In autumn of 2023, the North East of the UK experienced a swell event that produced what some are calling the biggest rideable waves that coastline has ever seen. First into the water, of course, was Finisterre Ambassador Sandy Kerr, with photographer Dave Beckitt perfectly placed to capture the moment and recount the tale.
Yellow, then amber, then red. The hue of the weather warnings darkened as the storm drew near. We’d heard it all before. Approaching storms are always accompanied by hype. It starts with weather forecasters summoning worst-case scenarios, only too often for those storms to manifest as little more than a stiff breeze and a heavy shower.
But Storm Babet was different. It lived up to all the hype and despite the doomsaying and warnings of risk to life, the local crew waited with breathless anticipation.
Storms in the U.K. generally move from West to East, traversing the country rapidly before disappearing over mainland Europe. However, Babet moved South to North and was then blocked by an area of high pressure over Scandinavia. Consequently, it sat over the North Sea for three days unleashing Hell: extreme winds, unprecedented rainfall, and immense seas battering the East Coast.
I arrived early, eager and hopeful for an improvement on the previous day’s white-out conditions. Surfline had suggested an unprecedented 21ft @ 12s for that day and 16ft @ 12s for this particular morning. I checked, and it was huge.
There are two sides to the headland. One faces the full force of the swell, while the other is sheltered and is where the surfing takes place. Even though I was observing the sheltered side, the conditions were still enormous. It was undoubtedly a once-in-a-lifetime swell. Unfortunately, it was also completely out of control: warping, lurching, and buckling, with long unmakeable sections and thundering closeouts.
It seemed obvious that nobody would be surfing there that day, so I decided to explore the exposed side of the headland instead, where I was met by the most malevolent sea state I’ve ever witnessed. Almost comically oversized lines of swell pitching and detonating hundreds of metres out to sea. as I watched, I was struck by a sobering sense of dread. I couldn't help but imagine myself amongst it all. A harrowing thought, given that there was really only one likely outcome...
After an hour or so, I made my way back to where I’d parked the van, and noticed a crowd staring seaward. There was a palpable sense of excitement as two surfers, Sandy Kerr and Danny Allott, were paddling out to do what, only a couple of hours beforehand, seemed to be the unthinkable.
By this time, conditions had improved somewhat. The wind had swung offshore, the waves were more lined up, and the sun had even made an appearance. Also, now that there were people in the line-up, I was able to get a sense of scale… and it was massive. Even before a wave had been ridden, we knew we were witnessing a rare event.
One thing that was immediately noticeable was the ludicrous amount of water moving, and thoughts turned to where it would take them if a leash snapped or a board broke – something that I didn’t dare contemplate. I wondered if they’d seen what I’d just witnessed on the other side of the headland. If they’d felt the earth shudder underfoot. If they’d seen how furious it was on the inside….
But they were out there now, and they weren’t holding back.
The session that followed will live long in our memories. This is a heavy and unforgiving wave at any size, but today it was obvious that the consequences of any mistake, and the likelihood of making one, were extremely high. Not that this impacted their performance at all. Many waves were ridden. There were also some savage beatings, each accompanied by a moment of anxiety for those of us watching, until it was clear that surfer, board, and leash were all in good order.
It was obvious to all that the consequences of any mistake, and the likelihood of making one, were extremely high.
Other surfers joined the line-up as the day progressed, and the level of performance and commitment from everyone was laudable. But nobody could deny that Sandy dominated the session and walked away having surfed the biggest waves of the day. Some of those waves were every bit as big as the largest ever surfed on the North East coast. Even after the adrenaline had died down, Sandy admitted, “It was probably the biggest, and by far the heaviest, I have ever seen that spot in my surfing lifetime. Nothing about it was easy.”
We had witnessed what many would consider ‘the swell of a lifetime’. Conditions that only a few would dare to brave.
Here’s to those who do the unthinkable.