I scanned the familiar line ups. The harbour peak, thick and sizey , funnelling towards the harbour wall, an underrated wave. The Point is majestic but mushy now that the tide has pushed in too far. Even the gentle off shore breeze cannot save it from sloppiness and closing out. Nevertheless it still stands out most to the casual onlooker because it shakes a foamy fist at all who imagine entering the harbour. Then there of course is The Cove. Today the peak appears and fires wave after wave along the infamous stepped rock ledge. The lip line unzips at a regular but unfeasibly quick rate. The resultant foam bounce throws into the air at twice the size of the wave. The foam bounce is the teller. Power and shallow water combines to make one of the best left breaking reefs in Europe. There is no one in.
I sip my filtered coffee and look around at the faces of the people that I have come to this place with. My octogenarian in-laws, both starring out at the powder blue sky and the lively sea below, my wife tending to her mother’s repeated questions and my daughter caught up by the jazz of her Dad’s enthusiasm and the warm cake served by the harbour side café where we sit. How did I get here and why the hell am I not itching to get in here for the first time in 16 years?
Sheltered from the shadows of the Cornish dole queues and the other harsh realities of the school leaver in Mrs Thatcher’s Britain I basked in the life of a student in the Republic of South Yorkshire. I studied partying and majored in surfing. If life slowed up I went to some lectures but mainly it was surfing and hilarity. On a whim in 1983 I hitch hiked to the North Yorkshire coast when I first arrived. I found four foot waves at Saltburn with offshore winds but it turned out that was only a hint of treasure that friends and I would seek out over the next 3 years. Friends, their un-roadworthy cars and Sheffield University Surf Clubs petrol money fund would help to reveal the left reefs, points and beach breaks of the East Coast. I filled my boots and then the time was gone. Finished. I returned for a three day surgical strike to Staithes and Sandsend in the 1990s but this coast has stayed largely only in my memory since the early 80s. Was it real or imagined?
On Sunday we arrive in Sandsend from Merseyside where we picked up the in-laws. They are elderly and in deteriorating health. My wife wants them to enjoy a short break instead of the long European holidays they used to take in their campervan until this year. My daughter races around the holiday cottage looking out of each window at the beach below. The cottage has three floors, each room has a window with a different aspect over the beach, every room furnished in seaside chic to my wife’s evident delight. We collect pebbles from the beach before dark. There is no surf. I have taken my 6’ 6’’ thruster on an impulse. Magicseaweed suggests the only chance of surf will be on Tuesday, a low grade south easterly windswell.
Monday dawns, from our bedroom window I can see some windswell arriving at the shore accompanied by a strong but warm south east wind. We take in the delights of Whitby until my mother in law feels unwell and we retreat to the warm cottage. This time when I go to the window I can see 3-4 foot peaks torn by the wind and a strengthening rip. Earlier in the day I have spotted the beach in the lea of Whitby harbour, it could offer some promise in these conditions. I draw up to the grassy cliff top and look over. Chin high to head high peaks breaking left and right. Three guys in. I surf for an hour or two. The peak is sheltered from the wind and is a good slide either way. The water is surprisingly warm. My memory is of water that is frigid by mid-October but I can easily cope without boots or gloves today. Is it the advance in wetsuit technology, the additional insulation I seem to have accumulated in recent years or the warm autumn? I do n’t know or care. I wander back up the cliff and start to get changed by the car. After a while I hear a familiar sound, the grinding of trucks on coping. I look across the road and spot the source. A teenager has pulled a fifty-fifty on the steel coping of what looks to be a concrete bowl. After ambling across to take a look at the U shaped bowl I return with my board and pads. After a few spins around it I am done. The bowl is roughly 4 foot deep with an extension on one side and two roll ins. This place is a great ‘bomb around’ bowl, ideal for me because I am starting to regain some confidence after a fairly serious injury. Dumb founded by my luck I drive home, the trip has already passed my expectations.
Early next morning I looked out the window. The swell has risen. Sandsend Beach does not look quite right though, too much cross shore wind and rips breaking up the line up. I make a quick recee first to Runswick Bay and then to Staithes. None of the reefs are working, either closing out or they are sheltered from the south easterly swell. I reflect on my luck. I have never seen a south easterly swell in the North Sea. We spend the day at Whitby Abbey and then go down to Scarbourgh. Whilist the family look round the resort I chat to a fellow surfer that I met in Ireland in 1994. We reminisce about the west coast. He tells me his partner on that trip broke his back at Staithes last week. There is another mournful tit bit too. An angler has been reported swept off the pier at The Gare today. The Gare is famously the go too spot during the rare south east swells. It’s too far for me to get to and will probably be crowded. Times getting on now and the wind has dropped. South Bay is overhead and as good as I have ever seen it now. We confer, Whitby harbour wall is definitely the place to be this evening. Just as my frustration is going to get the better of me my farther in –law turns up from his solo hike round Scarbourgh. We head up the coast. I chuck my board in the car after leaving the family to make diner and talk about the day. The peak from yesterday has moved 100 yards further out now and is much closer to the harbour wall, perhaps only 15-20 yards. The waves are sheet glass and probably 3 to 4 feet over head height. There is no one in. Its starting to get dark. I paddle out. I ride 3 or 4 waves perhaps up to 150 to 200 yards long. They are the best waves I have had in months. After losing my board twice from not securing my leg rope properly I catch a small insider in. Two guys dressed in drysuits, buoyancy aids and wellington boots chase me up the cliff. When they reach me neither can speak. I let them catch their breath. They explain they are coast guards and that they have been called out by a concerned member of the public on the harbour side. I find the whole scenario hugely amusing and laugh uncontrollably. The coast guards initially do n’t see the funny side but I offer them a lift back to their car and we leave on good terms. Save us from concerned members of the public! I change, put my pads on and bomb round the nearby bowl. I chat to a couple of kids who have come from York to skate the place. I’m knackered after a few runs so head home .
The gentle off shore breeze brushes the faces of the glittering waves exploding on the shore. Sandsend is going off! I jump out of bed, suit up and charge down to the beach. The paddle out is fairly tough but the waves are a similar size to last night and there is only the ghost of a channel to help me out to the line up. I paddle back to shore two hours later, satisfied. I get fewer waves than I used to but on the plus side I still seem to do what I want to on the ones I do get. After visiting Staithes later on in the day I find myself in Saltburn. My family are on the pier looking at the surfers whizz pase on various types of vessels. The longboarders seem to be making the best of it. I spot a familiar figure leaning against the railings with his face half turned out to sea while talking to a customer. I first saw Nick 28 years ago in exactly the same pose, he was gently explaining to a learner the basics of paddling out. The difference in 28 years is mapped out by a few lines on his face and the van he plied his trade from has now been supplanted for a beachside surf shop. The testament to his and his business partners success float out to on their shiny boards, all ages and both sexes. We chat and reminisce for a few minutes and part with a probably unachievable promise to meet up in Ireland next month. Gary , Nick’s partner, comes into view. The eternal grommet. He explains earnestly he has been in twice today already and is cold now but it is obvious to us both that he will be drawn back out to sea to sit by his son and split peaks.
During the evening I drive down the coast to Scarbourgh by myself to take a look at the fabled Hairy Bob’s. The skatepark is the best designed I have been to by a distance. The park sits at the base of the cliffs that are capped with an ancient castle on this side of the bay. It is bathed in bright floodlighting tonight. The street section and the bowl section flow seamlessly into one another. The view over the declining swell glinting in the dark is more California than east coast Yorkshire. It’s not even cold. One of the skaters asks for my advice on keeping speed around the bowl. It’s a shame he cannot get me to do some of those kickflips he executes so effortlessly. I get to grips with the U shaped bowl fairly quickly. I struggle to double axel grind the deep end. I’ll get it next time. Yeah I can surf Staithes next time too.