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Ghosts, ruins, merciless elements, and ephemeral slabs from an exceptional winter in the North Sea.
Words by Wilem Banks | Photos by Al Mackinnon
Light / Dark
The Deep End
The alarm blared. And blared. And blared.
“Turn that off!” I said.
I looked over at photographer Al Mackinnon lying in the bed across from mine, bleary-eyed after driving us through the night. We’d managed only a couple hours of sleep.
After a few minutes, he was up and looking out the window. I joined him. The predawn sky was pink and cloudless, almost like a fall morning at home in California.
“We’ve not got much time,” he said. Given his long history of surfing and chasing waves in those climes, I trusted him.
As we exited the motel’s lobby, the icy air slapped me in the face. Santa Cruz on a fall morning it was not. Al scraped ice off the car’s windows as I loaded the coffin bag onto the roof. He’d told me about this wave—and that it was a board breaker—back when we first started shooting and traveling together, almost 10 years ago. He’d even shown me a scratchy video of a boog getting seriously piped. Though filmed from a distance, it looked heavy.
The English countryside flashed past, rolling hills and dales dotted with centuries-old cottages. Al slowed at a junction, and to our left we saw the moon setting over a ruin. Its stone walls were bathed in a syrupy light, and the pale-lemon moon looked cartoonishly huge in the cyan sky. Al wanted to stop and make pictures. But time and tide were not on our side, and I wanted to get barreled.
Al hadn’t been up this way in a while, and we found his usual parking spot fenced off. I jumped out of the car while he searched for a place to pull off the track. At the edge of the cliff, I struggled to get my bearings: The sun lifted behind me from the south, not the east. It was a reminder that it was midwinter and we were on the same latitude as Alaska. A gentle offshore wind blew, ruffling the sparse vegetation atop the cliffs. Out where the wave should’ve been, there wasn’t much happening. A few capping, frothy burgers dribbled through.
My stomach churned, a physiological response to questioning the sanity of impulsive choices in pursuit of empty waves. That’s why I’ve come north. The cold, the gales, the flat spells, the endless onshores—it’s all worth it for the chance to wait for any wave I want.
All the mental noise fell away as the sea ordered itself—gradations stacking as sets approached the reef, the shadows of the troughs deepening in the low-slung sun, lips glowing. The peaks crumbled and rolled a little on the left, and then the energy reconverged, throwing a gaping tube that ran across a couple sections before extinguishing in the channel. My stomach was back to butterflies of anticipation and excitement.
I ran back up the track shouting, “English Box, English Box!” Al was laughing. For him, it was never in doubt.
Loaded with boards, camera gear, food, and water, we began the hike over the edge of the cliff and descended the narrow track. It was dark and frigid in the shade, a little foreboding. Occasionally we stopped to admire a set. From where the path took us, we were looking almost straight into the barrel as the wave bent. Mostly, we walked in silence.
At the foot of the trail, stones that had made up the wall of a once-busy harbor lay strewn across the sedimentary reef, moved by hundreds of years of swells and tides. We navigated across them to set up for the session, laughing at the possibility of slipping on seaweed or algae and injuring ourselves before even getting out and into the lineup.
I sat and watched for a few minutes. Meticulous observation is essential before surfing a new wave of consequence. I noted the entry and exit points, the heaving rip, each wave’s idiosyncrasies. I felt like I was part of something rare—the elements having aligned, with us fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, though they would’ve aligned whether anyone was there or not.
The fast-eroding, fossil-studded cliffs and stacks reminded me of home and gave me a sense of security before putting myself in the line of fire. In the long shadows, we shuffled gingerly forward, pointing out the various rockfalls from above, which kept us from getting too close to the cliff’s base.
Though I’d been hearing about this slab for a decade, I never could’ve imagined how heavy it would turn out to actually be. The best waves gave early entry to position myself perfectly behind the pit section. Though I could get down the face before they would fold and turn inside out, there was little room for error.
I made some mistakes in the beginning while searching for the boils and obscure lineup markers. The unrelenting current pushed me too deep to stay in position, and it was frustrating being behind some incredible waves. I was eventually able to triangulate three points of reference and soon locked into a couple, then adapted and optimized the spot’s potential during the three-hour window of good tide and wind.
The thickest waves sucked up the face so hard that the outer wave in the double-up would step and form into the lip. They pulled so much water off the reef that the texture of the mudstone bottom translated through to an oil-like viscosity inside the tube. The brown water made it impossible to see the bottom, but, from what the surface was doing, I knew it wasn’t far beneath. On one of those types of waves, the lip was so thick, the view so dark, the drop-out so sudden, it was intimidating as it happened, and I was nearly bucked off by the brutal vacuum-to-air exchange.
While paddling out through the current and seeing how much bigger the waves were than they looked from the cliff, I was wary of my choice to ride a shortboard as opposed to a semi-gun. But after learning the lineup and realizing how agile and technical the 5’9″ was inside the tube, the board felt like an extension of my body and helped me barely miss getting guillotined by the dense lip, shining a light on something newly possible for me. I’ve never towed or done step-offs into slab waves, but I imagine it’s a similar feeling to having the early entry capabilities of the unique setup in question.
I eventually took a late drop and had to go left into the flats to avoid the exploding lip. It was clear that the adrenaline could no longer make up for the lack of sleep and creeping cold. Fatigue was kicking in, and both my body and mind needed a break before a poor decision might cost me dearly.
Reconvening with Al on the rocks, both of us unscathed, our vibrations were through the roof. What had happened was just for us. Only the farmer and an occasional dog walker on the cliff might have caught a glimpse into our world that day. How many places could that happen in this day and age? It all felt transcendental, a meld of exhaustion, contentedness, elation, and cheating death. The photos that Al shot were the only tangible evidence from a few dreamlike hours.
The chart looked set for a reload. Sure enough, another clean swell arrived a couple days after our first surf at the slab. The tides and wind wouldn’t be on for the right, so we headed north, where we met Al’s friends, local standout Sandy Kerr and Cornish wanderer Dr. Mungbean, the shaper behind Awen Wavecraft.
Roaming the northern reaches for several days, we feasted on session after session of barrels. I hardly did a turn. It was take off, pull in. All lefts, they ranged from user-friendly, olive-green, walling cylinders to bulbous, concentrated, stupidly shallow slabs.
In between surfing the known waves, we searched for the unknown. Al explained that swells are so infrequent in the North Sea that you don’t squander good waves with small crowds by going on the hunt. But with our appetites sated, we indulged in the desire to “see what’s around the corner.”
We drove and hiked past many a castle. Some were still intact, others in ruins. They were relics of the border clashes between the Scots and the English during the Middle Ages. Al mentioned the fearsome reivers—not strictly Scottish or English, and law unto themselves—who roamed the border’s hinterlands and preyed on the isolated communities.
Today, that part of the country is marked by a different kind of imposing structure: the giant, rusting hulks of recently shuttered steelworks, oil refineries, and chemical plants. It was through those post-industrial heartlands—think Detroit on the coast—and past miles of marram-grass-carpeted dunes, spits, and mini-islands that we were led to beachbreaks, boulder points, and other opportunities.
At one yawing bay, we spied the back of a setup that looked promising. It took us some time to get around and in front of it—so long that by the time we arrived, the sun was already setting. It was a stretch of reef Al had noticed some years earlier during different conditions, but written off as too sectiony.
But now the wave was a roping, double-overhead, 200-yard drainpipe. The wind was so light that a gentle haze was forming while giant starling murmurations morphed overhead. As the sun faded and sheep nipped at tussocks around our feet, we kicked ourselves. So close, yet so far. However, that feeling soon gave way to the realization that these setups still existed, empty and waiting for someone to show up at just the right time.
Seeing a chart lining up for the coast’s most mythical spot, the North Sea’s answer to G-Land, I extended my trip and Al arranged for us to stay with an old friend of his, Mike. His sandstone cottage, faded to the color of mustard, sat on the corner of a terrace some 50 feet from the edge of a cliff at the fringe of a village that spills across a valley. At the valley’s end is a remarkable expanse of reef, which holds no fewer than six high-quality waves.
“’Allo, you must be Wilem!” Mike said as we stepped out of the car.
Wearing two wool hats, he waved us inside, where he launched into questions about California in an accent I struggled to understand. His face was lined by many harsh winters, and his eyes glowed warm and bright.
A few strands of salt-and-pepper hair poked out from beneath his beanies. He also wore a neck scarf, several sweatshirts layered over one another, and a fleece jacket. I quickly understood the reason for all the insulation: It wasn’t much warmer in the house than it was outside, though we were at least out of the windchill.
Every shelf and windowsill was laden with curiosities: vintage binoculars, watches, countless keys. Mike explained the latter items: They belonged to the old hotel he owned in the village. It had been closed for many years, but he and a crew of builders were working to get it reopened. The hotel was reputedly haunted. Guests had experienced chills when entering certain rooms and some had even seen phantoms, including one emerging from a wall. The man who witnessed it never returned, shaken by the experience.
Mike put the kettle on and ushered us into the cottage’s sitting room. An odd, acrid smell filled the air, the result of builder’s off-cuts in the potbelly stove. It wasn’t particularly pleasant to breathe in, but the warmth was welcomed.
Over the next few days I learned that Mike is old school and tough as leather boots—constantly wrapped and frugal with energy use. He was horrified at us using the heater in our room, boiling the kettle too often, or taking too many warm showers. We accommodated by keeping the door to our room closed to trap the heat. But, even with double glazing on the windows, the winds whistled through the smallest gaps.
One night, as we climbed into our sleeping bags, Al explained the power of the elements in the region: Some years ago, the old road that ran into the hamlet had collapsed into the sea, and a new track was built 100 feet inland. More recently, a section of the cliff near Mike’s place had fallen into the ocean. On certain nights, when the tide is high and the swell is big, the waves can be heard undermining the cliffs.
Al finished talking and we listened in silence. Then we heard the crump. I fell asleep wondering if we’d still be there in the morning.
The Wind’s Imposition
The “no surf” days were the result of wind. Fetched from the Arctic Circle, the strength and chill were eye-watering. On some nights the roar was so loud that even the rats in the ceiling stopped their scratching.
During one particularly long night of gales, we struggled to identify some of the unsettling sounds: Was it a wheelie bin toppling over? A fence snapping? A wall blowing to pieces? Once the storm had abated the following morning, the source of the sounds was revealed: Roof slates had blown off and struck several nearby cars. Street signs had ripped apart and been flung around like giant throwing stars. Birdbaths had flipped over and shattered. Anything not anchored had been displaced by the unrelenting whipping.
We went with Mike to survey the damage before he called the roofers. No sooner did we open the front door than both his beanies were snatched off and lifted 30 feet over adjacent roofs. Mike laughed. I’ve found people who grow up in the cold have a better sense of humor than those from warmer climates. Maybe it’s the added layer of stoicism.
Al and I offered to help with anything Mike needed. That resulted in moving lots of mattresses into his hotel. The tight staircases and corners seemed impossible, but, with a little brute strength and perspiration, we got it done.
Otherwise, when the wind was too strong to surf, we’d go for a beer, wander the cobbled streets and breathe in the salt- and smoke-infused air, explore the ancient architecture, check the fossil-laden strata around the cliffs, or chat around the stove. I also kept busy by journaling, making calls to my family and friends, and fixing my slab-ravaged boards.
If we had a one-session day, we’d hit the pub afterward for a Guinness, which gave me the chance to check out the photos on the walls, images that showcased the generations of local people who, over hundreds of years, had worked the land and sea, lived purposeful lives, and perished there.
I learned that the area wasn’t desirable to live in, with the eroding terrain and harsh elements. Originally it had been a place where the king exiled unruly citizens. I could relate: It sometimes feels odd to want to do a surf trip to a cold and stormy region. The reality of it is hard to explain to the uninitiated. It’s only after weeks of never being truly warm and your energy being sapped to zero that you can appreciate the commitment it takes to live in such a place, especially as a surfer.
Sitting at the pub, looking at the photos, I wondered if the locals ever noticed any difference in wave quality over the centuries. Did they appreciate the symmetry of a flawless peak versus onshore slop? Maybe they admired clean surf during sunny spells while passing by on their vessel. Fishermen understand the sea better than most, and with the amount of quality waves nearby I couldn’t help but wonder if they ever noticed a spitting barrel or a ruler-edge lip cresting over a set wave. Or maybe the sea had taken too many lives for previous generations to think the waves were beautiful.
On those windy nights, I often thought back to the slabs that I’d chosen not to surf, the ones I’d pulled back on. They haunted me. I’d lay awake and ask myself, Why didn’t I ride waves I’d traveled so far for? What could I have accomplished if I’d been less concerned with self-preservation? Was my confidence shaken, or was I wiser and more selective? Has my good luck almost run out? What will happen if it does run out?
I thought about how sometimes, when heading to surf dangerous waves, I feel a dark cloud hovering in my mind, and I think about my family and what would happen if I died. I wondered if my drive was selfish, or if I just needed to focus and accept the way I’m different from other people.
“You need a near-death experience every day,” Al joked. “Some people are wired differently. Their higher adrenaline thresholds must be met to feel normal.”
He claimed that I’m a throwback to the hunter-gatherers. Modern society, at least for most of us in the West, is sanitized. Perhaps we go looking for challenges. It’s easy to second-guess your decisions. Learning from the past has been a critical element in my ability to gain confidence. Like the confidence it took to quit my job and leave behind stability. That sense of security could be taken for granted. I felt like I was getting too used to traveling. Logically, there’s always a time to go home. But I yearn for more—more barrels with fewer people, more hard yards, more memories.
When Al and I had arrived at Mike’s, we’d told him it would be only for a couple days, just for that swell. That swell passed, and the forecast said another would arrive in two more days. Then it happened again. And again.
The pattern was a few days of onshores before the wind swung 180 degrees and the waves would pump for a day or two. Rinse and repeat. Sometimes we’d get two swells a week. It continued for several weeks in a row, which the locals said was unheard of. Apparently, a good season was two big swells with offshore wind. They were unanimous in their opinion that the cycle we’d experienced was likely the best run of conditions since surfing was introduced to England.
At some point it all melded into one indistinguishable binge of tube riding. Sure, there were standout moments. But when each session happened, at which spots, and how many tubes, exactly? Hard to say. Sunsets, sunrises, moon phases, tides, planet orientation—any form of quantification was long lost, remnants of a world outside our bubble. The only exception was my final session, for which the North Sea held a last surprise.
We were greeted at dawn by a long-traveled polar swell meeting 25-knot offshore winds. I finally saw what a well-groomed groundswell can do over that patch of smooth mudrock.
I surfed with Sandy Kerr and Dr. Mungbean. I have vivid memories of Sandy airdropping behind the peak, riding through foamballs, utilizing the tube’s full length, the Geordie racer, son of these shores, showing the English contingent’s peak skills. I can also see Dr. Mungbean styling down the face on a self-shaped twin-fin, languidly tucking under the lip.
It can be weird to experience a world-class wave at its best. You want to maximize every wave’s potential, but excitement can easily overpower the focus required. Throughout the trip, I’d gone left more than I ever had before. It was a learning curve to scrub speed on a coiling left in order to link multiple tubes per wave. I tried about five different variations of stalls on one wave that could have been a proper 10-second-plus tube, but instead was a triple head-dip and long pocket ride.
After a few successful rides, while the others continued switching off tubes at the left, Al and I paddled over to an adjacent peak we’d had our eye on the whole trip. The light was fading, and I dropped in blind from the offshores. All it took was a successful bottom turn and I was locked into a screamer, trusting completely in the swell and the reef. Once under the lip, the wave created an eddy of calm from the wind. Then came a muffled sound, the sun rippling up the face, vibrations from my board to my feet, and I was back out again. In hindsight, I could’ve been deeper.
We didn’t paddle in until it was almost dark. As we climbed the hill, I took one look back. Squinting into the murk, I could see only the brightness of the spray tracing the lip lines and explosions of whitewater. All the reefs were simultaneously firing—the types of waves we don’t have in California.
We walked back to Mike’s cottage under the glow of the sodium street lamps. The gear was packed, and I took one final, electricity-draining warm shower. Mike waved us goodbye, then called out to me.
“Wilem,” he said. “When I get the hotel open, would you come back and run the bar?”
[Feature image: The low-slung sun of a high meridian in winter worked wonders in picking out subjects against moody skies and seas.]