Anticipating the first swell of the season, much like waiting for the ground base of snow in the mountains, will long continue to spark excitement in the most seasoned of surfers.
As Photographer, Chris McClean prepares for the winter ahead in true ritualistic fashion, he takes a moment to stop and smell the roses.
Don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens – The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.
- John Steinbeck, 1958
Towards the end of September us east coasters start chart watching again. Bookmarks in browsers that had been gathering dusk are brushed off, clicked into action, hard drives whirling.
The sea still warm, fresh as the cooler mornings cut through the stench of chip fat (Scarborough is home to McCains Oven Chips). The smell of factories and the acidic froth that bubbles out of river mouths further north. The mood is heavy awaiting that first swell, you can taste it on the breeze. Offshores traveled from the west coast past Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield purified over the wolds and dales until it reaches the east coast with the aroma of fresh frost and roses, blowing the stench of coastal towns out to sea.
The North Sea is a cruel sea, at certain times the nets only bring in garbage and dead fish, hordes of star fish, plundered as the Beast from the East smashed into Emma, huge tides causing destruction from Jaywick to Peterhead. Razor clams and mussels on promenades, slot machines under salt water, kelp in front rooms.
That first swell is the sweetest to me, as if a whirlwind has awoken the sleeping surfers, phones are ringing, vans are emptied, garages raided for bigger boards, softer wax and boots. The leaves start falling from ageing trees formed from the dregs of summer holidays. The tourists have all gone home, kids back to school, streets hosed down washing away the swirling aroma of crowds and candy floss. All of a sudden minds are clear, everything is in place, ready for the unpredictable nature of that first autumnal blast.
In the midst of this blizzard faces appear, faces we’ve not seen for six months, vans arrive, friends for only winter, we bond over reefs and rock points, waves and coves only we know of, rubber suited walks down cliffs, fugitive pints beside fires in pubs, car park chatter, before the swells pass and we rush home. The North East isn’t like any scene I’ve come across before, disparate to other surf worlds, fleeting yet constant the same faces, the same spots year after year.
The sun rises from behind the horizon now, glaring on the cliffs and rocky points, making the damp bracken blaze softly. The sea birds drift, shrilly calling to one another on the rock faces. Surfers awaiting that first light, the first glimpse of the North sea at dawn, there is an uncertainty in the air.
I look forward to seeing these friends spread over varying points up and down the coast, I can’t imagine what it would feel like living in one place only surfing the wave out front day in day out. We roam the coast and winter is our stalking season, but with Autumn we go where we know best.
So as we await winter and the thunderous north swells, like miners hating the trip underground yet knowing a pay check is on the horizon. The first swells of autumn are the sweetest, the water still in double figures, hoods and gloves aren’t needed and they’ll soon be a fixture until May — seven long cold months away. We smell the roses of the first September swells, clean fresh mornings on land but out to sea amongst the offshore spray that stings our faces and eyes we embrace the smell of the McCains factory, the ship yards and the steel works. The reek of autumn and that our favoured hunting time, amongst the short dark days of winter is just around the corner.
Words and Photographs by Chris McClean