Local surfers and acclaimed writers Mike Lay and Pete Geall have spent most of their lives tackling Cornwall’s unique Atlantic swells. In a rare reunion, last winter saw both back in their homeland seeking community on the best of the waves. Heritage times. Friend of Finisterre and surf photographer Luke Gartside checked in.
When It’s On: Homeland Winter Waves
4 min read
Words & images by Luke Gartside
Despite their drastically different approaches to riding waves, Cornishmen Mike Lay and Pete Geall have a lot in common. Both are writers: Pete, a regular contributor to publications like The Surfer’s Journal, and Mike, the editor of Wavelength Magazine. Both have spent the best part of their adult lives guarding the beaches of West Penwith, developing a deep-seated friendship and a heartfelt love for their homeland in the process.
Over the last few years, I’ve had the pleasure of shooting sporadic sessions with each of them around the Cornish coast, but this was the first winter in years both were at home for the duration. Pete, having just returned from a stint living down under, and Mike, thanks to the birth of his son two summers’ back and the decision to travel less for the sake of the planet.
I figured that a long, unrelenting winter would be the perfect way to reconnect with the joys of the Cornish surf experience. So, recently I phoned the boys to ask what in particular had made it special. For Pete, the answer came fast and unequivocally. “Community,” he said. “Just feeling part of something.”
“That’s what’s special about Cornwall for me,” he continued, “sitting up on the cliffs watching the waves before a session and chatting to other surfers, hearing what’s been going on in their lives. Living here has a lot of challenges, but that forges a resilience in people that makes them awesome characters.”
When I asked him what he missed most while on the other side of the world, he settled on the distinct character of the white horses that gallop on the horizon. “I think that raw storminess is what makes the Atlantic unique,” he says. “Even just going for a walk along the coast, where you arrive into a little valley with no one around, or jumping in for a freezing cold swim – just being in that kind of energy is elemental.”
Of course, living and surfing here can be maddening too. When the wind goes onshore for a month, or in the chaos of the summer when you can’t get a parking space. Even when there’s swell, it requires a lot of luck and energy to get good waves. “You have to put in the time,” says Pete, “and that's where the reward comes.”
Mike concurs on that point. “The fickleness is something that I’ve come to really appreciate,” he explains. “It makes the success of scoring feel particularly sweet. I’ve also figured out how to have fun surfing waves that are objectively quite shit as well.”
Accordingly, it’s not the waves that he finds himself fixating on when meeting fellow travellers far from home, but rather the place and its history.
“When I’m away, I’ll talk about Cornwall at great length to anyone who will give me five seconds of their time,” he says, “or more frequently 25 minutes of their time.” His favourite subject is the rich array of ancient monuments that litter his corner of the county. “Around where I live in West Penwith there are several stone circles, barrows, holy wells, quoit and cairns and I’m super interested in all of them and the surrounding mythology.”
“You just don’t get that sense of ancient history when you’re away in Noosa or California, but here, it’s never far away.”
A perfect example sits buried in the dunes just a few hundred yards from where these images of Mike were taken. There lies one of the oldest Christian chapels in the UK, known as St Piran’s Oratory, believed to have been built around the 6th Century by the saint himself. Legend has it that after upsetting the wrong Irish nobleman St Piran was tied to a millstone and rolled off the edge of a cliff into the stormy Celtic Sea. Rather than sinking, he rose to the surface, floating all the way to Cornwall where he washed in through the waves and up onto Perranporth beach. While millstones aren’t known for their aqua-planing properties, perhaps he even rode a wave or two on the way in.
“Living here has a lot of challenges, but that forges a resilience in people that makes them awesome characters.”
Just up the coast off Towan Headland, Pete was inspired by much more recent history to pursue an altogether different surfing experience. There, a large patch of reef produces Cornwall’s best-known big wave – The Cribbar. It was first surfed in the 1960s by trunk-wearing lifeguards, riding leashless boards only slightly less cumbersome than a millstone. “I’ve always liked that story,” says Pete, “and having lifeguarded all up and down the Cornish coast it felt like something I wanted to tick off my list.” Since first surfing there in 2016, he’s become a regular in the lineup, rarely missing a big clean day when he’s at home.
“It’s not a particularly good wave in the grand scheme of things,” he says, “but it’s a unique experience. I like parking there, I like jumping off the rocks into the rip. There was this window a few years ago when everyone who was up for surfing it was surfing better waves in Ireland or abroad, so there was this fairly decent 10-foot wave on my doorstep and, often, there was no one out!”
Nowadays Pete shares the lineup with a new crew of adherents. On the swell these shots were taken there was a pack of two dozen or so, including Laura Crane, who became the second-ever woman to surf the break after South African Tammy Lee Smith. “It was a lovely vibe out there,” says Pete. “It was warm and the waves were pretty mellow compared to a normal winter session. We were all there without hoods on so we could chat.”
“Sitting a few hundred meters offshore of the headland you’ve got a great view right round from Pentire to Trevose head. It was pretty cool, with the sun on our faces and some wonky six-foot waves breaking.”
Later in the same swell, we lucked into a particularly rare beast just up the coast, made all the more special for Pete as it was his first time out there. “I’ve surfed in Cornwall since I was 11, so I feel like I've completed the pantheon of ultimate novelty spots – so, just to be somewhere completely different was exciting. That’s what’s cool about surfing, it allows you to constantly reconnect with home in a different way.”
After we hung up, the boys were heading off in different directions. Pete, to chase a swell in Portugal. Mike, to Mexico for the Mexi Log Fest. But in a few weeks, they’ll reconvene in the lifeguard hut at Gwenvor for a summer of saving lives, surfing and crosswords.
“It’s a pretty special thing to do a job that you love in a place that you love with someone that you love,” says Mike. “Most of the time one of those aspects is missing.”