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Surfing the Severn Bore, in Gloucestershire, England. photo Wikipedia.Surfing the Severn Bore, in Gloucestershire, England.

Surfing the Severn Bore Gloucestershire, England

The full moon is beginning to fade as day starts to dawn, It is early morning, freezing cold and misty. Through swirls in the mist, mysterious rubber clad apparitions appear at the riverbank clutching long board-like shapes to their sides.

Before long there are between 80 and a 100 wetsuit clad figures dipping fingers and toes into e cold river to test the temperature and peering upriver as if they are expecting something big to arrive. A short time later they start to wade out into the river and perch astride their boards. They are joined by Kayaks and body boarders.

Further down the river a roaring sound approaches as a surge of tidal water. They all turn away from this roaring torrent that is pushing waves over 6ft tall straight at them. It hits them and they are off. Surfing the Severn Bore. Some will drop off the wave within a few metres and others are at the start of a 5 mile surfing experience.

Awaiting the Tide

There are three rivers in the world where you might see a similar spectacle and the River Severn is one of them. A bore tide is a tide that emanates from the sea and sweeps up a river against the normal flow. Most often the ripple is so insignificant that it can hardly be seen. However there are some occasions when the Severn Bore serves up a wave that can outdo even the best surfing beaches in the world.

Generally happening around the time of a full moon and most often during spring and autumn experts can normally predict with accuracy when a full blown 5* tidal wave is going to occur. Sometimes this only happens once a year so expectations on the day are high. When a 5* bore occurs it can be up to  2 metres high and moves at speeds of around 5 – 7 miles an hour but can increase up to around 10-12  miles an hour.

The Severn Estuary, which empties into the Bristol Channel, has the second largest tidal range in the world — about 49 feet (15 m), exceeded only by the Bay of Fundy in Eastern Canada. During the highest tides, rising water is funnelled up the estuary into a wave that travels upstream against the river current at a speed of 8 to 13 miles per hour.

The largest bores occur in spring but smaller ones can be seen throughout the year. The Environment Agency publishes timetables and predictions of bore heights on its website. Being the onset of the flood tide it is accompanied by a rapid rise in water level which continues for about one and a half hours after the bore has passed.

The Severn bore is not a self-reinforcing solitary wave or soliton but rather a shock wave which is formed because the wave is travelling faster than the wave speed in water above the Bore.

History of Surfing the Severn Bore

The first recorded attempt to surf the bore was made in 1955 at Stonebench by The first man to surf the bore was Mad" Jack Churchill; a former WW2 commando who rode the bore with a board that he designed. The bore was then left in peace for around a decade when some Australian lifeguards came up from Cornwall to take on the challenge.

Modern day bore surfers have studied the river in detail and throughout the 80s and 90s the record for the longest continuous bore surf was pushed out to over 5 miles by local surfers. There is an unofficial claim to just about the maximum distance possible on the river currently at 6.7 miles. The distance record discounts prone surfing or body boarding and counts only distance travelled in the standing position.

In September 2005, several hundred surfers gathered in Newnham on Severn to celebrate 50 years since the first recorded attempt at surfing the Severn bore and to view the première of Longwave by Donny Wright, a historical film documenting the evolution of the sport since its inception in 1955

The bore hits the riverbank. photo Wikipedia.The bore hits the riverbank.

Where to Catch the Bore

Nowadays, spectators are treated to a whole host of different craft riding following or staying ahead of the bore. Anything is possible – from the surf kayaks through to jet skis and even the odd inflatable armchair. Spectating is very popular and many people head to Newhnam for their first glimpse of the action.

From there, car drivers can head on up to Minsterworth which is home to the Severn Bore Pub where food and hot drinks are served to spectators. The pub even illuminates the river if the bore happens to decide to take a night time journey up the Severn. Overbridge is a very popular spectating spot because you can stand on the bridge and watch the bore pass underneath.

The Severn Bore at its best can be an exhilarating ride for those prepared to take on the challenge. For spectators it can be often amusing and frequently awe inspiring as this demonstration of the power of nature pushes out of the Bristol Channel and up the River Severn.


Sam Jones

Sam Jones is a frequent surfer from the UK and regular contributor to Owners Direct.

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Location: England
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