CROYDE BEACH, England — The sea already had a bit of a winter chill, but the girls in their purple swim gear were undeterred, dragging their foam boards into the relentless swell.
Back on shore were all their problems — worries about school and friends and the troubling world around them. But in the ocean, as the surf smacked their faces and the salt spray stung their eyes, there was only one objective: riding the momentum of the next wave.
Cheering the students on against the roar of the ocean was their coach, Yvette Curtis. “One more wave!” she chanted to one girl who tumbled off her board. “Yes Millie!” she cheered as another girl sailed past on her feet, with an expression transforming from supreme concentration into sudden delight.
The surfing group of girls, known as the Wave Wahines, were the youngest in the water that afternoon at Croyde Beach in North Devon, England, where some breaks can challenge even the most experienced of surfers.
But Ms. Curtis — who describes herself as a terrible surfer — is determined to help the inexperienced overcome the intimidations of a notoriously difficult sport.
“No one owns that space,” she said, adding that everybody should have the freedom to fall in love with the sea.
Rural England may call up images of rolling green hills and cobblestone-paved villages rather than beachside havens, but surfers in the know have long headed to an expanse of coastline in North Devon. There, breathtaking cliffs and sand dunes give way to beach breaks and barreling waves that locals say hold their own among the best in Europe, especially in the winter months when conditions tend to peak.
The surrounding landscape, in the far southwest of England, has been recognized by the British authorities as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and parts of it are owned by a conservation society, the National Trust. An 18-mile stretch of the area’s coast became the first in Britain to be recognized as a world surfing reserve this year, an international status putting it alongside famous surf spots like Malibu in California and Manly Beach in Australia.
The designation from the Save the Waves Coalition, some surfers hope, will give local residents more say over how to conserve the ocean here, and help fend off a range of threats, from climate change to pollution to overdevelopment, that could spoil it all.
“The world surf reserve gives us a voice,” said Adam Hall, who helped lead the effort to secure the designation. “If you love something, you don’t have to sit on the sidelines and watch it be depleted.”
The waters off North Devon’s beachside towns and villages also attract paddleboarders and cold-water swimmers, who dive even in the winter months.
But surf talk tends to dominate local conversations, and listening to people parse tide times and wind directions makes clear that for many the sport is also therapy, or something closer to religion: a way to commune with nature amid the busyness of modern life.
In the mornings at Croyde Beach, young men in wet suits — which more experienced surfers sometimes call “groms” — look searchingly into the ocean before sprinting down and plunging in. At Saunton Beach, popular with long-boarders, whole families paddled into the waves at sunset.
The surfing culture here extends beyond the beach itself.
In the studio where he works and runs his business, Gulfstream, Julian Matthews has conceived, sanded and shaped custom surfboards for over three decades.
“You’re never going to get rich in this,” he said, running his hands down a board. “But we come to work and we get to be creative.”
A little further from the shore, the Museum of British Surfing in Braunton shows visitors homemade surfboards of yore carved from hollow plywood. The volunteer-run institution explores the sport’s humble beginnings in Britain, more than a century ago, as well as its vibrant influence on North Devon in the 1970s, when it began drawing traveling surfers who stayed on.
“It gets not just into your head — it gets into your heart,” said Kevin Cook, 72, of the obsession with surfing. He was limbering himself up in early October, his sun-beaten face turned toward the sea, ready for a lunchtime surf.
For Mr. Cook, known affectionately as “Cookie,” the sand and sea of North Devon is the paper on which he has written his life. He crafted his own surfboards at school and served as a lifeguard during the summers at Woolacombe Beach, where he met his wife. Now, he is introducing surfing to his 3-year-old grandson.
Over the decades, Mr. Cook said he has seen the erosion of the area’s beaches and worried whether precious waves could disappear as housing developments and wind turbines are placed on the coast. Several organizations in the area, including a chapter of Surfers Against Sewage and Plastic-Free North Devon, have campaigned for protections against water pollution and waste.
But the surfing reserve designation, for which Mr. Cook also campaigned, may be a way for surfers to have impacts on the surf ecosystem factored into local decision-making. When he heard of the designation this year — awarded at the third attempt — he had tears in his eyes, he said.
“It’s the conclusion of something that you know is right,” he said.
Although the designation doesn’t carry with it any binding legal power, it does have influence, and researchers have already asked reserve members, Mr. Cook said, for their input on plans like the restoration of a Victorian bathing pool on the coastline.
Anthony Rofner is another longtime North Devon surfer who welcomed the designation. Each night from his van parked near Croyde Beach, Mr. Rofner checks the forecast for tide times and wind direction, and each morning, he walks out for a visual check of the conditions before posting a report on social media.
Mr. Rofner has surfed around the world, but the consistency of North Devon’s waves always drawn him back.
“It’s being part of the elements,” he said of the sport’s appeal. “I go in the sea and I get out and think: What was I worried about?”
A surfing lifestyle can be expensive. Property prices have soared in the area, and the question of gentrification — and who can afford to access surfing at all — is a hot topic.
It is something that Ms. Curtis, the surfing coach and a personal trainer, who identifies as mixed race, often ponders. Once, being in the open water gave her panic attacks. But swimming out with friends and family over the years — plus, competing in a triathlon — slowly taught her to respect rather than fear the sea.
When her daughter Alia wanted to learn how to surf but did not feel comfortable in finding her space in a sport still dominated by white men, Ms. Curtis started Wave Wahines for women and girls.
The more she learned about surfing culture, the more she saw exclusivity.
“I was really surprised by how many girls aren’t doing it and how many girls from nonwhite backgrounds aren’t doing it,” she said. “We need to start working on why there is that disparity.”
Ms. Curtis is tackling that disparity through her own club, expanding this year to offer surfing programs to survivors of domestic violence, as well as Syrian and Ukrainian refugees, as a therapeutic outlet.
On one Monday afternoon, the crew of surfers she was cheering on were schoolgirls, including one of her daughters.
As the sun dropped, a chill wind started to blow, but the girls in the ocean didn’t seem to notice. They were laughing and paddling and being tumbled around, all in the hopes of standing up, of experiencing those few precious seconds where it felt almost like flying.