Both familiar in the wild ways of that elusive north east swell, Lewis Arnold and Sandy Kerr have been getting in the salt together for years now. Now firmly part of the Finisterre family, we got to grips with the all important relationship between surfer and photographer following a particularly hell swell day on Friday 13th.
So, how did you guys first come to meet?
SK: The surf scene in Tynemouth where we live is pretty small so we had known of each other for a few years but the first time I spent any amount time with Lewis was when we went on a trip to the Mentawais in Indonesia.
We were the only ones travelling from Newcastle, the rest of the group were meeting us in Indonesia, so we had many hours of travel together with nothing to do but chin wag.
Also on a Mentawais trip you get to know each other pretty well pretty quick, what with sharing a small camp, eating together everyday and surfing/shooting all day.
LA: I honestly can't recall the exact time but it would be sometime around 10 years ago when a young Sandy started getting into the reefs at home. He was always keen on a barrel but has watched and learned and been pushed by the likes of Gabe and Jess, really just staying low key and putting in the time and effort and taking things on board.
When the charts show swell in the North Sea, what is your typical POA for getting in the water?
SK: It can go flat for a fair while so when a chart pops up you end up checking it every hour. I have all sorts of emotions, usually trying not to get excited if its shaping up to be a classic and wondering if many people will travel up for it. After that we are normally chasing the conditions and the tides. I’m a ‘Prepper’ so I like to have everything ready the night before so I can just get going in the morning. You might only have an hour in the morning where the tide is right for it and then nowhere else to surf the rest of the day so I like to be ready for it. You have to keep that motivation going because you never know when the next flat spell will kick in. These days whether I am surfing at home or travelling I generally like to stay low key so I usually just go by myself or bring one friend.
LA: It’s pretty easy here to work out if there will be waves and with some local knowledge where it should be good. Then it’s just a case of clearing the diary and getting an early start for the best chance. I love to shoot super early for the light at sunrise in the east so dawnies are usually the drill.
As surfer and photographer, you both see things a little differently in and out of the water. What is visibly changing up there on the East Coast and the surfing scene?
SK: I think you could say the same for any surf spot but it is definitely getting busier up here. Personally I am happy to see the sport we all love growing and gaining popularity.
LA: Probably like most places, there has been so much change: surf shops, schools, new spots getting surfed, internet forecasts, social media, better wetsuits, more surfers and photographers to name but a few. Although there was a more organised contest set up going back, I think the North East is doing okay.
Whilst working on Wavewall I was looking at an old copy of Tube News from the Wessex Surf Club that had a report from the 1987 Tynemouth Autumn Surf Classic. Davey Stores won it and Gabe, Jesse and George Henricks were placed and these surfers are still surfing here every decent swell. There are a lot of new surfers in the line up and they are welcome but that underlying continuity is cool to see.
Somewhat different to the more recognised and frequented beaches and breaks of the SW. What trials and tribulations do you face over East and how much sweeter are the rewards?
SK: The reality of how long we spend in flat spells is painful to think about. Having to surf spots in 6sec periods with strong cross shore winds, the coldest UK waters and tides rule your life! But it makes it all worth while when we get those brown water left tubes I'm sure you have all seen photos of. You have to respect the guys and girls up here that endure a lot to get those days.
LA: I think its harder to learn up here, not just because its colder but the swell is less consistent; it can be flat for ages then crank for a couple of days which obviously isn't ideal for learners. The flip side for me is that we do probably have a few waves that can get better than Cornwall, well better than I've seen anyway, I'd say the beach breaks in the south west are better than ours but we do have some amazing reefs.
Talk to us about the ‘Wavewall’ and what you hope to achieve with this?
SK: The ‘Wavewall’ is all Lewis’s idea and it’s going to be great! A big part of surfing for me was travelling and surfing with an older generation and hearing all the stories. For me the Wavewall will depict a lot of their stories and all the generations that have inspired me and shaped the surf scene in this area. It’s also good to show people in the area, that might not be aware, that we have such a strong surfing community which goes back to the 60’s.
LA: Wavewall is my latest photographic project. I was asked to do a new exhibition by the North Tyneside Council but I wanted to do something different from just putting up some pretty pictures. There's a street in Melbourne I saw called ACDC Lane that is just an alley plastered with ACDC posters and artwork and I wanted to do that to a house here with surf photography but couldn’t get planning.
Then the idea of using the wall came up; it’s on the ramp at Longsands which is kind of the home of surfing up here. The artistic idea is to animate the wall to reveal the development of surfing in Tynemouth. With backing from the Arts Council, I've put together a huge pop art photo collage including surf photography, snapshots, stories, cuttings, logos, memories, and loads of different media which is going up in February.
It’s a big public artwork and a celebration of surfing in Tynemouth so I think it will be great visually, and also convey the depth there is to surfing here; that surfing has provenance and meaning to a lot of people here.
Plastic on our beaches is a problem wherever you go. What is currently being done on the North East beaches and what else poses a problem for the coastline?
SK: There are organised big beach cleans on the local beaches about every 4-6 months. One of the best things that I have seen is people doing the 15 minute beach clean. I think it’s a great idea as it doesn’t take much time or organisation but it really does make a difference. Another big problem our coast faces is commercial waste. So much industry has been built around our rivers but unfortunately a lot of the waste ends up in the rivers and flows straight into the sea. SAS ran a very successful campaign against turning off UV sewage treatment in the North East but for years before regulations were introduced we had some of the biggest ship building docks in Europe discarding waste straight into the water.
LA: Probably not enough. We live alongside a big city and urban area and the majority of people don’t care about their environment. It’s sad but there is a disconnect from the natural world for a lot of people; looking after the environment in both a small and bigger picture way just isn't a priority in their lives.
Surfers Against Sewage are organised and active up here but it’s peoples attitudes that need to change.
Tell us about the recent run of swell you guys have had, in particular the Friday 13th ‘Hell Swell’.
SK: Ahh the ‘Hell Swell’! There was a lot of hype around that one. Due to the combination of high tides and large swell there was a big risk of flooding to many areas so it was all over mainstream media and it just went crazy! A friend of mine tried to surf but was stopped by the police because no one was allowed on the beach. We got about 5 days of really good waves but you had to be on it because, like a lot of East coast swells, there were only small windows at spots up and down our coast.The thing is the week before it was so much better but went totally under the radar.
LA: We get a couple of big swells every winter but it was the tidal surge that gave this one a bit extra. To be honest, we didn’t get to where we were hoping for; it was probably all time at midnight! The tide and swell didn't work out. The wave we got when the swell was maxing is a really tricky, closed out right that is super hard to make. That said this winter has had decent swells and we've been lucky to get all the reefs doing their thing.
Sandy – As our East Coast Ambassador and RNLI lifeguard, what is being done on a grassroots level to introduce the youth of the East to the water and surfing?
In the past 5 years we have had a boom in the amount young people taking up surfing in the area, this is partly due to the surf schools starting after school clubs and summer camps etc. It’s great to see the local beach I grew up on with so many people enjoying the sea and beach life.
The RNLI have implemented lots ’Drowning Prevention’ actions recently which takes into consideration the vast increase in water users, this is something I am very passionate about. We have some great programmes running to get kids to enjoy the water and stay safe.
We do a lot of school talks about water safety and also encourage school’s to bring the kids down to the beach so we can familiarise them with the area and also get the in the sea to teach basic water safety. With having a major city so close to the beach and quite a few inland waters near the city I think it’s so important to reach out to kids, especially those in the city that may have a limited exposure to the water, so when they do visit they know how to stay safe.
Lewis, how do you stay motivated shooting in the water?
For me, shooting in the water is way more of a gamble than hiking up the beach and using the 500mm but when it works out; it’s way more rewarding. You are immersed in the ocean and the act of surfing, so the picture is more connected. You get a view that you can't get from the land, so the shot is much more unusual and interesting to the viewer. It’s a bigger commitment and a lot harder to link up for the shot, but like most things in life you get out what you put in. When you're getting the housing ready, it can be daunting, especially if it’s big or a new spot, but it heightens the senses when you're in. It is kind of a cleansing zen-like experience for me.
The last swell I swam was brutally cold. My jaw went weird and I couldn't speak properly, it was a bit slow and I got cold waiting for the sets. It’s like surfing I guess, despite the cold and the wait, you always want one more.