Confronting the Cold Coast – Chris Kendall

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When Chris Kendall talks about his surfing experiences, it doesn’t conjure up the usual images of surfing. There are no board shorts, white sandy beaches or sun kissed bodies. In fact, there’s rarely very much sun at all.  Chris is a proud Yorkshire surfer who spends his time surfing off the east coast of England, riding the North Sea’s most temperamental waves. Chris spoke to us to tell us a bit more about his story ‘Confronting the Cold Coast’ and how one family holiday ignited a passion for cold water surfing that not even the worst conditions could dampen.

Just before I started secondary school, I went on a summer holiday to Cornwall in what was to become one of many family holidays there. It was then that I got my first taste of surfing. My dad had tried bodyboarding as a kid, but never really had the chance to pursue it. So, he wanted to get back on a board and introduce us to the ocean on holiday.

We borrowed some boards from a friend – just those polystyrene ones you can buy pretty cheaply from most tourist-friendly holiday spots. We loved it. Even though I don’t think I even caught a wave in my first session, we were hooked. Well, once we got the wetsuits, anyway!

By the time summer came to an end and the colder months came, our passion had deepened and we didn’t want to stop, so my dad had the difficult task of finding good quality kids winter wetsuits. Although these are more accessible now, back then I remember it being a bit of a nightmare, so I owe it to his perseverance in hunting down the right gear that me and my brothers were able to pursue bodyboarding year-round. Needless to say, we continued to consume the culture and grow more and more passionate.

It wasn’t until I’d bodyboarded for a few years that I decided to take up stand-up surfing. I started learning stand-up surfing because my bodyboarding learning curve plateaued and stand-up surfing gives you more to do. Apart from some family holidays in Cornwall and a couple of experiences surfing abroad, my surfing adventures normally take place where I was born and bred – Yorkshire. Yorkshire folk are famous for many things. One is being fiercely proud of the patch of dirt we just happen to be born on. Another is being stubborn. Combine those traits with a wetsuit and a surfboard and a Yorkshireman or woman sees no need to head for the surfing Meccas of Hawaii, Indonesia or Australia.

I’ve been surfing on England’s east coast since I was 12 years old. No two sessions are the same, a session can range from 1.5 to 5 hours. Nowadays, I often end up having to get out because I’m knackered, but back in the day when wetsuits weren’t quite as good, plenty of sessions ended because of the cold. You spend a lot of time sitting waiting for waves, which can make you cold fast! Your wetsuit relies on you moving around and keeping that little bit of water that’s up against your skin warm. Nevertheless, I love the spot I’m at on the globe. Cornwall is great for surfing, but it doesn’t have some of the benefits that I have had on the east coast. We’re lucky in that we’re blessed with beautiful, largely, unindustrialised landscapes, with plenty of areas left to explore. On top of this, I remember noticing when we came back from holidays in Cornwall how much more powerful the waves were on our coast. We used to theorise about why it was, and in all honesty, I’m not sure exactly why. I always liked the idea of the continental shelf taking some of the power out of the waves on the south coast.

On the east coast, there are a lot of reefs and points which work well on northly ground swells. We don’t tend to get many of these swells through the summer months. In fact, the northerly ground swells are the same conditions which often bring snow to Britain, so to get the best surf, you have to face the worst conditions. For me, surfing – particularly here in Northern England forms a great metaphor for life. If “life is suffering”, then it must be seasoned with pockets of joy which make it worth enduring. I don’t know if I can think of a session where I haven’t caught at least one wave which made the negatives worth it. The worst session in the sea is still better than the best day in the office.

You only have to look at England on a map and even a surfing/weather novice could guess why waves are different and inconsistent – the North Sea is tiny.  The best swells come from far up north – up between Norway and Greenland – as well-travelled swells are usually more powerful and well-formed and this is the furthest a swell can travel before it reaches our shores.  Otherwise, we rely on less travelled swell from the North and occasionally swells from the south/east, which can turn on their own special spots.  It’s all about knowing the conditions and knowing what certain breaks will look like in those conditions.

The most challenging sessions for me are ones with long paddles. I’m not built right for them. It’s endurance in the traditional physical sense off just gritting your teeth, even when your arms feel like noodles! Although at least with physical adversity, you can do some workouts like weights or swimming to help yourself out. The mental stuff is much harder.

The mental difficulties play their parts at different times of the day. I can remember sessions where I’ve been really scared; I’ve had to mentally fight myself to get out and stay out. It’s made even worse when you have a bad wipe out, as that is one of the hardest things to overcome. At other times though you thrive off the adrenaline of being scared. You’ve just got to confront the challenges – it’s harder in the short term, but easier in the long. In the end you always get out the sea better than when you got in.

When I surf, I surf purely for the fun of surfing but the mental and physical struggles is a by-product that I realise is there. It’s really important to share those struggles with someone close. The chances are that you’ll learn that other people have shared similar thoughts and feelings, and I always find this really reassuring. Whilst I don’t seek out these endurance struggles, the difficulties you have to endure are everything. I can’t think of anything rewarding I’ve done that hasn’t taken some form of endurance – whether that be mental, physical or both.

Cold coast surfing isn’t for everyone. I know enough people who have tried it once or twice and never got hooked, but if the stoke of surfing exceeds the difficulties, it’s easy. You’ll bend over backwards to get your fix. Surfing really has shaped my life. I started at a formative time in my life and it shaped almost all of my decisions. I guess it’s just the pull of surfing, once I got bitten, I was hooked.

To read more about Chris’s cold coast surfing adventures click ‘here’