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Devon’s Finest: The Sophie Hellyer Interview

Sophie Hellyer is one of the UK’s most talented young surfers. We caught up with the Devon local at our cover shoot for a chinwag on everything from sewage, surfing with style, and the joys of leaving England in winter

Lifestyle shots by Daniela Mueller-Brunke
Styling by Camilla Pole
Words by Sam Haddad

Sophie Hellyer is grinning like a Cheshire cat who’s about to dive into a bowl of cream, with a plate of mice for afters. And well she might, as after this cover shoot she’s heading off to Indo for two months, leaving the rest of us to sit out the dregs of winter. The 21 year-old surfer, and former British Junior Champion, has been making an annual pilgrimage to warm-water waves for three years now so she can improve her surfing on infinitely better waves in altogether more pleasant surroundings. “Everyone defends English waves and, although I love England, for me it’s all about the trips come winter,” she says. “It’s so cold here that most of the time I’m thinking ‘why am I doing this’ and then I go away and I’m like ‘ahh, now I remember’.”

The epitome of an easy-going surfer girl, Sophie is unfased as the crew of stylists, groomers and photographers flit about her. She admits it’s actually quite nice to be made up and shot professionally, rather than just being snapped with a mouth of salt water on the back of a boat.

Photo: Roxy

Sophie started surfing at 13 in her home town of Westward Ho!, in Devon, the only place in the country with an exclamation mark glued to the end of it. “I was always in the sea, swimming and body boarding,” she says. “My older sister was British Champion at 15 and my Dad surfs so he taught me.” But giving hope to anyone who didn’t nail surfing on the first attempt she says, “I wasn’t a natural and didn’t stand up on my first wave or anything. It took a while, but then I got the bug for it.”

It helped that Sophie didn’t have much fear back then, as she “didn’t know how scary the sea could be”. She also had her Dad pushing her into waves, while she built up her paddling strength, and within a year or so had won the English and British junior titles, and headed to the Europeans with the likes of Reubyn Ash (who she thinks is the best surfer in England, but “don’t tell him that”). Not that competing interests her much these days. “I used to get a real thrill from it but they always have contests on a fixed weekend even if the surf is bad and you can’t choose the best surfer in one foot slop,” she says.

Instead she gets her buzz by surfing well in front of her peers, a feeling of respect most of us can relate to. “I get more of a thrill from getting a good wave in front of the older guys in my village or in front of local Indonesians abroad than to have won a contest and not even surfed well,” she says.

Sophie is also into surfing with a jet ski. Not in a towing into 50-foot monster waves at Jaws kinda way, but in smaller waves doing crazy airs and flips, known as tow-at surfing. She’s bought a jet ski with her boyfriend, a shaper from her home town, and wants to be the first girl pushing it that way and taking the sport in a different direction. She rightly points out, “You don’t see English girls doing airs do you?”

Sophie spends a lot of time focusing on her style, of which she says, “My sister has a really aggressive style and people say she surfs like a boy, but I definitely surf like a girl.” She believes watching herself on film and breaking it down has really helped her improve. “Sometimes my wrist would go limp on my bottom turn so now I know to clench my wrist to stop that happening, and I’ve realised I need to hold my cutbacks for longer. Anyone looking to improve should definitely watch themselves on film.”

Photo: Lucia Griggi

Her heroes are Lisa Andersen and Sophia Mulanovich, the latter inspiring her through the stylish manoeuvres she saw her pulling in magazines. “I was just starting out and thought it was amazing that a girl could be so good,” she says. She also highly rates Kassia Meador, who gave Sophie one of her longboards to ride. It’s interesting, though not entirely surprising, that none of her surf mentors areBritish, but she is optimistic about the future. “We’re still a long way behind Europe but there are so many young girl surfers, it’s really improving,” she says. “The surf school in my village is booked out every day all year round. It’s incredible how many people are learning to surf.”

As a London-based surfer myself, who often feels guilty for invading the South West surf spots, it’s good to know the crowds don’t bother her. “There are a few waves that are our waves, but at the main beach if you’re a good enough surfer, beginners don’t get in your way. You just want people to have good etiquette and be friendly.”

Sophie does admit to having a vested interest in the crowds as she plans to open her own surf school one day. Westward Ho! is shifting at a furious pace from being a quaint but uncool seaside town to a smart bolt hole for city types. “They’re knocking down the amusement arcades and building nice flats, but in a way it’s nice as the village was pretty skanky,” she says.

She hopes they’ll sort the sewage out too as she got a really bad lung infection last year, which caused her to be hospitalised and lose two stone in the process. She can’t prove it was due to dodgy water quality, as they hadn’t taken a sample on that actual day, but seems pretty convinced. “It’s crazy that our beach gets the blue flag in summer. They only have to achieve the minimum standard for six weeks a year but I’ve seen what floats around here the rest of the time, and it isn’t clean.”

We talk some more about her love of music (Justice are a current favourite), playing football (she headbutted someone by mistake recently and they needed stitches) and snowboarding (though she couldn’t face a whole season away from the sea).

As the long shoot draws to a close, Sophie bounds off to the land of psychedelic sunsets, friendly people and consistent reef breaks, leaving the five mill wetsuits, boots, hoods and gloves behind.

Sophie is sponsored by Roxy.

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