop in Newquay for all the kit you might need.
Whether you're a local or just visiting the South West for your holidays, bellyboarding awaits you with open arms. With its deep-rooted heritage, ease of learning, and profound connection to the ocean, it offers an unforgettable experience for people of all ages and abilities. So, head to the nearest beach, find the lifeguarded sections and go catch some waves!