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Our Friends in the North | Sally McGee

Sally McGee is a surf instructor with a bit of a difference. A tirelessly active member in the North East coastal community, Sally started all-female surf school Yonder, to help women and girls get over the hurdles faced when starting out on your surfing journey. Yonder aims to provide a safe, nurturing space where beginners can learn technique and surf etiquette, giving them enough confidence to go out and enjoy the North Sea.
On visiting our friends in the North East, they recommended we sit down with Sally to talk about the wonderful things Yonder is doing and the thought process behind her different approach…

Sally-McGee-with-her-surfboard-and-camper-van

So Sally, how did you end up in Tynemouth setting up Yonder?

I’m actually from Bradford, so we were fairly central growing up. My dad was a PE teacher, so he’d always take us out on dinghies and jumping off rope swings and that sort of thing, so I loved being in the water and I became obsessed with the idea of living by the sea and being in the water.

When I was about 18 I moved away, thinking that I needed to go elsewhere to learn to surf. When I came back I started to drive up to Scarborough realising I could surf there, just a couple of hours from where I lived. Then when I met Tom, my husband, everything became about surfing. Eventually we moved to Tynemouth, basically because we were looking for somewhere in the North where we could live by the coast.

One of the reasons I set up Yonder years later was because I still wasn’t seeing many girls out back. That is definitely increasing now but honestly, there used to be a time where I’d look around and go ‘Oh, is that a girl?! No, just a bloke with long hair.’

When you came to Tynemouth, what was it like getting involved in and being accepted by that community? Was it difficult?

Maybe, in one sense, it was a bit. I would say that the core community – the ones you see when you go to the shops or the post office or the local bar, the people you see around who are surfers – they’re the friendliest people ever.

I think respect is a big thing. I’ve always been incredibly respectful with anything I do. We’re very aware of situations. If you arrive at a spot, and it’s busy and can’t handle any more people, you just watch. You don’t get in. For me, that’s just respectful. And you also know that there are certain places where it’s not your time to surf there yet. You haven’t been around long enough and haven’t shown yourself to be ready.

Sally McGee Surfing

I know there’s a lot of issues around the idea of ‘locals only’ and people think that’s not really fair, but I think there’s a kind of positive in it. It’s not really ‘locals only’, that’s not right. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re local or not, it’s whether you’re respectful enough and whether you’ve earned it. But yeah, I think being respectful is super important.

Is that something that you carry across into your lessons too? Because that’s a big thing, not knowing ‘the rules’ and it’s often a reason that people are put off going in.

Definitely. You don’t want to overwhelm the beginners, but I am constantly talking to them. I’ve been an instructor since 2015 but I’d never really experienced the ongoing teacher-student relationship until I started Yonder. The girls come back time and time again so I'm able to help them progress individually. I guess it’s because Yonder is super small; it’s just me, so if they come back they get me again. I remember everyone I teach and I have conversations with them before they come about where they are with their surfing. I get an incredible sense of job satisfaction seeing that progression.

All this week I’ve done improver sessions because we’ve had good surf. ‘Improver sessions’ are for that annoying in-between stage where people are getting the hang of it, but still struggling to get onto the green waves. It’s a difficult place to be. So I did a session which was mainly about theory; I get in the van, set up the computer and do some diagrams and stuff so I can give them some of the theory about positioning on the wave and what waves to look for. I also do really basic paddle and water confidence sessions for those that are completely new to surfing.

The other thing is being super aware. I talk about etiquette and the importance of not dropping in, but in some sense, also stressing to them not to worry so much that it’s a barrier, it’s a beach at the end of the day so if you drop in on someone, just apologise and carry on and learn for next time, It happens sometimes! When starting to get out back and worrying about being in the way, I tell them that if someone’s really good at surfing, ‘don’t worry, they’ll get round you’. But it’s really important to tell them that, because a lot of the girls have never been out back because they don’t feel they deserve to be there and they’re not ready. As long as everybody is safe and having fun, our community is really understanding that beginners need to learn to progress.

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That’s an interesting point, because you’ve spoken about being so often the only female in the line-up, so do you feel that women are sometimes excluded, specifically cold water surfing?

Well… I really don’t think that women are excluded. I genuinely don’t think that. When I started surfing, all the role models that I had locally were men. And they were brilliant. They were so encouraging.

The lads have always been brilliant. I couldn’t say a bad thing about them. That’s not what Yonder is about. It’s more about, why women are feeling this way in themselves? And I think it’s definitely a societal problem. There’s something about being a young girl and the way we’re often brought up, what we’re taught to think and feel and be. It’s not necessarily a purposeful thing, but it’s there in society, of course it is! There are so many things you can look into, and the research as to why some women might be lacking confidence and might be struggling to get out there.

From my experience, some women want to be good at it immediately, they want to understand how it all works, and if that doesn’t happen they can feel like they’re not good enough and they’re a failure and it’s not going to work and you might as well just give up and stay in the white water because that’s your happy place. Or maybe they’ve experienced a huge wipeout or long hold-down and they think, ‘Oh, that’s surfing. That’s terrifying!’. It can be game over once that’s happened.

There’s also not as much of the culture here in the North East. Down in Cornwall you have a great Grom scene, and we do have a great surf school up here teaching kids, but there’s a middle ground when they’re not coming after school with their surfboards, especially the girls. So I know I’m banging on a bit but there’s never been a culture of the young girls getting out there. To a little extent there is with the boys, but it’s only really the odd boy that takes that up who we’ve seen come through the ranks.

So, what does it feel like to have built this little community of badass girl surfers in the North East?

It’s great. It’s still so early, because we’ve only been going at it for a year really and there’s lots more to be done. There’s obviously surf schools here, and they’re fantastic, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something drawing these women who’ve wanted this for such a long time to take those first steps through Yonder.

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There’s a special stage that I am looking to work with moving forward. There is a point with any teenager, even lads, when they just turn off. It’s usually when they’re like 15-16, which are actually the key ages for development. There is research, there’s loads of it from Sporting England and other reputable bodies. It goes back to what we were talking about before; girls feeling that it’s unfeminine to be sporty. You get sweaty, or when you’re out in the sea you look an absolute mess. But it’s showing the girls that it’s brilliant, that that is a good thing! And how you feel afterwards from it; not a single person has ever said to me that they didn’t love it.

If there’s a group of you together, you’re going to go out more. But if that group’s not there, and it’s just you, then you might drop off as well unless you have that support. And at that age especially, having the support of girls together is great. It’s definitely nothing to do with excluding or separating them out from the boys, there’s no need for that. It’s just about helping them get to that stage where they’re fine and they have that confidence. I’ve recently established a side of Yonder as a Community Interest Company, the aim is to support this age group more through more accessible lessons.

You’ve carved out your niche in the surf community in the North East and it seems like it’s quite a prominent role in this community. How is the community responding to what you’re doing?

Before I did this I was an SAS rep, and I still am actually. A lot of the work I’ve always done has been within the community, so it’s nothing unusual for me. As for the community itself, everyone seems really supportive. I only run sessions with six girls, I could do eight if I wanted to but I choose to do six and I don’t do it all the time, I just do it when the surf is going to be good or appropriate for a particular lesson type.

Some people say I should expand my business but for now I just want to focus on the quality of what I’m doing and making it better and more accessible. The Community Interest Company side of it will really open that up and hopefully with a bit of funding we will see some great changes. It’s why I’m trying to make Yonder not just about lessons, bringing in social events and getting girls talking. Once I’ve done a few lessons with them I’ll say look, you’re ready now, go out there and practice. Meet up with one of the other girls and try and get out together. Sometimes they’ll message me and ask about the surf conditions, and I’ll give them feedback and say, ‘yeah, it’s fine. Head out!’

Sally-McGee-and-Paige-in-finisterre-womens-wetsuits

What do you see on the horizon for Yonder? Any plans to diversify or grow to accommodate more students?

So, I’m doing some sessions which anyone can come to where I talk about surf etiquette, forecasting, safety – all the main things you need to look out for or be aware of. That can have a lot more people coming, which is completely different to anything else I do. The other thing I haven’t even talked about is the camps! We take girls from all over the UK for that. We’re also taking a bunch of girls from the North East to Morocco. I also work with a local shaper too to get the girls on to their next boards, moving on from foamies.

I really don’t know about making it bigger. I work hard but am always working on maintaining the balance of work and my own surfing, right now it’s sustainable, enjoyable and something I am really proud of, even if we are always skint. I don’t really think it would have the same feel if I had employees and expanded. It’s pure and I think it’s rare that things are kept pure. When I took the girls out yesterday, and I’m clearly talking to the girls about people in the lineup and positioning and saying, ‘that’s their wave. They’re going for it, the peak is there. So we sit and we watch and we let them go.’ And then it’s like, ‘right, this is your wave now!’ and everyone in the line up is listening and smiling and encouraging the other girls into waves and stuff, so it’s great.

I couldn’t do that if I was taking 20 people out back. And right now I wouldn’t want to do it any other.

Find out more about Sally