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Pete Geall | The Place That Made Me

Pete Geall is a surfer, lifeguard and writer. A traveller with a flair for the romantic, capturing in his writing the windswept thrill of adventure found in some of the most remote places that waves can be found. For those that follow our Broadcast, Pete’s writing will not be unfamiliar.
As the weather heats up along our beautiful Cornish coastline, we decided to sit down over breakfast to get Pete’s take on growing up in Cornwall and how his connection to the sea and this landscape permeates his daily life.

 

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So, I’m really interested in what got you into surfing in the first place, and how that’s basically kick-started a life that’s seen you bring your passions for surfing and writing together.

It’s one of the few things in life that I’ve been continuously enthralled by, for years. I remember my first time playing in surf, incidentally at the same beach that I lifeguard now in West Cornwall. I remember swimming in the shore break and loving it. I also remember being absolutely in awe of my dad who was a hero to me, and all these older surfers that I would see and be like, wow. So I already knew I was going to be a surfer. I was like, “That’s me. I want to be like that.”

They were really strong male role models for me, my dad and his friends that we would go surfing with. I think if I’d grown up in a family where football or rugby was the defining thing it could’ve been different.

I grew up quite far away from the coast, in South-East Cornwall. My dad was a schoolteacher at the time, so I could only surf at the weekends, or after school in the summer. I think that’s influenced me, in that I always wanted to live close to the coast.

I remember the waiting for my dad to come home from school. You couldn’t check the internet so you’d have to get teletext up on the TV to see what the surf was like. I used to watch the clock because I knew if it was later than five, we weren’t going to drive the hour it would take to get to the north coast. I just remember eating peanut butter sandwiches wishing, “Please, please, please...” I’d pack all the gear so it was ready for when he got home. I’d make him food ready for when he got home and I think that really did inspire me to want it more. I was surrounded by nature and woodlands growing up, but I just wanted to be next to the sea. I just knew.

Do you have a particularly powerful childhood memory of having a connection to the sea, and feeling like this was something just a little bit different that you could experience? 

Well… I think most people have a similar story about the first time they get scared in the sea. I was actually quite old, like 14, a teenager, feeling pretty brave. It was the first time I had surfed waves of consequence and I remember feeling absolutely terrified. I was thinking, ‘What to do I? I want to go in!’ and my dad just said, “Well, you just have to paddle in”.

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I think that kind of lesson in self-reliance is something surfing teaches you. You are responsible for your own actions. There’s no “fair” in surfing. Sometimes you get beaten up for no reason. It’s not personal, but you have to handle the cards that you’re dealt. So what, you’re in a dangerous situation? You have to get out of it. That level of self-reliance and stoicism isn’t necessarily a lesson you get taught in a classroom.

Surfing in Cornwall reinforces that constantly. It’s frequently cold, it’s frequently unpleasant. It’s rainy, you have to duck-dive - endlessly. Sometimes the reward’s not worth the effort you put in, but it’s a long game, you know. It’s not each individual session that defines the experience, it’s about a life spent chipping away in the bountiful sea that you’re surfing, it’s a process.

After growing up away from the sea you’re now living in Newlyn and you Lifeguard for the RNLI on local beaches. What did it feel like for you when you were finally living close to the sea?

Throughout my adult years I’ve always lived where I can see the sea. Living by the sea, I feel like the tide is a huge component of how my day goes. You’ve got roughly six hours between tides and, with lifeguarding certainly, your day is influenced so much by the tide. I live my life influenced by that tidal rhythm and any surfer in Cornwall has to know the tide because it has such an impact on the surf. It’s a changing view; that’s another amazing thing. I look outside and I see the sea today and I can see what the swell’s doing, I can see what the wind’s doing… I love that connection with water.

Growing up, we would stay in the campsite above Sennen during holidays, so eventually finding work and moving there always had an air of inevitability about it. West Cornwall has something different about it. The granite cliffs, the white sand. I’m not the first person to be inspired by this amazing peninsula. It just has a different feel. It even has a different feel from the rest of Cornwall. It’s like a distillation of all the different bits of Cornwall into one. It’s a more extreme version of everything. Everything is a bit harder. Grittier. The surf down there has the potential to be some of the best anywhere in the County, but it is a fickle mistress. Right down here on the tip you feel it even more; it’s more tidal, it’s more exposed, the moments are shorter. But when you do get them, it’s magnificent.

I never thought I would end up living in Newlyn though. It’s funny because I’d always lived in really exposed places. High cliffs, west facing coastlines. But Newlyn is one of the most sheltered places in Cornwall, and I’m very happy here. It’s actually really nice to be away from the intensity of the west facing coast in the winter.

Has your relationship with the sea changed now that you’ve moved away from the wilder north coast? It’s a different setting, a different landscape, so how has that affected it for you?

It’s more nuanced. I can see Mounts Bay from my house really clearly. But I can tell what it’s doing on the north coast now, from what it’s doing in the bay. It’s very subtle. If there’s surf on the rocks, but like a foot of surf, I know what that means for the north coast. Plus I can see the waves at Porthleven, which is a bonus.

And this is now your base, from which you set off on your trips. It’s interesting how so many surfers have that yearning for adventurous, remote waves.

You can take surfers from all over the world and most will follow a rough code that is similar. We love myths, nostalgia, and there’s the constant search for perfection. Most people know that perfection doesn’t exist, but the search for it in surfing is a persuasive on-going story.

I’ve recently been working with friend and we’ve been travelling to an overlooked zone, I’m not going to say where. I didn’t think there were any waves left like that. Isolated, warm. Incredible. Exploring perfect waves, sometimes even with no-one around. And there’s a whole philosophical, existential element to that. What does ‘perfect waves’ mean? What does it mean to surf perfect waves when no one is watching? That’s a funny one…

What does it feel like when you find somewhere like that and the waves are amazing? You’ve done the research, looked at the maps, checked swell charts, bought your tickets, hired a car. But until you get there you just don’t know.

Ha! Well, affirming I guess. Most of the time though you are just following in the footsteps of pioneers. Often you’re busy worrying about the immediate issues. What are the urchins like underneath? How do you get in? And, the actual realities of surfing somewhere remote… it’s scary. There’s no medical assistance. No one can help if something goes wrong. You have to be really careful. And lucky. Taking care is the thing. Take the same level of preparation and diligence that it took to get you there and take that into the water with you. 

So, it’s not actually that relaxing then?

No. No it’s not at all.

Even that moment when you’re finally in there?

When you’re surfing you’re just concentrating on the waves. That’s one of the best things about surfing for me and I think perhaps a lot of surfers. A time for the present.

It can be hard to feel that in the summer here in Cornwall, when the waves aren’t co-operating. I actually find that getting in that present, ‘flow state’ happens more whilst lifeguarding. I work with such a strong team on quite a dangerous, remote beach at Gwenver. I can get into the same state there. Sometimes everything is just working really well, you’re really active and completely engrossed in the task of keeping people safe. Whether you’re out on a rescue board or watching from the beach. We are just playing really, although in a serious, responsible way!

It's interesting because for us here at Finisterre, we’re always trying to encourage people to ‘reconnect’. To strip everything back and just be in the moment and connect with the ocean.

Yeah, I don’t really have to reconnect too much. I get the opposite sometimes. I get the urge to go to London, and see a city, walk around a town!

It’s great. There are no clear lines between my surfing, my work and my writing. They’re all just the same. It’s just Pete. It’s amazing, because that’s what people try and achieve in their lives, isn’t it? I knew I was never good enough to be a pro-surfer, so this was the closest I was going to get. And I want to try and inspire other people in the same way that I was inspired, by articulating my experiences.

If you hadn’t grown up in Cornwall, would any of this have happened for you in the same way? Do you ever think about that and what it would have been like if you hadn’t been here?

Both culturally and geographically I’ve always felt, down on the cliffs above Sennen and Cape Cornwall, there’s something rather powerful about being at the most western point. You’re the last human there and all the problems of the county and country are behind you.

I try and give thanks to that thought every morning over a coffee in our wooden lifeguard hut.