For photographer Lewis Arnold and Finisterre Ambassador Sandy Kerr, the early dialogue of spring could seem a long way off in the beginnings of February. With anomalous 'huge period swells' and less than friendly morning temperatures they'd be fooled otherwise.
But as the longer days arrive and the darker months recede, the unmistakable hues of the east coast come to light. A welcome reconnection with household waves, familiar faces and their merino undergarments.
Your unique relationship of surfer and photographer we have explored before… How does it feel to be back in the swing of things with one another? Is the flame still there?
LA: It’s always fun when it’s on and we’re on a mission to surf; finding out what each other have been up to and having a laugh about what’s been going on.
As far as the surf goes, a lot of the NE waves are way quieter than say Ireland or Scotland when they’re on. We’re lucky I guess in that way but the flip side is that often you’re really on your own, there’s no backup so we have to plan and look out for each other. Some of the sessions this year so far have been scary. We’re going for waves that are hard to get good and hard to shoot, some sessions I’ve been pretty relieved to feel land under my feet. We’re trying to make the best of it here and it’s the potential that keeps us committed.
SK: Yeah, it feels good! We had a long run of swell at the start of the year and we both know that's pretty rare so from the first day we just got on it and committed 2 weeks to being in the right place at the right time. What's so good about Lewis is his dedication and his willingness to learn new things. There are a handful of waves we surf quite regularly but Lewis is always keen to try and vary the way we are shooting stuff, his eye for light and knowing what will look good is beyond me! My surfing has been developing recently too so he keeps me right on what works and what doesn’t. We have been shooting together for years now and have had some incredible sessions together, the anticipation over how a session will work out and knowing there's the potential for some amazing shots is always exciting, the flame is absolutely still burning for us.
Notorious for its flat spells and prolonged summer lulls, what feelings come with the return of waves to the North East coastline?
LA: Yeah when a decent swell materializes it usually follows a hefty flat spell and I often get that ‘imposter syndrome’; feeling out of shape, not prepared, not worthy. It seems to go from flat to seriously pumping overnight and some of the swells this winter have been way better than expected. I usually seem to get my act together and get through it somehow and feel reconnected to the sea and with my work. There’s nothing better for me than getting out after witnessing some epic surf and sick rides, knowing I’ve got some shots that I think are decent.
Although it’s flat now, it’s been unusually consistent in our neck the woods so far this year with a run of different swells so we’ve been putting in the time and effort.
SK: Flat spells can feel never-ending in the North East and by the time we have swell it usually takes me 2 or 3 sessions just to find the flow again. Over the summer months we could get a couple of days of swell, but by the time I have found my feet the swell has usually died and then it's another long flat spell. I use to get really frustrated about not being able to just jump back on a board and surf well straight away, but I have learnt that for the first few sessions of a swell its ok to take it slow and try not to have such high expectations about my performance.
These days after a long flat spell I'll go for a slide on a friends twin fin, log or a body surf just to take the pressure out of a fresh swell.
Refamiliarizing yourself with a favorite reef or exploring something new, how strong is the sense of connect between yourself and place?
LA: Lately we’ve been checking the charts and records from classic days at different spots and trying to use that info. Sometimes its paid off, sometimes not, but it all adds to our understanding of our coast.
There’s a couple of local spots I think are as good as anywhere. Every time I go there is something new to learn and something that reminds me how unbelievable they are. It’s making the connection again that has been so rewarding but it’s got to the stage where I want to be there all the time, to learn as much as possible about the waves and the place.
SK: There are a handful of spots along the East Coast I feel a strong connection with. This winter we've had loads of days with huge period swells, unlike anything I have witnessed on the East coast, unfortunately, the tides for these swells were less than ideal but I really felt the need to go and see what these places would do with a swell that strong. I've spent so much time at these spots and seen them in all kinds of conditions but to be there in the water and feel it during such a strong swell was really special to me. That's something I probably won't get the chance to experience again for a long time.
There is a rich sense of pride and love for your home shores in the NE.
We have seen it on countless occasions in the camaraderie shown in your line-ups and tight-knit communities. Can you explain more about how important this is where you live?
LA: The surf culture is still small compared to say that of football and I don’t know if the North East is any more tight-knit than other places? In surfing however, it does seem relationships often last. I still surf with people who I began with in the 80’s and most of the younger generations seem pretty cool.
As a photographer, my pride and love for NE surfing comes a lot from the aesthetic. I just feel connected to the grungy, dark feel of it, the grimy tones of the water and weird mix of industrial and wilderness.
SK: When I was growing up in the North East there really wasn't many people my age surfing around here. There was an older crowd that had surfed here for years and they just took me under their wing. I really looked up to them, I wanted to be like them, and each one of them taught me something new, from the basics of surfing to good travel etiquette. They taught me that how you conduct yourself is a reflection of where your from and who you grew up with, so with that in mind I have always wanted to represent the North East and all my friends to the highest standard.
I owe so much to what I have learnt from them. I feel deeply connected to the whole surf scene, we are all full of stories from every surf spot and anecdotes from all our trips, that’s why I love it so much. We are not blessed with surf every day or even every week but maybe that’s what’s brings us all together.
Beyond surfing, what other endeavours keep you connected to the ocean environment and your immediate surroundings?
LA: These days I’m using my photography to ask questions on the debates in surfing that I'm intrigued by. My academic and artistic practice is focused on issues like surfing and the environment, corporate and commercial interests in surfing, surfing's inclusion in the Olympics and how all the different strands of surfing co-exist and how they clash.
Surfing is always evolving and growing, and you’d hope it is duty bound to protect the seas that sustain it but unfortunately, surfing itself is part of the problem. More surfers means more surfboards and gear, more travel, more rubbish and therefore more problems for the environment.
A lot of big surf industry brands seem to ignore the uncomfortable truth that boards, wetsuits and equipment rely on old design and petrochemicals in their manufacture. Also, awkward as it may be, a lot companies and consumers don’t actually care that much, placing more importance on price and performance than a responsibility to consider sustainability in surfing.
SK: I work for the RNLI so I feel pretty lucky that I have a job that allows me to spend so much time in and around the ocean. It gives me a fresh perceptive on things too, I find one of the most amazing aspects of my job is teaching ocean safety to kids that are going to the beach for the first time. I am also involved with 'City Kids Surfing' an amazing project working with primary school pupils from London - the kids are taught to swim and learn all about water safety and water pollution before being taken down to Cornwall to surf – it’s fascinating to watch these kids building new connections with the ocean.
What’s your staple bit of kit that you can’t do without this time of year?
LA: My must have bit of kit is my Argo base layers particularly the Long Johns. After being in the water until I can’t feel my hands and feet, getting cramp and then getting changed outside when it’s freezing, it’s actually a relief to get them on and know I’m gonna thaw out soon.
SK: I feel very old in saying this, but a few years ago I got a flask for Christmas and it goes everywhere with me now, it helps take the edge off getting changed on sub-zero mornings.
Spring kit list.