The beautiful compulsion of mid-winter surfing
Mid-winter North sea surfing takes a certain level of resilience and commitment. Northcore team rider Emily Grimes describes just how committed you need to be in her story set over two stormy days on the NE coast:
Emily Grimes: If I had a penny for every time a friendly, old, Geordie stranger commented on my sanity pre or post surf then I’d have at least a couple of quid. I actually think it’s quite ironic, because these mad souls are choosing to go for a stroll down the beach in freezing temperatures, 50mph wind and rain – an endeavour that doesn’t sound too appealing. I’m confident that we have the better, and arguably, warmer deal.
Nonetheless, comments of blind commitment and near insanity started to ring true when I physically couldn’t carry my longboard up the beach after a particularly bleak (but fun) surf. Thankfully, my equally mad friend Brian came to help. I had been watching Brian taking some shots while I was in the water and almost felt bad that my presence had afforded him something to point his camera at, seeing as the surf was small, wind blown and just generally a bit rubbish. The light was so bad he couldn’t even do his usual style of photography. Exchanging greetings, we both commend the other on their commitment to their respective craft, and he grabs the back of my longboard so that it ceases to act as a rather heavy kite and we trudge up the beach.
We had been expecting a fairly significant swell, charts showing that a potential 6m could be headed for our coast. This was definitely an optimistic prediction, and combined with the 50mph northerlies there would only be a select few spots offering the necessary protection and knocking off some of the size. On all accounts the chart was dubious, and under normal circumstances one would not set expectations of such a day too high.
However, when one has a shiny new board under arm the ability to think rationally decreases by at least 50%. Which really is a fantastic thing, who wants to think rationally anyway? So the night before the swell I drove to Sheffield to meet Josh, who drove up from Devon, to do a midnight board transfer at a fairly average service station. Spending a Saturday night on a 5 hour round trip to collect a board is not everyones idea of fun, but we had a nice coffee and got to blabber on about boards for a while before they kicked us out. New board in tow, stoke levels were high and in the morning I arrived at the coast for first light – to absolutely no waves. Brilliant.
The swell was yet to hit and the wind already significant. There wasn’t enough size for the protected reefs, so after a small and fruitless hunt, a number of us stood for a long time staring at some very poor offerings at the classic beachie that handles a strong northerly. A few mates and I hatched a brilliant plan to head to Greggs, grab a vegan sausage roll and wait for it all to blow over; upon our return clearly the swell would have filled in and it would be pumping. Not quite.
However, with a brand new bright pink log and a cheery outlook I was convinced enough that the swell was building. With a new board and two dry wetsuits it would be entirely rude not to get in for a paddle. The only other takers were an awesome father and son combo, Simon and his son Cillian, the most hardcore 9 year old I’ve ever met, braving the cold not even in a fully hooded wetsuit. For a while the 3 of us shared some fun waist-high waves, the wind was manageable and they were running. Definitely not yet the swell that we had been promised, but there’s some enjoyment to be had in average conditions on a cold, grey day, shared with only a few good people. Of course, offerings are also made sweeter by the excitement of the first few slides on a highly anticipated new board.
Then the wind picked up and things got messy. Simon and Cillian went in and I gather that changing in the bitter wind and rain might have generated a few tears. I cannot confirm whether this was father or son, but emergency hot chocolate was consumed and the stoke not lost. Now alone in the lineup, the swell felt like it was building so I stayed in for a few more. At that point the situation became amusing. Unsure whether the water stabbing at my face was spray from the ocean or sideways rain, desperately trying to find a wave worth paddling for. You begin to wonder if all the friendly dog walkers are right? Driving for 5 hours, sleeping for 4, waking up at the crack of dawn and jumping into the North Sea on a miserable day; is this a little bit crazy after all? The conditions called time on the beach and it was time to head on.
It was the kind of day upon which a visiting southerner may affirm the misguided belief that ‘it’s grim up north’. However, if you know the correct corners around which to look, even the grimmest of days can serve up a little bit of perfection. Unfortunately this perfection is seriously polluted and tastes quite a lot like diesel. But, the swell finally started to push through, it got to about a head and a half, it was heavy and barreling, so we were out there. There were some awesome pulses of energy rattling through which made the venture entirely worthwhile. Some sweet ones were had before the crowd got heavy.
The guys take off deeper here than I’d ideally position myself on my longboard, so for a while the shoulder was hugged and wide ones were sought. It was far too cold to risk being caught on the inside but eventually, inevitably, that is where I ended up. Patience is a virtue that I am still searching for. 300m or so down the reef I succumb to the idea that it’s probably about time to head in. The walk in is arduous, clearly I must have looked injured as a random runner seems very concerned for my safety as I scramble across the reef. Unfortunately I can’t make this poor man clamber down the cliff, over the reef and through some freezing water just because my boards a bit heavy.
Back at the van and the obligatory encounter with a friendly local ensues; he points out the weather and our absolutely mental disposition to immerse ourselves in the north sea on days like today. Perhaps to enjoy surfing in these conditions you have to be a bit of a masochist, but these are the days that we live for. The raw energy that these swells contain seems to permeate through our thick neoprene and then our skin, fuelling us to the extent that we forget to eat and sleep. Being out there is not a choice, but a beautiful compulsion.