A former Waveski World Champion, Carl Coombes has been at the helm of the Extreme Academy surf school since 2006 – and at the heart of Watergate Bay for almost 20 years. A naturally adventurous soul, Carl has played a defining role in shaping the Watergate ‘ski resort on a beach’ experience, bringing the idea of active relaxation to life for thousands of guests and locals alike.
As he prepares to retire from his action-packed career in the water, we caught up with Carl to chat surfing in all seasons, spotting dolphins during your day job and why he’s looking forward to enjoying the wind and waves at his well-deserved leisure.
You’ve been at the heart of the Watergate Bay team for over 20 years. What will you miss most about working here?
There are so many things I love about Watergate Bay: standing barefoot on the sand drinking coffee; the thrill of Boardmasters week; helping set up Polo on The Beach; sitting on my board beyond the breaking waves, face in the sunshine, feeling that warm glow – I could go on! Seeing the beach come alive in summer is up there too. It’s lovely to see the excitement on the faces of a family before a day at the beach, setting up camp on the sand.
Something else I will treasure is experiencing the seasonal changes in the weather throughout the year, from calm and sunny days spent surfing to kitesurfing in raging storms. But it’s hard to beat the feeling that comes from working with a bunch of like-minded colleagues, just having the best time at the beach together every day. It fills you up.
What did the watersports offer look like when you first started working at Watergate Bay?
When I first joined, the only three sports taught at Watergate Bay were mountain boarding, kite surfing and waveski. In 2005, we merged all three sports and linked up with Watergate Bay Hotel to form the Extreme Academy.
I introduced surfing to the Extreme Academy, which is now the most popular sport we teach. I also pushed for our instructors to qualify as multisport instructors – many of our team can teach surfing, SUP, kitesurfing and waveski.
You’re a former Waveski World Champion – tell us more!
Before heading up the Extreme Academy at Watergate Bay, I worked as an engineer in the Royal Air Force, and I also had a waveski business. I travelled the world for 20 years, always accompanied by my trusty waveski. When I was in Guadalupe in 2003, I won a competition and became Waveski World Champion, which was pretty cool!
There are so many things I love about Watergate Bay: standing barefoot on the sand drinking coffee; the thrill of Boardmasters week; sitting beyond the breaking waves, face in the sunshine.
Tell us about your most memorable day out in the waves at Watergate Bay…
I’ve had some incredible times stand-up paddleboarding to Beacon Cove, between the rocky outcrops, and snorkelling in the kelp to spot the spider crabs and enormous sea bass. Then there’s the joy of someone standing up on a surfboard for the first time and high-fiving as they fly past you! But I think the icing on the cake has to be when the dolphins pop up when you’re out in the water, which sometimes happens here at Watergate if you’re lucky.
What’s been your favourite activity to teach?
It’s a close call between waveski and kite surfing. Not because I’m the best at them, but because I love developing people’s skills and seeing the progress they make. It’s endlessly rewarding to see people achieve their goals on the water.
What do you think it is about the beach, waves and conditions at Watergate Bay that keep guests coming back for more every year?
It’s a beautiful, iconic beach that can be up to two miles long at low tide. The valleys and cliffs that border the beach make for a striking vista. And, of course, Watergate Bay is a great place to learn to surf. It’s a big sandy beach break, with lots of space, very gradual incline and gentle rolling waves – so it’s really accessible for beginners.
Then there’s the incredible hotel, fantastic facilities and the opportunity to try lots of different activities in a safe environment. It’s also great for dog walkers. It’s just a special place that every generation loves to visit and then go on to introduce to their children.
I’ve had some incredible times snorkelling in the kelp to spot the spider crabs and enormous sea bass.
What will you do on your last day working at Watergate Bay?
I’ll say a heartfelt goodbye to everyone around the resort, drink coffee and have a surf. And then I’ll probably do the exact same thing the very next day as a retiree!
What will you take into retired life from your time running the Extreme Academy?
I’ve been able to improve my skills in lots of watersports during my time at Watergate, which I’m really grateful for because it puts me in good stead for an active future. But most of all, I’ll treasure all the wonderful people I’ve met, who will continue to be a part of my life in retirement. We’ll carry on making memories.
What does life after Watergate look like for you? What adventures have you got planned next?
I’m really looking forward to being a more hands-on grandparent. My son, Josh, who also spent time teaching at the Extreme Academy, has two wonderful daughters, one born very recently, so it will be great to help and share in their journey. I also want to be a better husband! I’ve sacrificed a lot for my work, so I’m looking forward to spending more time with my beautiful wife.
I’ll also keep busy with all the things I enjoy sport-wise, and I have lots of travel ambitions, from California this summer with my son to winters in Bali. But who knows, it’s all part of the next adventure and challenge. I’ll certainly give it my best effort.
What’s next for the Extreme Academy?
I’m looking forward to watching the new partnership between the Extreme Academy and Wavehunters evolve. The new partnership will allow Watergate Bay to continue with its brilliant surf and stand-up paddleboard teaching – alongside a range of beachside sports and activities. It will push forward the ‘ski resort on a beach’ ethos we have created at the Extreme Academy, plus the Wavehunters team brings bags of experience and expertise.
Helping so many people catch their first waves has been a highlight of running the Extreme Academy over the years. I’m happy to pass the baton to Wavehunters, who are expertly placed to teach many more new surfers the joys of waveriding in the years to come.