Wet,wet, wet! Watersports in Pembrokeshire
Rosie Fuller, editor of Adventure Travel magazine, jumps in and makes some waves
It’s what you get in Pembrokeshire, but in a very welcome kind of way.
South west Wales is renowned for its watersports – hardly surprising, considering its hundreds of miles of coastline.
‘Pop! Pop! Pop!’ shouts the instructor as I flail around before plunging nose first into the white water. I’m on a beginner’s surf lesson in Newgale, and ‘pop’ is short for ‘pop up,’ the technical term for getting to a standing position on a surfboard. Not something I’ve mastered quite yet…
I’ve come to Pembrokeshire for a long weekend of adrenaline and adventure with my similarly outdoorsy friend Hannah Burgess. We both love the sea, and Pembrokeshire is the ideal place for a splashing good time. Pembrokeshire has Britain’s only coastal national park and it is huge, starting near Cardigan at the top and running all the way to Tenby and beyond at the bottom – about a third of the county. And the selection of water-based outdoor activities on offer is equally massive.
Our original plan is to try kitesurfing, so we meet up with Oli, owner of the Big Blue Experience in Newgale to join one of his beginner kitesurfing courses. Unfortunately there’s no wind, but it doesn’t matter as the surfing conditions are excellent. Oli calls in surf instructor Dan and we hit the waves instead.
Dan’s method of teaching surfing is brilliant. Instead of telling us everything in one go, he does it bit by bit. First we go into the sea simply to practise catching waves. Once we’ve nailed that, we come back out and he shows us how to kneel on the board in what’s called the prone position. And only when we can do all that does he explain how to pop up. Splitting it up like this not only avoids overloading us with too much information in one go, it also means we get regular breaks – surfing is so tiring that you need them.
Dan is also endlessly enthusiastic. ‘Oh my gosh – look at the size of that wave!’ he yells every time a biggie comes in, even though the swell must seem tiny to him. He promises that he will have all of us standing up by the end of the session as he dashes from person to person giving tips and answering questions.
Also in our group is a family of four on holiday from Gloucestershire – Cath and Paul Arkell and their teenage children Ben and Emily. Unsurprisingly the kids are better than the parents, but everyone’s having a brilliant time – it’s obviously a great family activity. I’ve tried surfing before and am standing up fairly regularly by the time the lesson ends. Hannah also manages to stand up and so does Ben, with the rest of the group not far off. We finish feeling shattered, sunburned and like we’ve drunk 10 pints of seawater, but we’re elated.
Our next activity is one I’ve wanted to try for a while: stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP, claimed to be one of the world’s fastest-growing sports. It involves a long, wide board and a paddle and – as the name implies – you stand and propel yourself by paddle-power. We’re back with Oli and we head up the road from Newgale for a few miles to the pretty village of Solva, which has a harbour that’s perfect for first-time SUPers when the tide is in.
I can see why the sport is so popular. We begin by kneeling on the boards before progressing to standing. It’s exceedingly wobbly at first, but do-able. One of SUP’s benefits is that it develops core fitness: all that balancing really works the stomach muscles. It’s also nice to learn a new skill you can pick up fairly quickly. And I love how peaceful it is. Once I’ve got the basics I potter among the boats moored in the harbour having a lovely time.
It also leads to some spectacular falling in. Oli’s mum has come along to try the up-and-coming sport her son teaches, and she pulls off the world’s funniest nosedive over the front of her board. Hannah and I manage to stay on ours until Oli says the dangerous words, ‘Hey guys, how about this challenge’, and demonstrates turning the board into a see-saw by standing on the back and pushing down on the front with the paddle. It sees us both get very wet, very quickly. But once we’ve fallen in, we’re more confident in what we try, and start to learn faster. The Big Blue Experience offers days out exploring the coastline by SUP, or you can surf SUP-style – Oli tells us it’s easier than normal surfing as you’re already standing. I’m determined to come back to try both.
Day two of our action-packed weekend sees us at the Stackpole Outdoor Learning Centre, just under an hour down the coast. It’s a newly refurbished 130-bed eco-centre owned by the National Trust, in the middle of the Trust’s stunning 2,000-acre Stackpole Estate. The centre is used by all sorts of groups – schools, scouts and guides, outdoor groups, universities – but individuals like us can stay here too. Another plus is that its disabled access and facilities are top notch, as it was originally a centre for disabled people.
As well as accommodation it offers activities like coasteering and sea kayaking. ‘Coasteering is everything your parents tell you not to do at the beach,’ says our instructor Tom when we meet at a rainy Stackpole Quay. Sounds perfect. We get wetsuited up for one last time, put on old trainers and head off.
Coasteering entails travelling around the cliffs by climbing, scrambling, swimming and lots of jumping in. The beauty of it is that, bar a wetsuit, buoyancy aid and an instructor who knows the coast, you don’t need any special equipment – we simply walk down to the quay, into the water and we’re off. And not only is it seriously fun, Tom is full of knowledge about the marine life we’re scrambling over – the barnacles that give us grip underfoot but tear our hands, the dogwhelks that eat the barnacles after poisoning them with acid, and the sea anemones that survive by turning inside out when the tide is out. It’s amazing how little I know about our coastline, I realise.
Did I mention the jumping in? There’s lots of it, and it’s ridiculously scary yet exciting. The technique is to jump keeping your feet together, with arms crossed to stop water going up your nose (this works, honest). The finale of the trip is a 30ft-high leap – a step straight out into nothing-ness. Standing on the edge, I know the only way I’ll be brave enough to jump is if I get a countdown from the rest of the group. It’s terrifying, but I’m invigorated when I resurface from the water below. My pride isn’t even dented when the group’s youngest member, nine-year-old Lorenzo, also does the jump.
After a long weekend of water-based fun in Pembrokeshire we’re exhausted but inspired. I’m determined to come back to try kayaking and kitesurfing, as well as to build on the surfing and paddleboarding skills I’ve learnt. And that’s before we’ve even gone into the non-water-based adventures you can do – climbing, hiking, biking, paragliding. Whatever you choose, you haven’t half earned your pint in the evening.
Looking for a surf school perfect for kids: we've got plenty and stand up paddle boarding, what's it all about? Read our guide
Prefer something on solid ground. Try an adventure exploring the Preseli hills on horse back.
No matter what you choose it's bound to bring a smile to your face - have fun!