The University of Plymouth’s research into the area’s wave mechanics was pivotal in North Devon being selected as the UK’s first World Surfing Reserve.

On Friday, May 12th, North Devon will be dedicated as the first World Surfing Reserve in the United Kingdom. The Save the Waves Coalition flagship program has 11 other World Surfing Reserves across the globe. North Devon will join iconic locations like Malibu, Ericeira, Santa CruzPunta de Lobos, and Noosa Heads.

It is a huge step to protect and preserve over 18 miles of coastline that include the outstanding UK surfing destinations of Croyde, Saunton, Woolacombe, and Lynmouth.  

But what makes this coastline so good for surfing and surfers? As part of the stringent application process, the committee engaged the help of the University of Plymouth. 

The university undertook an in-depth study into the mechanics of North Devon’s waves. Led by Dr. Kit Stokes and Dr. Tim Scott, two coastal processes scientists, it was the first look under the hood of some of the UK’s best waves. 

North Devon magic. Photo World Surf Reserves

The Swell

A key ingredient. The university’s research showed that the fetch in the North Atlantic is large, with waves traveling up to 4000 miles across the Atlantic to North Devon, growing in size and becoming extremely well sorted into long period (between 10-20 seconds) groundswell. Average winter and summer wave heights are 1.7 m and 0.9 m, respectively, with average wave periods of 11 s and 9 seconds.  

The Sediment Sink

These westerly swells are manipulated into iconic corduroy lines that can be seen stretching to the horizon. As a large-scale coastal sediment sink for sand, the smooth, shallow Bideford Bay moulds the wild west swells into orderly lines as the waves begin to ‘feel’ the seabed. One of North Devon’s key strengths is that these orderly lines proceed slowly into the Bay, hitting Saunton and languidly rolling to shore. This produces great longboarding waves and some of the best learner waves in the country. And yet on the same swell, just a click around the headland, Croyde Beach can be offering A-frame peaks and heavy barrelling waves at low tide. How, why? Read on.

Saunton rollers.

Oyster Reef and a Fluke of Nature

If you’ve sat atop Downend Point on a huge swell, you may have noticed giant waves capping a far out to sea. This is Oyster Reef and apart from being a mythical big wave spot, it is pivotal in shaping the local waves. 

Plymouth University’s mapping shows the reef sits a mile out, is six metres higher than the surrounding seabed and six metres deep at low tide. 

It’s an underwater traffic cone that refracts some of the wave energy back toward the beach at an oblique angle. These newly-angled waves mix with the un-refracted westerly arriving wave crests, focusing the wave energy into well-defined A-frame peaks. 

“The presence, shape, and size of Oyster Reef create breaking waves of exceptional quality and consistency, and is a complete fluke of nature,” said the Uni’s report. “This mechanism has led to Croyde beach being renowned as one of (if not THE) best beach break in the UK.” 

On shore action at Croyde, courtesy of the offshore Oyster Reef.

And Lastly, Lynmouth

You might not know that the seabed here formed as a detritus plain from material flushed out of the valley during large flood events over several centuries. The current imprint stems from the catastrophic 1952 flood. This means the boulder point rises steeply from the surrounding seabed. When the large, westerly winter Atlantic swells travel up the Bristol Channel and wrap into Lynmouth Bay from the west, the raised seabed sits at just the right orientation to create waves with peel angles of between 30-45°. Or in surfers’ terms, low tide, leg-burning lefts that can run for hundreds of yards. 

All good news for surfers, and pivotal in establishing a World Surfing Reserve. This will give the surf community and coastal protection experts a voice in decision-making processes that affect the coastline and some of the best beaches in the United Kingdom. The reserve aims to make sure they stay the best – for everyone from beginners to expert surfers. 

Worth protecting, right?

Fancy the experience of riding waves in a World Surf Reserve? Book our Spring Classic Surf Lessons for a slice of the action!