Yorkshire-based photographer Chris Kendall has been surfing on the east coast of England since he was 12 years old. But with murky water, unreliable waves and freezing temperatures, the Cold Coast is no surfer’s paradise. Here’s why for Chris the torrid conditions are as much about endurance as enjoyment.
Surfing. To many, the word conjures up a vision of young guys and girls with bleached blonde hair and tanned bronze skin. They’re gliding across clear turquoise waters, over tropical coral reefs, towards idyllic palm tree-lined beaches. A blazing sun beats down as fresh fruit and ice-cold beer provide much-needed refreshment.
This may be surfing as you know it. But not me.
I was born and bred in Yorkshire. And Yorkshire folk are famous for many things. One is being fiercely proud of the patch of dirt we just happen to be born on. Another, is being stubborn. Combine those traits with a wetsuit and surfboard, and a Yorkshireman or woman sees no need to head for the surfing Meccas of Hawaii, Indonesia or Australia. Why yearn for the Gold Coast when we have the Cold Coast?
Iceland – 5°C- Wave height: 6-15ft tall
So let’s return to that vision of surfing. Switch those sandy beaches for a muddy eroding cliffside. Tear up those palm trees and pepper the coastline with decrepit World War Two bunkers. Swap those coral reefs for long slimy seaweed. And now that there’s nothing pretty at the bottom of the sea, what’s the point in being able to see through the water at all? Let’s trade that turquoise hue for a murky shade of brown that looks as unenticing as the salad bar at a fast food buffet. Oh, and if you want a tan, you may as well book some time on a sunbed. For the sun makes few appearances here, and refreshments come in the form of a greasy bacon butty and a warm cuppa. Yorkshire Tea, of course.
I’ve been surfing on England’s east coast since I was 12 years old. No two sessions are the same, so let me talk you through one I remember from about ten years ago. It’s the middle of winter, 13 degrees below zero, and I’m half naked in a public car park. The question “why do I do this?” reverberates around my head like a mantra, until it eventually slips out past of my shivering lips. I’m not sure why I wasted the energy verbalising it. I didn’t expect an answer – those with me were probably too busy internally questioning their own sanity too. But, I’m here by choice. In fact, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.
THE QUESTION ‘WHY DO I DO THIS?’ REVERBERATES AROUND MY HEAD LIKE A MANTRA
Two minutes later, I’m wearing my thick winter wetsuit complete with boots, gloves and hood, leaving only my face exposed to the elements. My movement is significantly restricted, but it’s worth it, because I’m finally warming up.
I run down the cliff path towards the sea’s edge, careful to avoid the patches of ice. As I start wading out into the sea, I become overtly aware of the exposed skin on my face. It’s only a matter of time before the ice-cold water hits it. Having been here enough times before, I know it’s best to just dive in. So I go head first under the next wave that approaches.
My breath is instantly exchanged for an ice cream headache (or as it’s scientifically known, sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia). I shake my head to clear the water from my eyes, which seems to serve a secondary purpose shifting the brain freeze. The process is repeated, safe in the knowledge that with every submersion my body will reluctantly accept the conditions I’m going to put it through for the next few hours.
East of England – 7°C – Wave height: 3-7ft tall
Although the air temperature of this session was on the extreme side, the rest of it was pretty typical. Even the warmer sessions in the winter months come with their share of adverse conditions. Although you don’t think about England as being that cold, the average January sea temperature on the east coast is only a few degrees higher than that in Iceland, owing to the fact that the North Sea is tucked away on the forgotten side of the country, forfeiting the benefits gained from the Gulf Stream. It creates conditions more akin to Reykjavík, than Cornwall.
Maybe it’s the temperature – as opposed to the general disparity between the stereotype and the reality – which explains why, despite surfing being introduced to the United Kingdom in the 1890s (on the east of coast of England, of all places), it has taken so long to catch on. I mean the UK is an island; one where the furthest place you can live from the coast is only 70 miles – making it accessible to anyone with transport. In theory.
In reality, surfing in the UK – and certainly the east coast – is still pretty niche. And it’s nothing to do with the standard of waves that it has to offer. They, and I say this with no tongue in cheek, are world class. I mean it; we have some (literally) back-breakingly powerful waves, we just need the right conditions to align before we can exploit them.
But waiting for those conditions? Well, that takes a hell of a lot of patience, and no shortage of good old Yorkshire obstinance too. For what makes the opportunities so hard to come by is the fact that you’re not just after waves. Winds need to align with tides; which need to align to daylight hours; which need to align with your availability. And Yorkshire’s place on the map doesn’t exactly predispose itself to any of these things. With a narrow window for well-travelled swell, a large tidal range and limited daylight hours in the winter months (when the surf is at its best) you’re up against it. About the only thing in our favour, is a prevailing wind direction which is off-shore.
It means flat spells lasting months are not uncommon. During which, the east coast surfing population tends to go a little stir crazy; religiously refreshing forecasts only to find that – surprise, surprise – they still say the same as they did the last time you checked, five minutes earlier.
When the waves do finally arrive, it can mean that hundreds of swell-starved surfers flock to the coast. This can bring with it a storm of its own, one caused by human emotion. It’s not as if there aren’t enough waves to go around – there are – but you need to understand that not all waves were made equal and everyone wants to be on the best ones. So, after months of waiting, the fact that certain spots are better than others, and certain waves at those spots will also be better than others, creates an artificial scarcity. And with it, an edgy dynamic unique to the surfing scene.
Hossehor, South West of France – 12°C – Wave height: 4-10ft
It’s mainly a community built of small groups of close friends. Attitudes to people outside of these cliques can vary, and whilst the majority of the people you come across are perfectly reasonable humans, as with anything, the culture is flavoured by the minorities at the extremes. Although my direct experiences have never been anything worse than petty comments, you do hear stories of fisticuffs and vandalism.
I’ve personally been on the wrong end of comments about my board being from the “Early Learning Centre” (arising from a longstanding rivalry between bodyboarders and ‘stand-ups’ – akin to that between drivers and cyclists, where no one knows why it exists, it just does). But somewhat less witty was the time a friend of mine got told to “fuck off” as a surf spot was deemed for “locals only”, despite it being literally walking distance from his home. How local do you have to be?!
Thankfully, we escape the worst attitudes on the Cold Coast, owing to the adverse conditions keeping headcount in the water low and forming a camaraderie between those who have braved the conditions.
TO ENDURE MEANS TO ‘SUFFER PATIENTLY’
But just because it’s not overcrowded here doesn’t mean you don’t follow the Fight Club-style unwritten rules of the line-up. These apply across the world:
- 1) You do not name secret spots;
- 2) You do not name secret spots;
- 3) Don’t drop in;
- 4) Don’t snake; and
- 5) Have respect.
Clearly, the need for unwritten rules is evidence of surfing’s growing popularity here. Sure, some of that could be down to the improvement in wetsuit technology, making the harsh conditions more manageable. But the increase in numbers, even when conditions are at their worst, is enough to know there’s something more to it. Something which makes all the difficulties of surfing here endurable.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to endure means to “suffer (something painful or difficult) patiently.” The Buddhists, meanwhile, believe that “life is suffering”, a controversial belief that has nonetheless been adopted by many non-Buddhists. Even Sigmund Freud, the famed founder of psychoanalysis, talked of aiming to turn “hysterical misery into common unhappiness”.
Hale’iwa, Hawai – 24°C – Wave height: 6-12ft tall
In those terms, surfing—particularly here in northern England—forms a great metaphor for life. If “life is suffering”, then it must be seasoned with pockets of joy which make it worth enduring. Well, and this may come as a surprise to you, but when you go surfing you don’t actually do that much surfing. The vast majority of a session is spent paddling and waiting, but the comparatively small bursts of riding the crest of a wave releases a sufficient cocktail of hormones and neurochemicals to make all the difficulties I’ve mentioned not only reasonable, but insignificant.
Even as a grumpy teenager first finding my way with the waves, the discomfort and difficulties were never something I saw as an obstacle to overcome; more of a price that had to be paid, and one I was always willing to pay.
Now I’m older, I understand how these experiences shaped me. These difficulties are part of what makes surfing so fulfilling.
Modern day philosopher and professor of Bro-Science, Joe Rogan, frequently talks of how he proudly inflicts difficulty upon himself, in the belief that it improves his mental wellbeing. Carl Jung, speaking with a little more authority, said “humanity needs difficulties: they are necessary for health”.
I strongly believe that you should choose your difficulties, if you are fortunate enough to do so, or they will choose you. That is, the trivialities of life will become difficult, as your mind desperately seeks out some struggle.
I think this is why surfing becomes more than just a hobby to so many who get into it. It becomes an obsession; a lifestyle; almost a basic human need. Not only is there a huge amount of pleasure from being ‘as one’ with the ocean, but in every session you’re tested as mentally as you are physically.
These self-inflicted challenges could well be satiating a primitive human desire for difficulty, as described by Jung. A remnant of when times were actually hard, and an itch which nowadays many don’t scratch, because let’s face it, it’s easier, and totally possible, not to.
Why go through months of waiting, then hours of paddling, for only minutes of surfing? Why leave the warmth and comfort of your home for the brain-juddering and limb-numbing bitter cold of the North Sea?
If you think I’ve answered that question in the words above, then come and join me on the Cold Coast one freezing winter’s day. Whereabouts exactly? Well, that would be telling…
THE VAST MAJORITY OF A SESSION IS SPENT PADDLING AND WAITING.