As a cold-water surfer, Chris is out in the water whatever the weather – in fact he reckons the worse the weather, the better the surf. We spoke to Chris about his story “Confronting the Cold Coast”, to hear more about surfing on the east coast of England.
Surfing as a kid in Cornwall
I got my first taste of surfing on a family holiday in Cornwall. It was the summer holiday before I started secondary school and we were staying not far from where my dad stayed – and bodyboarded – when he was a kid. We borrowed some body boards from a friend and we absolutely loved it. By the time summer came to an end and the colder months came, our passion had deepened and we didn’t want to stop when we went home.
My dad had the nightmare task for finding good quality kids winter wetsuits so we could continue on bodyboarding! It wasn’t until I’d bodyboarded for a few years that I decided to take up stand-up surfing, assisted by a guy we used to surf and do karate with. Ever since I learned to surf I’ve flicked between stand up surfing and bodyboarding, depending on how I feel – it’s nice to be able to mix it up and tailor the board I’m riding to the waves on hand and how I’m feeling.
When you first start surfing, I suppose it’s a totally new feeling. Bodyboarding puts you so close to the wave; laying down, separated by only a thin piece of foam and even though the waves can be really small it’s super exhilarating. As I grew up and got more into the sport, I never really lost this sense of exhilaration because you keep pursuing bigger and bigger waves.
Surfing the east coast of England
The best conditions on the east coast often come at the time when the weather is at its harshest, so it isn’t uncommon to be surfing when there’s snow on the ground! It has got way easier, over the years, to cope with the cold though. Wetsuit tech has come on so much -particularly as I was in kid’s wetsuits back then – which weren’t exactly a big market. The coldest air temperature session I’ve experienced was somewhere in the minus teens. But the actual session, once we were in the water, I don’t remember as being too bad.
One of the worst sessions I’ve ever had in terms of cold wasn’t even that cold, but it was when I was very new to surfing and I kept my head out of the water for as long as I could. I actually managed for a long time – at the expense of loads of waves, I’m sure. But once my head finally got submerged, I remember getting so cold and never warming up after that! Lesson was learned from there on in, just face the cold head on from the start; take the ice cream headache and crack on.
Why is east coast surfing so good?
The reason the east coast is such a great location for surfing is because it has lots of reefs and points which work well on northly ground swells. We don’t tend to get too many of these swells during the summer months – it’s these northerly ground swells that often bring snow to Britain! You only have to look at England on a map and even a surfing/weather novice could guess why waves are different and inconsistent – the North Sea is tiny.
The best swells come from far up north – up between Norway and Greenland – as well-travelled swells are usually more powerful and well-formed, and this is the furthest a swell can travel before it reaches our shores. Another reason the surf is so good here is because the waves in general are more powerful than a lot of places.
But, on the flip side, because the waves that hit the east coast are so inconsistent, there can be seriously long waits during a session for waves. The conditions have to align but it’s just one of those things. You can have frustrating moments when the ocean just doesn’t seem to be with you, but I don’t know if I can think of a session where I haven’t caught at least one wave which made the negatives worth it.
You always get out better than when you got in. If your head is in the right place, you’re happy just sat floating about in the water and admiring the beauty of nature. The worst session in the sea is still better than the best day in the office.
For me, there is one type wave I will always chase. Barrels. There are a number of barrels I have etched into my brain. My first one. My ‘best’ one. My first close-out (where you’re not going to get out of the wave, but you are enclosed in a water cavern). Ones that weren’t that good, but I had to use a lot of technical skill to get. Ones that I nearly made out, but didn’t, and all I can do is relive it, thinking about what I could have done differently to make it out.
The thought that as time passes these memories might (and do) fade actually gives me a bit of anxiety! They’re so precious. The experience of being inside a wave and coming out is one of the most incredible things; the sights and the sound are incredible. It’s as close to nature as I’ve felt and it’s something that the majority of people never have, and never will experience.
It’s pretty incredible when you think about the culmination of years of learning, the perfect conditions, putting yourself in the right place, to get the wave, getting in the right place on the wave, then doing all the right technical things to control your speed. But in the moment, you’re entirely absorbed. They give me a warm feeling inside just thinking about them!
Surfing on the east coast means so much to me. I started at a formative time in my life and it shaped almost all of my decisions at the time. I think surfing on the east coast is underrated, particularly in the best conditions.
I’ve had so many good sessions and good memories there at all stages of tide in all directions of swell. I love the place. The beaches have so much character too, it’s just a beautiful place. Although I’ve surfed waves as fun, I’m yet to find somewhere that is so versatile, with so many different faces. There are not many beaches that can provide waves as good as this place can.
To read more about Chris’ experiences surfing on the east coast of England, click here.
Words and photos by Chris Kendall