The freedom surfing brings to those that live on an island nine by five is a tantalising prospect for many, but not one that all of us are necessarily brave enough to try or possibly inclined to. Happily that’s not the case for Steve Wilkinson, a well-known local surfer, with a long-standing relationship within the surf industry.
Steve’s obsession with surfing was inherited from his father Mike, who helped to start the Jersey Surfboard Club in 1959, he’s one of the faces in the iconic photo with the men and their wooden longboards.
At 17, like many before, and after, him Steve packed his bags and his boards and went away travelling. When he returned in 1985 he and his dad opened Freedom surf shop, along with Steve Harewood, who was the man behind designing and making the Freedom surfboards they sold. “We sold the business 12 years ago, but I stayed on and managed it for 10 years after that. I eventually left three years ago and after some time out which I spent surfing and skiing I moved on to open up Madhatter two years ago.”
Surfing runs through the blood of Steve’s family – his children were brought up on the beach and all three of his offspring are hardened travellers who love the beach culture. “Surfing and the associated industry has changed a lot over the 30 years I’ve been working within it. When I first got into it, it was really cool, companies were largely run by surfers who used, designed and really believed in their products. But that’s changed over time and when I finally left Freedom my heart wasn’t really in it any more. But after some time out I looked back and realised that I still love the industry.
Surfing has evolved a great deal over the decades, it’s always been a counter culture activity. It started with a small minority of people to begin with, but then it became massively corporate and then it became un cool again. You’d see people walking around wearing surfing brands just as fashion items, it became way less real. All of the big brands were being run by accountants looking at the bottom line and their headquarters were all miles away from the beach, which wasn’t the case historically.
The whole surfing industry has gone through a really difficult time since the financial crisis in 2008. It was on its knees and many of the really big brands suffered as a consequence. The bonus of this has meant that now many of the smaller suppliers, the guys that still actually surf and love the industry are being able to make their mark again, it’s gone full circle.
What I love about our shop Mad Hatter is that we’re now working with the smaller brands again, I’ve been approached by some of the bigger ones but we’ve made the decision to say no to them. If you look to the surf shops in California it’s all about smaller brands, the financial crisis really shook things up a lot. It possibly doesn’t sound it but it was a really positive thing, the surfing industry was decimated and it’s actually really helped small manufacturers get back on the map and get involved again. Which means that it’s as fun as it was 20 years ago.”
So does being your own boss and owning your own business, mean that Steve gets to down tools and surf when he wants to, “Sadly with only three of us in the shop I don’t get out as much as I’d like to. I used to feel physically sick if I couldn’t get down and surf and I knew there were waves.”
What about the future of surfing in Jersey? “If you’ve got plans to become a championship surfer then you need to start early. Whilst it’s easy enough to pick up a board and have some fun in the waves it’s a difficult skill to master, but whatever your level you can’t help but enjoy yourself. We’ve got a very high standard of surfers in Jersey, but the average standard is also way better than places across the UK.
According to Roger Mansfield’s acclaimed book, The Surfing Tribe, surfing took off in the Jersey following the arrival of three South African lifeguards, who only went to Jersey on a whim after seeing pristine beaches and waves on a newsreel film at the cinema. This may well be the case, but it is people like Steve that have kept it alive! And his advice if you’re tempted is “head down to the beach and have a go.”