Once the Water Gets Cold

Words: Jack Copeland

Photos: Lewis Arnold

This magazine has made a several attempts to accurately depict the Northern surfing scene, but most of what has been written has been more speculative than an actual snapshot of the community. Today that all changes, as veteran surfer Sandy Kerr was kind enough to share his experiences of growing up surfing on the North Eastern coast.

For those who are unfamiliar with British surfing, Sandy Kerr has been a figure on the scene for a long, long time, catching waves in freestyle surfing sessions for films such as North Sea Holes. Nowadays, Sandy is known as an ambassador for surf and clothing brands such as Finisterre and Northcore.

Hailing from the windswept beach of Tynemouth Longsands, Sandy has been surfing since the age of fourteen, charging out onto rugged North Sea breaks alongside the Davies brothers, Sam Lamiroy, and Joel Gray. On top of that, Sandy has been a lifeguard on his local stretch of coast for the last fourteen years, since the age of sixteen, and also works there as a surfing instructor.

Sandy’s sea-faring way of life began in his teens when his parents purchased a café in Tynemouth. It was in this café that Sandy worked at his first job, before joining the coastguard to become one of a three man team which manages the North Eastern coast.

Although Sandy has ingrained himself into the Northern surfing community, he has still found the time to travel and explore some of the more famous breaks across the world. In fact, Sandy has spent two winters on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii, and has even spent a winter in Portugal. Most recently (and by recently, I mean back in February) Sandy was on the other side of the world, enjoying the waves of New Zealand.

Sandy looks as though he’s about to jet off on a low wave in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Lewis Arnold)

However, amidst all of this bold adventuring Sandy has also suffered a tragic personal loss with the passing of his brother Simon earlier this year. To honour his memory, a paddle-out had been organised at Tynemouth, with attendees seen wearing Newcastle United shirts and tossing sunflowers into the North Sea, as opposed to the traditional Hawaiian leis.

Mentioning the paddle-out in our conversation, Sandy revealed: “It was such a hard day, and I took a step back from organising it. I want to send the biggest love to those who braved the rain and made it so special.

“The day was perfect. My brother had so many different groups of friends and it was amazing for them all them honour him on the beach that we grew up on.

“In addition to that paddle out I was recently sent a video from Lakey Peak in Sumbawa, Indonesia of a paddle out they did for him there. I feel so much love from all over the world for my brother.”

Continuing on from this, we began to discuss the surfing community of the North East, which had shown it’s solidarity by turning out to honour the late Simon Kerr.

Having experienced the South Western surfing community already, I found the North to be less intimidating (mostly due to the general drop in skill-level), but Sandy seemed surprised by this.

He elaborated: “The North East has had a bit of a repetition for localism. We have less people taking to the water, but we also have two cities and three huge universities within ten miles.

“The beaches and surf schools get so busy that you could easily see two hundred people in the water at Tynemouth, but once the water starts to get cold, and the nights start closing in, you’ll begin to see just a few people.

“The core community is pretty small. Every few years there will be a group of younger surfers come up, but a lot of them drop off after time and the crew ultimately remains small.

“I know that when I was growing up surfing, there weren’t many people my own age doing it. So, I latched onto an older generation, they had been surfing long before me, so they know where to go in different conditions. Plus, some of them were great surfers, so I felt blessed to have them take me under their wing.”

Sandy Kerr cruises through a North Sea barrel at Tynemouth Longsands. (Photo by Lewis Arnold)
Sandy carves his way along the wall of a low left-hander in Tynemouth. (Photo by Lewis Arnold)

Hearing about this close-knit community of rugged, diehard surfers, I wanted to know what stories they had and what they had gotten up to. I asked Sandy which of his experiences in the North East best encapsulated the surfing scene.

He recalled: “This past summer I was working on the beach, so I was right in the thick of seeing thousands of people coming down and learning to surf, body board, and swim in the sea.

“One day we had a pretty good swell, so I got up before work and went to a break about fifteen minutes from Tynemouth. I paddled out and there were around ten to fifteen people in the water. It was like a Sunday social or a coffee morning. We were chatting shit and winding each other up.

“I’m 29 and I was probably was one of the youngest in there. Everyone in there had known me my whole life. After that, I went to work and looked over the beach. There were over a hundred people in the water.”

Sandy hacks his way across the crest of a left-hander in Tynemouth. (Photo by Lewis Arnold)
Sandy perfectly balances himself as he slices his way out of barrel at Tynemouth. (Photo by Lewis Arnold)
Sandy boldly walks out into raging white-water at Tynemouth Longsands. (Photo by Lewis Arnold)

At this point, an image started to build in my mind of the lads from the football club, rugby club, or local boxing gym all gathered around and taking the mick. The line-up for these people was the equivalent of the meet-up down in the local pub and, despite the fact that the water would be cold, the scene and the atmosphere was a warm and familiar one.

It was at this point that the conversation turned towards comparing Northern surfing against that of other surfing locations around the world. As someone who is shamefully untravelled, I wanted to hear the testimony of someone more worldly-wise than myself.

Sandy said: “In my eyes, the surf scene in the North East is hard to compare to other places around the globe, or even the UK. In terms of our location, we are hindered by small swell windows. It could quite easily go flat for weeks or months, especially in the summer.

“It’s funny when surfers from the North East travel because, when we arrive, we want to surf every day. We could be totally knackered, and be presented with less than perfect waves, but we still want to be in there. Just in case it goes flat.

“I’m fresh back from the South West and, in all honesty, I think that the pursuit of a perfect wave is harder down there. Like I’ve mentioned, they get waves a lot more than us, so you can go and just get a rideable wave a lot easier, but most of the waves depend on sandbanks and tides.

“In the North East we’re blessed with a lot of reefs, which are more predictable because they’re not constantly changing. I do think that there is more of a competitive scene, and a higher standard of surfing, down there.”

You can just about spot Sandy in this picture as he emerges from a perfect, glassy barrel in the North Atlantic. (Photo by Lewis Arnold)
Sandy touches the face of a wave somewhere in the North Atlantic as take off. (Photo by Lewis Arnold)
Sandy gets some air on a foamy left-hander in the North Atlantic. (Photo by Lewis Arnold)

Pleased to hear that us Northerners bring a bit of character to other breaks around the world, I then probed a question that I had posed some years ago to the Surfers Against Sewage representative, Steve Wilson. I asked Sandy if he would like to see more noise being made about surfing in the North.

Back when I asked Steve, who is a native of Cumbria in the North West, he said that he didn’t want a lot of investment and notoriety in Northern surfing, preferring that the community stay small and underground.

On the other end of the scale, Sandy stated that: “Surfing in the North East and colder waters is not easy, and the only way you could get into it would be to get a surf lesson, borrow the equipment, or buy it all yourself. Obviously, the problem with that is that it doesn’t suit a beginner’s ability or physique to borrow. And to buy it all yourself is expensive.

“Working in the surf industry, surf coaching, and being a lifeguard, I’ve found that the more people there are taking to the water, the more opportunities there are for work. And, if the ocean is your passion, it would be an amazing job if you could work in an area with a close connection to the sea.”

Sandy manages to sneak out of a very low barrel in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. (Photo by Lewis Arnold)
Sandy touches the wall of a tall barrel in North Shields. (Photo by Lewis Arnold)

With ambassadors like Sandy championing surfing in the North, and all of the lifestyle choices which come with it (environmentalism and the like), I’m hopeful that we can one day have surfing as a common pastime in the region.

And, who knows, with surfing set to feature in the Olympics (whenever COVID decides to leave the world alone), it might become popular at lot sooner than we think.

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