I'd seen the wave to the north. The wind had just swung and it was empty. Long walls and stacked up. Dark brown water and the hint of a sunset over the land behind. Tongues of November cold. A pointy thing with one fin in the car. The burning issue was a half mile of steep forest between tarmac and point. Fading light.
My first attempt to reach the wave was through a housing estate, hemmed in by wire walls and a collapsed cliff. The only way down was to jump into a slick of mud and the boulders at the base looked jagged. Watched by bemused suburban dwellers I beat a retreat feeling ridiculous, sweating in a five mil.
The wave arching below, tantalising glimpses. I paced along the edge of the forest, looking down through tangled thickets, seeking any kind of path. In the end I gave up and set off, crashing and blundering through the wood, slipping through pools of black water, neck deep in foliage, suit shredded by brambles and lost.
Half an hour later I emerged triumphantly above the beach covered in mud. Fair play to the locals, I thought, that's mental. That's when I saw two of them. Boards under arm, one finishing his smoke, leisurely walking down the well-cut stone steps to the beach.
A screaming south-Easter due. The ferry already lurches and starts, lumps of water travelling through the sounds. A post-it note advertises Indian running ducks, £4 each. White bread and Mars Bars. Racing across the island, cursing the gently weaving grannies and farmers hurrying to complete their business ahead of the wind. Unreasonable surf blinkers: can’t you understand that the most important thing in the world right now is to see if the swell has arrived?
We cross the bridge at 60, looking at the reverse side of the point. Eyes straining. Hunting shadows in the light and it’s so on. Spectacular rights pouring through, endless and flawless. It is the stuff of fickle dreams, the eventual payback for the endless anxiety of the chase and a dozen (hundred) skunkings. Of course, the light is draining away.
I’ve surfed Rincon and Burleigh and this is a legitimate pointbreak. Shallow through the first section, backing off a little before reforming through two further sections. Every ride feels limitless. Pure joy to surf.
Shortly afterwards as we drive south, with the tide pushing up to spring high, a wave breaks clear over the bridge and through my open window. Wet lap. In the half light across the sound we see another right, longer still, breaking for miles.
Right coast treachery. The next day, the one forecast for the swell, it’s flat.
Short fetch. 15 foot at 7 seconds on the buoy. A telegraph pole is split in half by the wind and the cable snaps like a whip in the air. The wind has driven the whole sea into the coast so just after low it’s already flooding in.
For the first hour I don’t make a single wave. It’s dry and lunging, breaking outside the groins, the odd wave surprisingly thick. Nobody shows for a while. So rare now to surf it solo, but it still happens sometimes.
A friend who surfs prettier waters says that every beach has its own colour. You wouldn’t think somewhere so monochrome brown would be the same, but it is. From the inside, each wave has its own subtle hue. It’s the big name storms that make this place wake up. I’ll drive seven hours for it, mumble a few excuses to family, fin up the broken boards that gather dust up here. I’d lie through my teeth to surf it good.
They killed the next spot south by dumping a thousand tonnes of rock right across the lineup, cranes and bulldozers, protecting a golf course. There are rumours they will do the same further up, already rocks are encroaching from the south. But perhaps over time new sand will shift and form, new spots will emerge and briefly be surfed. There is no fixity here, no permanence in the interplay between sea and land. Many waves of yesteryear are gone forever.
The great thing about the right coast is the oddness. Thick accents and cumbersome boards. A month of flatness followed by waves as good as anywhere. There are still pockets of coast that sleep for a year at a time.
I’d travelled up during the worst spring floods in decades, causing £6.5 billion in property damage, somehow completely missing them. The surf was rogue with a west bent, missing the reefs I’d come to surf. I’d been introduced to a local guy who was the only surfer around at the time, camping out for days on end in his van, whatever the weather. He pulled up at some point in the night.
The next morning three lefts broke symmetrically, separated by 500 yards of reef but looking like they could almost link up. Furthest out, a big envelope of water spat. The inside one looked sort of perfect, but we walked right by it, all the way outside. I was asking a lot of questions.
“It’s two waves,” the local guy said. “But you line up off this lump of metal on the reef for the good one.” It looks big and grim and dark. Unpleasantly heavy. We get out there, disorientated by the scale of the lineup and the shifting walls that seem to stack up out of nowhere. “Which wave is this then?” I ask. The local guy has wide eyes, “I have no idea,” he admits.
The next set comes through and he puts his head down for the first wave, starts to think better of it as it lurches and gets caught in the lip. I watch from the shoulder as he stands on the reef, taking the next five on the head, screaming like a maniac. It wasn’t even 5am.
There are photos from the first time I surfed here in 1992. Tiny brown waves. I had a minimal, grabbed my rail and went straight. Not much has changed in the intervening 25 years.
This place grounds me. It’s too fickle and shit to feel like a local spot. I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything much from its waves. But it is somewhere that time passes. I have so many memories of days spent waiting in the dunes, hoping for some kind of rideable wave to emerge. The promise of perfection, which it only ever hints at, has been the springboard for a lot of road miles. A lot of chasing dreams and occasionally finding them. I would rather we had Yorkshire stone or just any swell at all, but the absence of either is a teacher. Patience and humility. “Like waves, only smaller,” a friend said - it’s hard to take it too seriously.
Of course home has its moments. Paddling amongst dead trees at night, the sea alive with phosphorescence, surrounded by an infinity of coloured sparks. Lefts stacked up outside the river, turning golden in the sunset. Silent marshland and house martins in the cliffs. Gales and storm surges, days when the Environment Agency issue flood warnings and the earthworms drown in their burrows. They are good days here for gulls and surfers.
Photography from Jack Johns and Lewis Arnold.