We couldn’t take a trip to the north east and not pay a visit to Finisterre Ambassador Sandy Kerr. Sandy is our constant link to this community of north sea surfers, and working for the RNLI lifeguards, he lives and breathes a coastline whose surfing subculture is often overlooked.
Now growing into his inspirational role in this coastal community, we caught up with sandy to see how he’s coping with being a role model, his job with the RNLI and how he gives back to the local grom scene.
We’ve spoken with you before about growing up on Tynemouth and how the community supported you there. Now though, you’re a prominent member of this surfing community. Kids look up to you and people know who you are. How does that feel?
It’s pretty crazy. I’ve been thinking about this and thinking about when I was growing up as a kid surfing here. I think I was pretty lucky with role models. I don’t know, maybe the older guys saw something in me or maybe it’s because I had the connection beforehand, growing up in this coastal scene, but they would always take me to these places where kids wouldn’t really go alone. Some of the reefs and up to Scotland and things. A lot of the other kids didn’t really get that opportunity. People I would surf with every day would just be surfing the beaches, but then the older guys were taking me to these other places, so now I’m trying to do the same with a lot of the young guys.
There’s always been bridges between the age groups but it’s pretty mad with some of the younger ones. I spoke to one kid in person the other day, and he was just amazed that I’d sent him a message on Instagram. He’d posted a picture of the waves and I was just asking, ‘oh, did you get in today?’ And when I met him he was like, ‘oh my god that was amazing! I can’t believe you sent me a message!’
That must be a bit strange for you, right? You’re a pretty humble guy and now you’ve got these kids coming up treating you like a bit of a celebrity…
Haha! Something like that I suppose. I don’t really like talking about it really but yeah, it’s totally surreal. I mean… what I try and do when I surf is to help out the kids; take them up and down the coast. They want to surf just as much as me so I’m happy to share any waves on the beach. I don’t paddle out and try to stamp my authority on the waves or anything, that’s not really me.
I kind of got into the position I’m in, not through surfing ability, more through being recognised and being in the water all the time. There’s loads of people that surf better than me, so I just want to be the person who’s nice and sharing the waves and encouraging.
You play down your surfing ability a lot, but you’re often riding real waves of consequence. Do you feel that your friends and this community keep you grounded and humble?
Oh yeah, massively. I think I’ve always said it but, picking up surfing and just growing up my whole life, I was always around an older community. Nobody my age really surfed, it was only a handful of guys, so I grew up in an older community and big egos or anything like that just wouldn’t cut it with them. I always felt if I was developing an ego or getting too big for my boots, then they wouldn’t pick me up and take me down to the Cove or to Thurso. So that was the threat for me. Some days I would of course, I was a kid and I’d get a bit of an ego but they shot me down pretty quick. But, there are definitely a few guys who I can totally thank for taking me to these waves, and pushing me more. I owe a lot of it to them.
So, when you’re surfing, do you feel as though you’re representing the North East, and how much pressure does that come with?
Yeah totally, although I’m not very good at dealing with it a lot of the time! If I’m surfing with a load of guys who I know are good surfers, who are from Cornwall, Ireland or somewhere like that, nine times out of ten, I’m the only one from the North East in the water. Out at Mullaghmore for example, I’m the only person from the North East.
Bringing it back to the community here, I feel like I’m travelling around a lot of the time and surfing these waves which leads to a bit of exposure, and it’s almost like I’m carrying a lot of that as well. It’s not just for the North East, it’s for a lot of those guys who brought me up. Most of them are now settled down, married with kids and they don’t get the chance to get out as often as they could, so I think they really buzz of what I do. It’s great.
It must be amazing for them to see you surfing these incredible waves and remember you as a little 12 year old kid. Do they ever tell you what it means to them?
I mean, like I said before, there’s not much ego in the North East. So, I know that they don’t tell me a lot of things… I do get a lot of; “oh I remember when you were young, and your mam asked me to take you out surfing because it was too big for you and you were too afraid to go in by yourself!’ That’s a regular story that I hear. And then it finishes with, ‘And now look at you!’
I do know that a lot of them buzz off it though. I feel the love, massively, especially when I showed my film last year, North Sea Holes. It meant more than anything to me to have all the old guys come down and watch it. I know that they’re happy for me doing this.
So, you now work for the RNLI Lifeguard service. How exactly did that come about and what’s your day-to-day?
My first lifeguarding job was actually when I was 16. My parents owned a café on Longsands beach, which is the main beach for surfing in the North East, from before I was born up until I was 12, so I learned to surf on that beach. I hung around on that beach every day of the summer. I remember I didn’t like it at the time because I had to go to work for my parents in the café, but thinking back it was the best childhood.
Then when I was 16 I got the lifeguard job and low and behold I was put on that beach and ended up being there for the next 10 years again! I learned to surf on that beach, I learned to lifeguard on that beach and now lifeguarding provides my career. I’m now one of the team of three who manages the lifeguard service up here in the North East. It’s pretty varied, I train all the lifeguards on how to use jet-skis and boats and things like that. I take them from hiring and recruiting, right the way through to them working on the beach. So now it’s actually in the beach season, I’m out delivering equipment. I’ll go from one beach to the next, to the next.
Do you think you were always going to gravitate to something that kept you close to the sea or do you see it as a surprise win?
The RNLI is huge in the North East. It all kind of started here with Grace Darling and her rescue. For me it’s amazing, I love working for a big organisation that has such a rich history. I treat a lot of this job similarly to surfing; you’re an ambassador for the RNLI and you’re an ambassador for lifeguarding so you have to keep the same approach, especially when dealing with people in public. I think I’ve done pretty well to get the job I’ve got to be honest!
I’m so happy. I have a career doing something I love and, let’s be honest, I don’t think I could ever see myself working in an office full time in a call centre or anything like that. It was always going to be something coastal. I mean, I’m ‘based’ in an office, but I’m definitely not in there full time. I don’t think I could.
A big part of my job is driving round a load of beaches in a day. So, depending on conditions… I can choose where to spend my lunch break! I have about a 30 mile stretch where I can spend my lunch, so I still make sure to get in the water as often as I can, when not on duty of course! It’s almost part of the job, I don’t think anyone can really argue with you getting in. Another big thing about the community in Tynemouth is that they really look up to the Lifeguards and a lot of people understand why we’re there, even if they’re not surfers.
So I have one final question for you. Is it becoming more normal now, or do people still look at surfers in the north east as if they’re nuts?
I mean, It’s becoming more normal. We’re having a lot more surf lessons with kids in the summer and things like that. BUT, without fail, if I walk from my house down to the beach in the winter, there will be people staring and shouting over, ‘what are you doing?! You’re not in Hawaii now, you’re not in California now!’ And there are always the proper hardened Geordies who look at you, surfing in the depths of winter, and you know they’re thinking, ‘What. The. Hell. Are. You. Doing?’
On the other side, you always get a lot of fishermen, sailors, lifeboat men – they’ll always give you a weather report. It’s brilliant, ‘oh, you should get down here tomorrow, the wind’s a lot better!’ and I’m like, ‘it doesn’t quite work like that…’
But I appreciate it. It’s all part of that community spirit here in the North East.