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Helmsman

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The call came in a little after 3 p.m. on a Tuesday in late November. Someone had seen a vessel in distress and dialed 999. The emergency operator passed the message for assistance to the District Launch Authority. Twenty pagers in the Cornish village of St Agnes beeped simultaneously. 

They say you never know where you’ll be when a “shout” comes in. For the volunteer crew of the St Agnes lifeboat, it’s the signal to drop everything and assemble at Trevaunance Cove as quickly as possible—twenty-four hours a day, whatever the weather—to put their lives at risk to save someone else’s. 

Tom Kay was one of the first on the scene. Along with three other crewmembers and the shore team, he piloted the rescue boat down the slipway to a thin strip of sand being rapidly covered by the rising spring tide. The St Agnes lifeboat is an orange D-class Inshore Rescue Boat (IRB) built to maneuver in surf. By necessity, it’s designed to take a pounding. St Agnes is just one of two Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) lifeboat stations that launch through the surf. On its day, it is one of the wildest stations in England. 

The Atlantic was in a foul mood that evening. Under a west-northwest wind, fast moving weather, and rapidly dying light, large lumps of swell swung across from Trevellas and shut down the bay. Despite training exactly for this, Kay watched the conditions with unease. With a big incoming tide and a decent period behind the swell, the cove is not somewhere you’d like to be on a boat. 

On the odd moment, usually in the winter, it’ll offer a sandy, thick, righthand tube with most good sets well attended to by the talented local crew. Back in the old days, it was known as the “Badlands” due to fierce localism. But with the onshore wind that evening, there wasn’t a soul in the water to witness Kay steer the lifeboat out into the gathering darkness. He looked north and saw a wave break outside Green Island and whitewater as far north at Cligga Head. 

He navigated a course close in, against the west side of the cove, where a finger of deep water abuts the ruins of a harbor, heading for open sea and St Agnes Head in the distance. A few nautical miles offshore, towering 80-feet above high water, the larger of the two Bawden Rocks (the Cow and Calf, as they are sometimes called) caught a flash of weak winter light on its flank. 

Fifteen-minutes later and out to sea, between Portreath and Porthtowan, the crew scanned the water for the small vessel that had been reported as being in distress. Heavy, cold surf was detonating against the base of the cliffs. The crew could hear it over the wind. They knew that every minute was precious.

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“You never know what you are going out for,” Kay says when we catch up a few days later. “It’s a commitment for me and my family. Our boat will go out on about 20 to 25 shouts a year.” 

Cornwall is a place of contrasts. Empty and bleak through the winter, warmer weather brings the whole place alive with tourists in the summer, many of whom have zero understanding of the sea. The beaches around St Agnes can be dangerous—open and golden at low tide but quickly cut off into a series of coves by incoming tides, from which land-based escape is impossible. Kay recalls the Easter Sunday just gone, when there were six shouts in a single day. 

For almost 200 years, since the charity was founded in 1824, the volunteer crews of the RNLI have hauled people from the water, saving more than 142,000 lives. The RNLI Gold Medal for Gallantry is inscribed with a simple sentence: “Let not the deep swallow me up.” 

Kay joined the RNLI crew in St Agnes more than 15 years ago, when he moved to the village. An RNLI pager sits on his desk today at Wheal Kitty, the old mine above Trevaunance that serves as headquarters for Finisterre, the surf and outdoor brand he founded in 2003. 

On paper, the intense grind of launching a company doesn’t seem to coexist with the drop-everything dedication needed to volunteer with the RNLI, but for Kay it’s a natural extension of his background. “I spent a lot of time in coastal communities growing up,” he says. “As a kid, there was always the awareness of what the RNLI did. Before they had pagers they used to send up flares to summon the crews, and we’d run and get the actual shell casings off the beach. I still have one somewhere. It’s an unwritten law of the sea. When someone’s in trouble, you go and help them. I think the RNLI is one of the only volunteer, water-based lifesaving organizations in the world. There are so many stories of real heroism, but on a very humble level. This ethos still exists today.”

Kay points to the story of the Lynmouth lifeboat, Louisa. During a wild storm in 1899, volunteer lifeboatmen from the North Devon town of Lynmouth received a telegram that a cargo ship was aground. Unable to launch from their location, the coxswain of the boat proposed that the lifeboat could be dragged overland for 13 miles along impossibly steep coastal roads to launch in Porlock to save the vessel. The ordeal required 18 horses and 100 people. The craft was 30-feet long and weighed 20,000 pounds. They reached Porlock at 6:30 a.m. after an 11-hour journey and instantly launched to help the stricken ship, from which all 18 crewmembers were rescued and survived. 

Today’s boats are much more man-

euverable. “For our station,” Kay says, “launching at high tide is very dangerous. Being a surfer helps. You’re watching waves the whole time and constantly reading the water—skills that help me drive a small boat through big surf. At high tide on the slipway, you start the boat on the trailer, wait for a set, the crew runs the boat in, and you’re off. Timing is critical. Get it wrong and the boat gets washed straight back into the harbor wall.”

Unsurprisingly, RNLI crew shortages are common. The economic demands of the modern world generally don’t encourage dedicated community service for zero pay. In a place like Cornwall, where average property prices are almost ten times the average salary of its inhabitants, people just can’t afford the time. 

Despite this, the St Agnes lifeboat crew is currently in a strong place and includes four women, one of whom is a helm. “There have been times here when the crew numbers have been thin on the ground,” Kay says. “I stayed on to make sure there was coverage in the winter during the week. But just recently there’s been a surge of new people, a few young faces, which is great.” 

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Kay’s relationship with the water comes from a childhood on the North Norfolk coastline. If Cornwall is comprised of sandy beaches and towering cliffs, Norfolk is largely flat fenland and brown, cold, muddy water. It’s an inhospitable place to be a surfer. 

“I went back the other day,” Kay says. “It’s ingrained in me. We used to surf over the back of Blakeney Point. I remember some special days, with the drift so strong you’d get swept way down the beach and have to walk back.” 

North Norfolk is a network of tiny creeks and expanses of water called broads leading to the sea. “The surf was often flat but there was always something to do, whether it was fishing or sailing,” Kay says. “My dad had a 12-foot wooden boat on the creek. It’s pretty bleak up there in the winter, but the place is just in me. If I don’t go back there, I feel like there’s a bit of me missing.”

Being obsessed with riding waves in a place without any is a strange pursuit. It either drives you mad, instills a sort of Zen acceptance, or you give up. “That’s my founding connection to the sea,” Kay says. “It’s about something more than it being perfect surf. I’m really grateful for that. I never get disappointed by bad waves. And being able to introduce people to the sea feels like my personal purpose. Because hopefully that encourages guardianship and stewardship. The sea has taken various forms in my life, and with that comes a relationship. It’s a two-way thing. It sustains. Hopefully in my life I can do a bit to sustain it.” 

A rare moment of Cornish alignment. Photograph by Ian Lean.

Kay’s company, Finisterre, has been part of that journey. Recognizing the need for a brand to build innovative and sustainable products, he started out selling fleeces for cold-water surfers from his car at the beach, aided by a website powered by a dial-up modem. Sixteen years later, with eight shops and 55 people on the books, the company is now a fixture in coastal England. 

In St Agnes, it provides jobs for 35 staff members—a major employer in a small Cornish village. It also supports a team of ambassadors, including surfers such as Easkey Britton, Matt Smith, Fergal Smith, and Sam Bleakley. “The sea is the common ground that holds us together,” Kay says. “I learn so much from these people. There’s an exchange of ideas. I really enjoy supporting their respective endeavors, and I feel lucky to be able to do that.”

Finisterre was initially launched in 2003 with the help of a loan from The Prince’s Trust, a charity founded by Prince Charles to help young entrepreneurs. 

“Sometimes it feels like we’re just getting started,” Kay says. “In many ways, Finisterre seems like a 16-year-old human. We’re growing into who we are. People, product, and environment—that’s the commitment I’ve always wanted the brand to have, and it feels like we’re getting to be known for that. The ability to affect change is a very powerful ambition. You never say you’ve achieved it. We try and live to a set of sustainable business values and they’ve been there from the start. Sixteen years ago no one here seemed to understand that. But the world is coming ’round.”

In 2005, recognizing the sustainable properties of wool, Kay (with the help of an Exmoor farmer) decided to support the resurrection of a flock of Bowmont Merino sheep, known for their fine coats. The only problem was there were only 28 of the animals left in the world. Today there are roughly 300 Bowmont Merino sheep, producing some 1,500 pounds of fiber every year, with a 100-percent British supply chain. 

Prince Charles, in his role as the patron of The Campaign for Wool (a global endeavor to educate consumers and manufacturers about the natural, renewable, and biodegradable benefits offered by the fiber), recently cropped up again in Kay’s life to support the program. 

“Clarence House [Prince Charles’s private office] got in touch and said he wanted to come down and visit. Their entourage was about 15 people—police, bodyguards, security, counter-terrorism teams. After six months of planning, it got down to a minute-by-minute walk around Wheal Kitty. Surfers Against Sewage [a local environmental charity] organized an Ocean Plastics Solutions Day. I spent 45 minutes showing him around and talking to him about our sustainable business outlook. He was genuinely interested.”

Under Kay’s guidance, Finisterre has also been working to reduce the end-stage impact surfers have on their environment as consumers. “Every surfer has a pile of wetsuits rotting somewhere,” he says. “People probably buy a new wetsuit every eighteen months, if not once a year, and then it just gets abandoned. If there are half a million surfers in the U.K. there could be 750,000 pounds of neoprene each year ending up in a landfill.” 

Finisterre’s solution has been to appoint a full-time wetsuit recycler, Jenny Banks, whose sole aim is to work out how to make new wetsuits from old ones, an attempt to join the end-of-life disposal of a wetsuit to the “virtuous loop” that circular economy practitioners consider the holy grail of product life cycles. “If you put a product out to the consumer,” Kay says, “you need to be able to collect it back at the end of its life and repurpose it or recycle it, creating closed-loop consumerism. That’s the thinking.” 

Finisterre is planning to test a fully recycled wetsuit this year. The program is mentored by Professor Oana Ghita of the Exeter University Centre of Material Reengineering, giving it some heavyweight scientific backing. The vision is for surfers to give their old wetsuits back as soon as the seams go and the cold water creeps in. 

Another initiative, one obviously close to Kay’s heart, is the company’s work with the RNLI. Two years ago, the lifesaving organization approached Finisterre about a partnership to create a range of gear, from jackets to knitwear to socks, to raise money for the lifeboat crews. The desire to help people in trouble was a powerful story that consumers understood. The range sold 2,000 products across 15 styles, raising thousands for the charity.  

“Personally it was a high point for me,” Kay says with a boyish glint in his eye. “Especially because I got to go out on the Sennen Cove lifeboat [a 52-foot self-righting lifeboat powered by two 1,000 horsepower Caterpillar C18 diesels with a top speed of 25 knots], which fulfilled a childhood dream for me.”

Wheal Kitty, Finisterre’s HQ, has all the hallmarks of a creative hub. The space is also occupied by environmental activists and the innovative surfboard factory Open Surf. There’s a dynamism about the place, built around the surviving buildings from the mine, which closed in 1930. 

“It’s starting to get some traction now,” says Hugo Tagholm, a Finisterre neighbor and the CEO of Surfers Against Sewage. “The investment that these organizations have put in, for years, is starting to pay off in terms of momentum. Those groups and brands that are committed to the environment are starting to reap the benefits of wanting to protect that environment.” 

“There isn’t a straight-line correlation between being a surfer and being an environmentalist,” Kays says. “Surfing and a connection to the sea is the glue that holds these two types of people together. We all love it and we are passionate about it, but the interesting part of why people come here is because of what they are doing aside from being a surfer. I think that’s a leading mindset and outlook to have.” 

I ask Kay where he sees things going, personally and professionally. “From a business point of view, we became B Corporation certified last year,” he says, referring to a designation for businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. “That was huge and a confirmation of our journey over the last 15 years. As the world changes around us and technology comes to the forefront, there’s an ongoing evolution we have to undergo and B Corp should help us develop.” 

He also recognizes that there’s still plenty more to be done. “There are lots of things that we’re working on that we can improve,” he says. “But from a personal point of view, my work purpose and my personal purpose are intertwined. I’m not sure I realized that at the start.”

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On that November evening with nightfall not far away, Kay worried that his RNLI crew would never find the distressed vessel. “Darkness adds a layer of danger,” he says. “About five times a year, calls happens at night and they are usually more serious from a casualty point of view. All of the potential problems you can encounter are just enhanced at night. It’s intense and unfamiliar. On more than a few occasions, I’ve been out there in huge seas and thought to myself that I have had no right to be there.”

Launching into the night, a volunteer RNLI crew heads out to sea at full throttle for a rescue. Navigating a lifeboat through the lineup requires calmness, a lifetime of ocean knowledge, and coolheaded nerves, all of which Kay has developed during a lifetime in the ocean. Photograph by RNLI/Nigel Millard.

Having the drive and commitment to go to sea on any given day to rescue people, fair weather or foul, is uncommon in most individuals. The RNLI was founded by Sir William Hillary in 1824, under the motto: “With courage, nothing is impossible.” The statement seems just as relevant today for someone like Kay—across his interlocking interests. 

As the searchlights probed the shallows, a call eventually came in over the radio. The engine on the vessel had started and the skipper had made it in to Portreath safe and sound while the volunteer lifeboat crew hunted for him. Hearing the news, Kay turned the RNLI boat for home, contemplating an unpleasant high tide landing back at the village in the dusk.