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All In

The perfect winter session is a rare beast indeed on Cornish shores. Back in November of 2019 the south coast welcomed a swell of rare quality, with just the right conditions to produce such a session - waves of consequence, that would keep most firmly rooted to the shore.

Luckily for us, there to document it were surfer and writer Pete Geall, and photographer Jack Johns, capturing a vivid insight into one of the best sessions of the early winter.

Onlookers watch from the harbour as an unknown surfer navigates a heavy barrel - imagecredit JackJohns

Guess I’ve been ‘all-in’ for a while now. In the decade or so that I’ve been fortunate enough to surf well enough to make the drop that is. Before that time, the wave represented an almost mystical zone in my youthful mind. Way out beyond the confines of the safety of the harbour. A jumbled totem of perfect curves and transitions - in a league far removed from the tidal, weak beach breaks that largely define the Cornish surf experience. Deeper still, a lustful desire to be respected by my surfing peers and many local idols. Being seen and known as ‘a charger’ on the greatest stage I could picture at the time. I knew I wanted to be at the beating heart of the fray. At the time I just didn’t know how to get there.

I honestly have no idea of what others make of my approach. Patience, commitment and effort. A modicum of skill that I have diligently worked on, a dodgy style which has never lent itself to turns or arcs. Time spent floundering in cold, shit surf all over the county; saving up to travel with the aim of surfing better waves and moulding my work life around the ocean through the modest occupation of lifeguarding.

We have all sacrificed things on our own surfing journeys - material things, relationship things - things which we have all deemed below this pursuit. The thrill of sliding across the ocean. The anticipation; the camaraderie and the reward.

Pete Geall Surveying the scene before the session - imagecredit JackJohns

But beneath all that, a deep vein of unyielding dedication runs through me that doesn’t start or finish with a swell like the one we had in November. A swell that in its short window of existence displayed the full gamut of Cornish oceanic expression from storm ragged rawness through to mellow groomed perfection. The boastful claims on social media still dripping down my feed as I type.

Gale force on-shores that swung 180 degrees in a matter of minutes (22 minutes later than forecast by the MET Office in fact). Ten feet of jumbled south-west lines, tripping over each other to offer themselves willingly to those in the mix an opportunity to roll the dice on a winter season in its infancy. Maturing overnight into groomed, mirror clean head-high surf for those with a more traditional sense of perfection.

An auspicious week in which the UK surf community had been presented with the entirely novel concept of wave-riding beyond that found in the ocean. The Atlantic decided to gatecrash the Bristol ‘Wave’ pool party in rare form. The carefully curated, instagram ready launch of the unquestionably fun looking ‘Wave’ quickly usurped by the brutish thuggery of storm swell smashing into the most exposed harbour in Cornwall.

The sheer majesty of this swell event, demonstrating the impossibly wide gulf between the nascent form of wave-riding in a chlorinated pool with its traditional, albeit inconsistent, form in the wild. A handful of devotees on longer boards butted up between rocks and the rising tide; charging into the fading light of an autumnal afternoon.

Mounts Bay looms in the background of the session - imagecredit JackJohns

An afternoon for wild peaks and inside drainers - warped hues of green and grey bleeding out into fanned spindrift suspended by the northerly breeze. In the distance, framed by the lip, the safety of the harbour and glowering clock tower rapidly come into view like a camera aperture opening in slow motion. Before you can process what is happening you are flung out into deep water with a burst of rainbow spray. That quiet, elated moment where you lie on your back with your feet resting upon the deck of your board in the channel; mentally locking in the totality of the experience which is still so vivid but already rapidly dissolving out of your consciousness.

Behind the main wave and beneath a flush of empty holiday homes - spectators dot the shoreline. The distinctive blue boiler suits and white helmets of the local Coastguard team busy stopping onlookers from venturing too close to the wave washed harbour.

To truly dance on these rare days is a special thing indeed and those that get the most reward are those who know about her other side. The less glamorous side, the workaday side whereby knowledge of the break has been carefully studied and rammed down your throat as you bounce along the reef on days not as perfect as this.

The time you slipped out of that harbour under the veil of darkness and into the hands of the Atlantic swell run ragged by north-westerlies. Pre-work surfs. During work surfs. Post-work surfs. Second surfs when others have long since turned their attention to a frothy session in the Ship Inn.

The numerous times I have been pole-axed into the infamous low tide ‘fingers’ of reef. The time where I struggled to paddle a broken board in like a swimming pool noodle crumpled fast into a set-square through the torrent of churned rip through the harbour’s entry to the safety of my van. The times when you have your tail put firmly between your legs - humble pie with a side-serve of fear as you take the cave-tour of the inside line. A supine starfish ‘enjoying’ the head-high shorepound all the way towards to the lifeboat slip.

Sitting out there in an easterly gale whilst a 10ft south swell relentlessly unloads onto the shelf. Patiently waiting for the Met-Office wind forecast to turn that fraction to the north and suddenly elevate the churned mess into an order that is more magnificent than any other wave in this county. Now that was a time.

When it all comes together is when the real players in this long-game come out. I know them all now, others who hold their own personal connection to this place as tightly and preciously as I do. They also wear that place like an iron around their necks when their chips are down: when the summer doldrums kick in, when injuries sideline your goals or life (and assorted commitments) get in the way of the handful of times that the magic really happens each season. A specific type of surf #FOMO that has no comparison in this western corner of the country.

Players who are willing to forego the first wave of the set for the feeling that something more special is winding its way up the Bay of Biscay - destined for them. Those willing to forego many sets in fact for that ‘one’. The zenith of a season. The culmination of years at the joyous grindstone of a surfing path. People who will fold their hands until they have pocket aces. Then they go all-in.

Words by Pete Geall  |  Images by Jack Johns