As our very namesake would suggest, much of our inspiration is born of the sea and maritime tradition. As surfers and regular users of the ocean, we rely on accurate weather and wave forecasting (as well as some hard attained knowledge) to best capitalise on the conditions.
From the early days of watching Michael Fish (Finisterre Founder, Tom Kay will confirm) to the online wave modelling platforms of today, we have been at the mercy of such insights and projections for our hobbies and habits. In an effort to better understand, others go further still...
Pete Geall tells us of his heightened surf acumen and a vessel just a few nautical clicks off our home shores. One that serves him well and more often than not see's him in the right place at the right time.
“I think I can make out waves on the wave-cam Pete”.
“Let me have a think - I’ll call you back.”
Without a second thought I already know what I need to do next; part process, part ritual.
Opening my laptop, my face becomes illuminated by a bluish halo of LED light. My eyes groggily adjust to the contrast between the starkly artificial light and the hesitant dawn struggling to break free of the south-eastern horizon from my house overlooking Mounts Bay in West Cornwall.
One click of the bookmark and I am there. Diligently scanning two columns of a table that reads at hourly intervals back to the 1960s. I don’t need to read between the lines. Wave height and wave periods begin to talk to me. An upward trajectory that is anything but fake news.
I know we are on.
Despite possessing a mind that isn’t particularly scientifically inclined, I understand that the hard facts of the buoy readings don’t lie. They don’t flock together in packs like us, they don’t rely on your board choice, your fitness or even your timings. They just are. Wave height and wave period. Every hour. Ad infinitum.
For many surfers situated in the southwest of the U.K, the process I have described here will form part of their amateur meteorological efforts to forecast and ascertain conditions at their local beach. Most will rely on the specific wave-buoy readings of the Seven Stones ‘lightship’ situated 15 miles to the WNW of Lands End; open to the full westerly exposure of the Atlantic from the north to the south. In its own way the Seven Stones lightship and associated wave height readings have become a metronome to many a Cornish surfing life. Charting the rise and fall of every bump of ocean that journeys it way across the Atlantic to this little corner of world we call home.
The light ship is moored off the notoriously treacherous Seven Stones reef that has represented a navigational hazard for generations; claiming 71 named shipwrecks since documentation began. Including in more recent times the infamous Torrey Canyon oil tanker wreck in 1967, which resulted in the largest ever oil spill in U.K waters and was one of the early wake-up calls to the consequences of our ever growing reliance on fossil fuels.
The reef is particularly dangerous as it is only exposed at low-tides, lurking dangerously beneath the surface. It was never feasible to build a permanent lighthouse in this perilous, submerged location - therefore in 1841 Trinity House (the lighthouse authority for the U.K) permanently anchored a lightship to the north-east of the reef in order to provide navigational warning to nearby mariners. The lightship has been automated since 1987 but before that it was regularly manned on a monthly rotation of 12 men from Tresco Island in the Isles of Scilly. Early iterations of the light vessel required a man to climb the mast daily to trim the lamps, hauling the supply of oil by man-power alone and even in the most treacherous of conditions.
Since its automation the lightship continues to serve as a navigational aid but also as a weather station for the MET office. As surfing’s popularity has surged across the U.K the ‘Ship Borne Wave Recorder’ that measures the significant wave heights on an hourly basis has also become an essential tool for surfers keen to know what the surf is doing on our western shores.
Despite being unmanned since the year I was born, I like to imagine the lightship in the various climatic guises it encounters on its ghostly watch. I have an unreasonable desire to romanticise and personify, what is at its very foundation a floating piece of metal with a light bulb and a couple of wave sensors. I guess what interests me is the same feeling that has beguiled, inspired and haunted countless others in tales of ‘Ghost Ships’ like the Mary Celeste. For there is something deeply human about a boat. A means of travel at its most simplistic but on a deeper level the overriding sense of shelter and home they represent to their occupants is magnified whilst at sea. A refuge that couldn’t be in starker contrast to the overall vastness and potential dangers of the ocean environment.
Yet the Seven Stone lightship is neither a means of travel or a home. It is an inert, metallurgic, non- biological entity. A warning of the highest order. A beacon of mankind in a deeply un-human environment. A statement that borders on artistic installation - An hourly reminder that true wilderness exists just a few miles from our coast.
I find solace in visualising the lightship during my surf check ritual - a way of personifying the abruptness of the raw, live data we decipher. In the summer when the buoys can barely muster 1ft of swell - I close my eyes and can see the vessel becalmed in a high-pressure, the ship’s empty bridge facing the setting sun. Or my favourite still, trying to envision what it would be like on that same bridge in the midst of the full fury and chaos of a roaring storm in the winter. A literal reality almost incomprehensibly removed from the set of casual, live numbers that stream down a two column table on our computer screens.
Words by Pete Geall.
Photography courtesy of Trinity House and Jamie Burford.
Inspired by our love of the sea, wave forecasting and the language of seafaring we've designed a limited edition artist series with illustrator Matt Ward. Shop below.