As the commitments of our Ambassadors spread far and wide, securing time in the diaries of any one requires some thoughtful planning. As a result, spending time in the company of our friends and athletes becomes more meaningful with every encounter. Be that sharing mammoth sized swell, engaging in thorough wetsuit R&D or communion around the dinner table.
We left it to Cornish resident, Sam Bleakley to wrap up this years Annual General Meeting.
Travels to the tideline
We are constantly told that the world is shrinking, time and space collapsed into a common moment, eye contact replaced by iphone. Travel may confirm the ubiquity of this global network, with wireless access at every corner. But take away the tourist scaffolding and travel also brings difference and variety at each turn. Throw in a mix of very different people, and the world suddenly seems very big, liquid, a brilliant host of voices, and an endless variety of characters. Bringing different people together requires planning to build bridges and generate opportunities. With this in mind, once a year the Finisterre ambassadors gather together for a few days in places without crowds, commercialism and egos to switch off iphones, reconnect and recharge. The trace from these gatherings should generate what the French poet St-John Perse called a ‘tidemark’. Perse’s ‘tidemark’ is a salt-stain that cannot be erased but is enjoyed as a permanent print on the psyche of inspiration. Not just the mark of time, but of time well spent.
I was the lucky local this time as Matt Smith rented a slate roofed cottage just one headland away from my family home, set at the edge of the rugged Westcountry landscape. Below this house is a beach that Matt once ran like a champion as a home-grown head lifeguard when he lived in Cornwall. He was the last vestige of district council lifeguards in the area famed for tirelessly caring for their office because it was home – people who paid homage to the shape shifting strand line, managed safety with style, knew how to improvise and celebrated diversity in equal measure, anticipating rip currents, spotting basking sharks and engineering a positive atmosphere. Above all, Matt is a regular-footer like me (goofyfooters run the beach differently), and put the swimming area in exactly the right place at the right time, giving just enough space from the haggle of swimmers as a pushing summer swell found traction. Thank you Matt for anticipating those liquid dancefloors.
Alas some ambassadors were missing for this annual gathering: Fergal Smith had to stay rooted to planting needs at Moy Hill farm in Ireland; Noah Lane (Finisterre’s sultan of speed) had just injured his knee on a thunderous day at a thunderous reef, surfing at trademark breakneck speed with Zen-like precision. Heal safely Noah. But Matt, Easkey Britton and Sandy Kerr had travelled from their respective homes to this rough edge of west Cornwall where the train line ends and the Neolithic burial grounds begin in pursuit of the setting sun that points to the ancient place of the dead. The further west one goes, the more concentrated are the burial sites, culminating in the Isles of Scilly. This makes sense, as the sun sets here and is reborn on the opposite horizon. The dead must surely follow the sun, as it is dissolved daily only to rise elsewhere.
We all live at the edges: Sandy at the industrial edge of northeast England; Easkey and Matt at Ireland’s raw waveriding frontier. These edges have shaped our personalities and our surfing styles. As we paddled out for our first surf together I was reminded of these styles. Matt surfs fast and effortlessly, always in the pocket. This expert timing has allowed him to become a firewalker in the ionized centre of Ireland’s heaviest right-hander. Easkey brings grace and soul to the art of power-surfing, her arms like wings as she sprays the lip with a flourish, always treating the ride as a whole, in fluid motion from takeoff to kickout. Sandy is precise and explosive, at home in heaving North Sea swells hooking turns under hulking lips before picking the perfect line as a cold-water curtain razor cuts across the reef to slice the uninitiated, the tube-monster nearly swallowing him whole, then spitting him out to the safety of the shoulder.
But this trio are reefbreak surfers, their daily bread deep water paddles and shallow slabs. West Cornwall, in contrast, is the land of the bellowing beachbreak. There’s nothing glamorous about surfing here. Mostly it’s about making rhythm from chop, duck diving multiple closeout sets before the tideline unzips, rip currents bite, and sets start to spin off in cadence, before yet another shift in form. This is because the coarse quartz sands move relentlessly, making banks as changeable as the changing weather. I cherish the mystery and melancholy this breeds.
After a drumroll of duck-dives and a coda of closeouts we gathered at the rented house, meeting up with Finisterre’s head of creative David Gray. We unlocked the door, greeted with a striking view, but a sense that the house has been neglected. Perched on a cliff edge maybe it is the stain of salt and the constant rumble of the tideline below that make it feel worn out. But I got the sense a once eccentric property - with gardens, daffodil terraces and art inspired by the clean air - was now just another holiday home, battered and bruised. Perhaps we could revive the energy in this place, if only for a few days.
Every window has a limitless view, reaching out across an Atlantic that in turn grabs the glass and shakes it thoroughly. The swell was now building and the wind veered southwesterly, rattling the roof. Now high tide, meaty sets were crashing on the vaulting granite headland, causing huge cymbal splashes of spray. David suggested we take a walk, and I relished the chance to talk with Sandy (as this was the first time we met).
Sandy, who works for the RNLI, was raised overlooking the Tyne rivermouth. Up the coast the industrial underbelly of salt, coal, chemicals, petro-chemicals, iron and steel is juxtaposed to some of the best lefts in Europe unpeeling like forgotten fruit across Northumberland. Despite the clear difference, there is a deep affinity between west Cornwall and the northeast. West Cornwall is scarred with the haunting ruins of once great mining industries. After the collapse of tin-mining, this was the first post-industrial landscape in Europe. Cornish chemist and inventor Sir Humphry Davy traded industrial ideas with the northeast miners and developed their cherished safety lamp in 1815 for use in coal mines to reduce the danger of explosions caused by methane.
In another bit of synergy between the two areas, Penzance born Three S Films (run by John Adams) toured films to Sandy’s parent’s beach café and surf shop in Tynemouth. Scott Dittrich’s 1991 classic Rolling Thunder was a sensation for the Kerr family (with explosive performances from Robbie Page, Tom Carroll, Tom Curren, Martin Potter and many more). Rolling Thunder was set in 2040: the world's oceans have been poisoned by industrial pollution. An old man who lives in a cave once used by aborigines in the great desert that was once Australia tells a group of children taking refuge from the poisoned environment about his days as a surfer before all the seas were contaminated. No laughing matter.
Sandy and I had a laugh, trading Geordie jokes and Cornish riddles. I threw in a terrible Dad joke: A Cornish miner falls down a mine shaft. His fellow miners call, “Wozzon Boy. Is anythin’ brokun?” “No,” he replies, “there’s nothin’ down ‘ere to break!”
Turns out Sir Humphry Davy figured out nitrous oxide made him laugh, nicknamed it ‘laughing gas’ and enjoyed the buzz with eccentric pals like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, quickly realising its massive potential as an anaesthetic to relieve pain during surgery. No need for anesthetising the senses here as we clambered across wild gorse, aside heather, stirring adders, foxgloves, marram grass and montbretia. There’s a danger that you can become oblivious to your environment. You become dull to the world, an-aesthetised. The point is to become aestheticised, to use your senses, to notice things.
At the tip of the point we stood as still as birds, while all around seemed to broil and boil. Looking from land to sea we all felt as if we were outback, awaiting patiently for a set. Just as the surfer knows the poet Perse’s salt-stained ‘tidemark’, so he or she knows the perspective gained by distance from land to breaking wave, one of simultaneous cool contemplation and hot involvement.
But surfers are not all at sea. We return to shore on each wave, and at the end of each surf we engage with our homes and livelihoods, where things are tethered to feed the domestic, and where terroir - the very smell and taste of the place - replaces terror. Eat well. Sleep well.
The following morning the team doubled in size as Finisterre founder Tom Kay arrived with head of marketing Oli Culcheth, community brand manager Lawrence Stafford, and wetsuit designer Mathew D’Ascoli. The reward of these gatherings is a sudden and deep connection with others. And that is priceless. Even the enigmatic Mickey Smith popped in to discuss a film project. Mickey is surely one of Cornwall’s greatest talents: slab charging bodyboarder, photographer (his timeless work featured on the cover of The Surfers Journal), filmmaker and now legendary musician. He grew up surfing these beachbreaks and has never lost his love for the area. In fact Mickey and Ben Howard rented this very house to rehearse for their experimental, shape-shifting and brilliant A Blaze of Feather album. Coupled with the recordings in wintertime west Ireland, the atmospheric instrumentation sings out with the influence of this place.
Conversation travelled from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back. Hawaiian wetsuit guru Mathew D’Ascoli (Mat’s dad Ed founded Xcel in 1982 working from the bedroom of his home on Oahu’s North Shore, first designing wetties for Navy Seals) had just emerged from a weekend with 40 women’s wetsuit testers. The Nieuwland wetsuit (named after 1920s neoprene pioneer Julius Nieuwland) is evolving with all the passion and energy that Tom Kay has put into everything since starting the brand in a flat above a surf shop in St Agnes in 2003. The main aim is a wetsuit built to last that fits like a seal skin. Mathew, who now works as a freelance wetsuit designer, is a creative genius, eager to continue to evolve and refine the wetsuits. We quickly entered into a maze of ideas. Mathew navigated every alleyway with precision. It’s at these moments when a current runs through you, a thrill at the possibilities, where the spirit bursts into flame, and you are fully absorbed. This is the sign of time well spent, capped by a long afternoon surf with seals for company. Sea life and see life.
I’m not one for obsessing over swell forecasts, and tend to make the most of the conditions on the doorstep, accepting whatever is on offer as a gift. My instinct said the swell would drop and the wind turn southeasterly. I was wrong. Next day the southwesterlies continued, the swell increased, and the coast was now cloaked in drizzle! We decided to tackle a coastal walk with the invitation of pasties for lunch. By car you can travel between west, north and south coasts in fifteen minutes. By foot, the coast path is relentless and it can take half a day to scale convoluted routes between points driven in little time. The south is perched on the rim of a sheltered basin with safe anchorage. Pockets in the north have a Mediterranean feel that set them apart from their surroundings. West facing stretches are swell magnets where a generation of crazy bodyboarders (including Mickey Smith) cut their teeth on weird and fickle granite reefs (that are near-impossible to ride standing) before graduating to more serious waves in the Canaries, Australia, Tahiti and ultimately Ireland.
As we walked the coast these reefs were breaking in lonely glory. Twelve wave sets and green water blues spat salt teeth and laughed at our absence, then sighed with pleasure. The footpath was rain stained, but even in the mist everything can come alive, or be seen anew. There is something about the pace of walking when things suddenly seem fresh, vivid, intensely interesting. Because you focus on what you’re looking at and listening to, a coastal walk is like waking up while already awake; things have a way of being emphasized, underlined. Even in the worst weather a coastal walk really does broaden the mind, but also enlarges the heart and imagination, helping you to respect not only people, but also the character of landscape, the spirit of place.
We feasted on a fatty lunch of fresh pasties, and with the tideline now fast moving, paddled out heavyweight for our final surf. The sea was stirred to boiling point. The horizon looked snow capped. Flying horses came from all directions. We got nailed, scrambled outback in the small window between sets, but couldn’t get a grip on the wet and wild surfaces. Foam smokers closed out the entire bay and the pub proved a better place to be, salt-stained and sinuses ready to be drained. Ironically this rolling thunder swell was lightning up some of the best waves in Europe with world-class conditions. In contrast, these beaches panicked and closed out. It was the worst place to be (for peeling waves). But as someone who travels aboard to work, when I am home I prefer to travel by foot to surf whatever is on offer in the broad sweeping bay. And I love these wild, untamed, empty days when you spend more time duck-diving than riding.
For the last super at the house a fine mix of Finisterre staff came and went, unpretentious, honest and humble. Despite such a range of characters, these seem to be the inherent qualities of ambassadors and staff alike, combined with a good dose of creativity. The gig was over, and the crew left early the next morning. The tide was fast dropping and swell slowly fading. I walked around the house and recognised that the energy had been completely transformed. It felt loved and alive. I sat and absorbed this feeling of renewal. I was only on my doorstep, a cliff away from home, but I felt I’d been on a journey. A good storm had passed and the tideline it left was filled with inspiration. The mark of time well spent.
Words by Sam Bleakley.
Photography by David Gray.