The summer that Pip Staffieri first rode the waves his colossal wooden surfboard is indelibly etched in my mind. My memory isn’t quite what it used to be, I’m an old man now, but I think it was way back in 1938 when he made surfing history and inspired a generation.
I recall it was a roaring, red-hot humid summer in Cornwall; temperatures had reached a record high and there was a consistent, solid swell rolling in from the Mid – Atlantic and breaking cleanly on Towan Beach. There were throngs of tourists in Newquay that year and the perfect waves were full of eager belly boarders, prone surfing on their coffin lids. Perched above the beach on the low cliff was the now legendary Pip Staffieri, in his rusty old aluminium ice cream van, and he couldn’t sell his ice creams fast enough!
I can still picture the long queue of sweaty holiday makers, hankies on their heads, waiting for one of Pip’s famous 99 cones. Everybody said he sold the finest ice cream in Cornwall and Pip said the Italian recipe was a secret he would take to his watery grave. I was stood in the queue, mouth watering, and waiting, when Pip suddenly stopped and stared out ahead towards the clean lines of swell rolling in; it was as if he had an epiphany, like he had suddenly ‘seen the light’. He put down his scoop, undid his apron, wiped his brow and smiled. Hurriedly, he closed the ice cream hatch and rather apologetically exclaimed: “Sorry folks – shop’s closed!” I couldn’t believe it! I was outraged! I was next in the queue.
A few moments later, Pip emerged from behind the van wearing nothing more than a knitted woollen swimming costume. He was small in stature, with a swarthy Mediterranean complexion and a mop of flawless, jet-black, brill-creamed hair. It was then I noticed for the first time that one of his legs was shorter and weaker than the other. He pulled out a vast wooden board from underneath the van. At first, I had no idea what it was, but soon I would learn its purpose. It looked heavy; the thing was vast – at least 13 feet long and six inches deep. It was highly polished and it gleamed in the August sunshine. Pip stroked it lovingly before putting it onto a rusty old sack truck. It was a strange sight to see Pip struggling with it down the winding coast path toward the briny blue, followed by a procession of about twenty people, myself amongst them.
When he final reached the water’s edge he manhandled the board off the trolley and pushed it into the lapping waves and climbed aboard. Everybody waited with baited breath to see what would happen next. Pip began to paddle out to sea before long, we lost sight of him intermittently as he paddled each dropped down the crest of each wave. Nobody expected what they saw next.
Suddenly Pip dropped in from the top of a wave, which must have been at least 4 feet high, and plummeted downwards at an unearthly speed. And then, unexpectedly, like a Hawaiian God, he popped up, stood on his feet, put in a bottom turn and rode that wave its whole length back towards the shore to the sound of rapturous applause. Cool as a cucumber, he pushed his board back onto the beach and declared: “Ice creams are on the house!”
That summer of ’38 was the first wave I ever saw being ridden like that and it made a lasting impression on me. I watched Pip perfect his art over the course of the year and I observed his style closely and even built myself a board just like his.
I’ve been surfing ever since, thanks to Pip Staffieri.