La Nostalgie de la Boue

Finding unexpected common ground in the North Sea.

Light / Dark

The French have a phrase for yearning after squalor: La nostalgie de la boue. Literally, it means a nostalgia for mud. Surfers also have a collective tendency to glorify youthful adventures tinted in that squalor. Shelter in the form of a tent. Sustenance from a loaf of bread and a gallon of cheap booze. Warm-water waves peeling left or right for days as the only entertainment. 

In Britain, our version of la nostalgie de la boue is subtly different. Instead of idealizing the shabby glory of youth, we prefer to romanticize the blurry morals of outlaws who appeared to give away more than they took, cultivating a fantasy that the “good old days” were characterized by a lost blend of respect and community spirit. 

I’ve always held a desire to visit the northeast of the United Kingdom, a place geographically distant from my home on the southwest-facing coast of Cornwall and even further away from those idealized, mud-tinged surfing tropes we all hold close.

A fickle, cold surfing experience defined by the distinctive brown water of the North Sea. 

A tight community of surfers has repurposed this area from its once rich, now ailing industrial and fishing histories. It follows that in a region where people innately understand that fortunes grow and fall, inconsistent surf isn’t out of kilter with their outlook. The reality of fickle surf and stubbornly cold water temps has laid the foundations of a uniquely “core” surf scene. 

So when an Atlantic depression navigates the narrow tightrope over Scotland and the charts begin to show promise, I bite the bullet. On that eight-hour drive north,

I sing to the car stereo and ruminate on what I hope to find. As I arrive in the darkness, the cold air is alive with the tinkering and popping sounds from my van’s engine. I can hear the swell bounce into the cliffs below the gravel car park. A nearby factory plant belches clouds of smoke out to sea. 

Dawn presents itself with long, gilded shadows illuminated by the sun rising to the east. I amble down a hodgepodge of narrow lanes through the old fishing village. A couple of tradesmen chuckle as I superstitiously skirt around their ladder. The worn sandstone cobbles press into the arches of my neoprene-clad feet. I catch stolen glimpses of others cloaked in wetsuits, also scurrying to the finger of reef that projects out of the harbor. 

In the lineup, I look down at where my board and hands should be. They are lost, covered by the chocolate-milk sea. I scan the rest of the crew, picturing them as dismembered bodies bobbing amongst the waves like tethered buoys. I try to imagine what is beneath me. Fish, big and small, that spend their days smeared in the murk of the North Sea. Drifting blindly, occasionally bumping into other fish doing the same. 

I wonder how much of our own lives are spent blindly bumping into each other in the dark? Save for these few glorious moments, that is. Sheer magnificence at sea. An approaching set causes the tight pack to break for the eastern horizon. Raw yet ordered energy that challenges that of the ocean. Six- to 8-foot curving walls that start to crimp on the outer ledge, allowing for the briefest of slingshots into the growing face ahead. Bottom turns on your backhand that are met by the spit of the initial section. You haven’t felt your rail and fins work together like this for months. The water from your outside rail is forced out between your fins like a fan in the golden morning light. 

There’s a triumph of dedication and ability, matched with a precise set of climatic conditions. A chart that sang and you were finally able to answer the call. Wetsuit-framed smiles, sedimentary layered rock, exacting swell direction. A victory of hope over expectation. Muddy water,just how you knew it would be. La nostalgie de la boue, after all, imbued with Yorkshire Gold.

Feature image by Al Mackinnon.