Newquay naturalfooter Nigel Semmens ruled British surfing in the early to mid ‘80s. He also shaped some of the best boards in the land…and he still does to this very day. Legend? We think so.
By: Chris Power with Roger Mansfield · photos: Alex Williams (unless otherwise indicated)
Photo: Pete Bounds
At the age of 13, freckle-faced Newquay lad Nigel Semmens was a typical teenager: mad about football, not remotely interested in schoolwork. He didn’t have a clue what he’d do after school or where life would lead him, and he wasn’t really bothered anyway. Then, one summer’s day in 1970, everything changed. One of his mates bought a surfboard and Nige asked if he could have a go on it, for a laugh. His first session at Tolcarne was a revelation. “From the moment I got in the water I loved it,” he remembers. “That was it, I wanted to be a surfer.”
Just three years later Nigel stepped forward to collect the trophy for third place in the juniors at the 1973 English Championships at Sennen. He was stoked with his result, and stoked to be in the presence of so many of the best surfers in the country, guys like Graham Nile, Tim Heyland, Colin Wilson, Rod Sumpter, Charles Williams and Tigger Newling. Nigel had found his calling.
He quit school at 16 without any qualifications, just a burning desire to hit the road and go surfing. Two of his mates, Mick Etherington and Jerry Peck, had a plan to drive down to Morocco that winter, and Nige persuaded them to take him along. It was his first ever trip abroad, so when the boys reached North Africa it was inevitably something of a culture shock. “Everything was just bizarre to me, the people, the culture…everything. There was no electricity or running water in Taghazoute back then, it was properly third world. We kept all our stuff in the van and we slept in a three-man tent on the sand at Banana Beach. Gas for cooking, gas for light…it was all very basic, but I thought it was brilliant. Every morning we’d get up and check Anchor Point, and most days we’d surf there. It was a really good season, Anchors was eight- to ten-foot almost every day. It just pumped the whole time.”
Nige says he learnt a lot from that first journey. “We were so lucky to get such good waves on that trip, it really taught me loads. Timing, trimming…just how to ride a board properly. And I think it sort of gave me a lack of fear, ‘cos at that age you see a wave and just think, ‘Yeah! A wave! Get in there!’ You don’t think about the rocks or the danger you’re putting yourself in. You just think, ‘I wanna ride that wave!’”
Nigel’s surfing progressed rapidly from then on, and the following summer he won the British Junior title. That achievement led in turn to bigger and better things; in the winter of 1977 he and British champ Graham Nile were invited to compete at the Smirnoff Pro-am at Sunset Beach in Hawaii. It was the dawn of the era of professional surfing. Eighteen-year-old Nigel was well up for the challenge…even when he found himself drawn against Rabbit Bartholomew, Barry Kanaiaupuni and Gerry Lopez in his first heat. “I knew those guys were some of the best surfers in the world but it made no difference to me. I was an aggressive little sod at that age! I wanted to get out there and take ‘em on!”
Nige certainly had the right mental approach that first year in Hawaii but he was let down by his equipment. While the other surfers were riding sleek Brewer and Lightning Bolt guns, Nigel was on a flat-rockered 7’1” which was years out of date. “Compared to the other guys’ boards, mine looked like a bloody ironing board!” He finished fourth in the six-man heat and watched the rest of the contest from the beach.
Frustrated and disappointed, he returned to Cornwall convinced that state-of-the-art equipment was the key to success in competition surfing. Graham Nile took him to meet Kiwi shaper Peter ‘Mooney’ McAllum, who supplied Ocean Magic boards to Graham’s surf shop. Mooney was so impressed by Nigel’s knowledge and understanding of board design that a short time later he offered to take him on as an apprentice, earning the grand sum of £40 a week. “Mooney was a really good teacher, he taught me everything step by step. But it took a long time to learn how to do everything right. Even after I’d worked there for three or four years, I really wasn’t sure if I’d make it as a shaper. I’d put so much effort into making a board, but then Mooney would take a look and tear it apart: ‘Can’t you see that bump? Can’t you see that dip?’ He was a real perfectionist…but you’ve got to be a perfectionist if you want to be a good shaper.”
In July 1978 Nigel flew to South Africa to represent Britain at the World Amateur Championships, accompanied by Steve Daniel, Ted Deerhurst, Bobby Male, Colin Wilson and Pete Jones. Nigel and Steve flew out a week before the contest and opted to spend the time at Jeffrey’s Bay. The boys were in luck. J-Bay pumped for a whole week. “It was amazing. We surfed some absolutely perfect waves that week. It was four- to six-foot and pumping the whole time. Most of the top South Africans were there. I remember Shaun Tomson dropping in on me and standing in front of me all the way through Impossibles, pumping his board like in Freeride. When he kicked out, I kicked out right next to him. ‘Ah, sorry,’ he said, ‘Did I drop in on you?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, mate, you did actually!’”
While they were in South Africa the Brits watched Californian teenage sensation Joey Buran and hot Saffa Mike Esposito tearing up the waves on a revolutionary new board design – the twin fin. Nigel had seen photos of Aussie pro Mark Richards on a twinny in Surfer Magazine, but this was the first time he’d actually witnessed anyone riding one. “Joey Buran and a couple of other guys were flying around on these tiny little twin fins. They were going so fast and their boards were so manoeuvrable. We were just blown away.” Both Nigel and Steve splashed out on MR twin fins while they were in South Africa, and the two surfers quickly became fans of the new style of rail-to-rail surfing. The radical new design was good for business too. Just weeks after Nigel returned to Cornwall with his new prized possession, twin fins were filling the rack at the Ocean Magic factory.
So began a four-year period when the twin fin took over as the state-of-the-art board design around the world. In Britain, Nigel was hands down the top surfer wherever he went. His heavy bottom-turns and full-rail manoeuvres consistently made the pages of surf mags like Surf Scene and Wavelength, and he was always in the thick of it at landmark sessions from booming Porthleven to barrelling Thurso East. He also dominated the contest scene, winning four consecutive English titles and lifting the British title in 1979.
Over the next few years Nigel became one of the most famous surfers in Europe. In 1980 he put in a blinding performance at the World Championships in France, finishing seventh in the Open division. In doing so he helped the British team finish third overall, behind the USA and Australia. It was an amazing result for a nation often derided for its waves.
Once he’d got his teeth into competitive surfing Nigel’s major goal was to become European Champion. His chance came in 1981 when the event was staged at Thurso in Scotland. A hot newcomer on the scene was Anglo-Aussie surfer Peter ‘Chops’ Lascelles whose skill at riding the speedy barrels on offer at Thurso East made him a definite contender for the title. Furthermore, Chops was riding a thruster – one of the first in the country – while Nigel and most of the other surfers were on twin fins. Nigel knew he had to do something really special in the final, so he went for a risky 360 manoeuvre…and pulled it off. The spectators and judges loved it and the European title was his. He was so stoked. “To beat guys like Pete Jones, Paul Russell and Pete Lascelles in perfect six-foot conditions, that really was a crowning achievement for me.”
By this time Nigel had become a partner in Ocean Magic and the factory had moved to larger premises at Trevemper on the outskirts of Newquay. His fame as both a surfer and a shaper were paying dividends for the company.
Nigel looked to professional surfing for his next challenge. Accompanied by Steve Daniel, he competed at numerous pro events around the world in the early ‘80s, racking up some decent results at contests like the Stubbies Surf Classic at Burleigh Heads in Australia and earning the respect of his pro surfing peers.
By the mid ‘80s Ocean Magic was the biggest surfboard brand in the country, with surfers like the Owen twins, Simon Tucker, Spencer Hargraves, Randall Davies and the Winter Brothers all on the OM team. As thrusters took over from twin fins, so Nigel took over the company from Mooney. Now, with the business taking up most of his time, Nigel realised his career as a pro surfer had run its course, although he continued to compete at occasional events.
Looking back, Nigel says he feels fortunate to have been both a top surfer and a top shaper in an era when board design was going through such an exciting phase. “I think somebody up there was looking over me. I feel really privileged to have been through that period, and to have had the chance to learn those skills. If I could live my life over again, well, I’d do it all again…I’d just wanna do more of it!”
The second edition of The Surfing Tribe, Roger Mansfield’s acclaimed book charting the history of surfing in Britain, is available now. Fully revised and updated, the new edition includes 60 new photos, new stories and new profiles. Order The Surfing Tribe from orcashop.co.uk now and receive a free 10” x 8” print by legendary photographer Doug Wilson (see website for details). The book is also available from Waterstone’s, Amazon and other booksellers. RRP £22.99.