All images from Lewis Arnold.
Born and raised on the North East coast of England, Sandy Kerr has been charging heavy, cold water slabs since he was a grom. Now, at the age of 30, he’s a Northcore Team Rider, Finisterre Ambassador, seasoned RNLI lifeguard and all-round nice guy.
But surf life up north isn't as easy as it is down south in the likes of Devon and Cornwall. We chatted to him about the nuance of the north east, with its small but dedicated surf scene, and how that’s pushed him to surf bigger waves around the world.
Are you enjoying the winter there? And have you got plans to travel anywhere soon?
I’ve often spent winters away in Portugal or Hawaii for a few months at a time, but these past couple of years, because of COVID, I’ve based myself in the North East with a plan to do smaller jaunts to Scotland, Ireland and maybe Europe…but to be honest, so far this winter I haven’t left home.
The waves have been so good for months; and last winter was spectacular too. Having the ability to travel taken away has made everyone here focus on what we have - and that’s been no bad thing!
So yeah, at the minute, I’m absolutely loving it here. But when it goes flat when I’ll start looking elsewhere…and I would love that elsewhere to be Ireland.
Talk us through the waves of the North East?
Generally it's very very cold. There’s no denying that! It’s the bitter with the sweet though, because we get amazing waves in winter and it’s offshore 90 percent of the time. But the North Sea is not like the Atlantic, so whilst it’s a lovely place to be in the summer, it goes really small or totally flat then.
The cold makes for hardy surfers though...
Aye. And the fact it’s not consistent all year means we don’t just take it for granted either. When there’s waves you’ve got to be on it, hence me travelling to Yorkshire well before first light this morning.
What're the crowds like, compared to busier areas like Cornwall?
In summer we’ve got a crazy surf scene. You’ll paddle out amongst hundreds of people, and the surf schools are huge too. But throughout the winter it really thins out. At this time of year, especially if I paddle out in a lesser-known place, I’m gonna know nigh-on everybody in the water. And it’s not just that - most of them will be people I grew up with as well. There’s a group of core surfers who stick around all year.
That’s amazing. That must create a totally different vibe to surfing in busy spots elsewhere, where everyone’s competing for waves against strangers?
Yeah totally. I tell you what though, I’m still one of the younger ones in the group and I probably get more waves when surfing amongst a hundred random people than I do with five locals here! [Laughs] Ahh, but it’s lovely being able to surf with everybody I know.
With your parents owning a beach cafe and giving you a name like Sandy, it seems like you were destined for a life by the sea! Is there a time in your childhood that stands out the most?
It’s hard to pinpoint one specific memory but I started getting really into surfing from when I was around 14 or 15. That was around the same time that I got into lifeguarding too. From then, I knew that I didn’t want to do anything else.
I remember thinking, 'whatever I do in my life I want it to revolve around this culture and being on the coast'. I still feel exactly the same now as I did then too. As long as I can work my life around surfing and lifeguarding, I’m going to carry on doing it for as I can and as long as I enjoy it. I can’t see that changing any time soon.
And is that attached to ‘place’ as well? Like, is that especially about the North East and Tynemouth, or would you be happy doing that anywhere?
Yeah, I definitely think it’s attached to the place. Where I grew up is a really nice seaside town with a really nice crowd of surfers, so if I can do it anywhere, I’ll do it here. Don’t get me wrong, I love travelling and seeing other places but something always brings me home. It’s the place where it all works best for me.
There’s no place like home, right. Do you have any other favourite places to surf in the world?
I’d say Ireland and Hawaii. I’ve spent two winters in Hawaii and I love it over there.
Do you think that the cold conditions that you’re used to affect your surfing in warmer waters?
Yehhhh, that’s something we chat about all the time round here! It’s definitely got advantages and disadvantages. Like, because we get heavy waves and shallow reefs and slabs, when you travel to places like Indo and see the waves there you know you can surf them - or you know you can at least give it a shot.
But I tell you what, when you take off the wetsuit and you’re not wrapped in 6mm of rubber and big boxing glove mitts and thick boots, you feel so vulnerable when you’re looking over the ledge and down at the reef. You feel naked.
Everyone obsesses over needing an extra 2 or 3 litres on their surfboards but all of that is out of the window when you start losing or gaining 6kgs of wetsuit weight
And then on the flip side, I might spend three months in Hawaii surfing every day, and think 'ah, I’ll be surfing really well when I get back home'…but the second you put the wetsuit back on again you feel like the Michelin Man. You can’t move it in it and it’s exhausting. Everyone obsesses over needing an extra 2 or 3 litres on their surfboards but all of that is out of the window when you start losing or gaining 6kgs of wetsuit weight.
I can imagine! What would you say are the other advantages or challenges involved with growing up as a surfer in the North East?
My parents owning the surf shop and beach cafe when I was very young was a huge advantage because I was just born into the local surf scene. It’s a small town, so all the established surfers at the time knew me and my family.
They took me under their wing and showed me all these amazing waves, taking me to the best places when I was too young to drive. Surfing with good surfers meant I got better a lot quicker.
A disadvantage was that there were only actually a small handful of professional surfers here, so there wasn’t as much aspiration for what could be achieved.
How would you say that young surfers from the North East can get recognised, today? Do you think that the pro circuit is the way to go?
It’s a tough one. For all the competitions in the pro circuit you’ve got to have a crazy ability and desire to compete, which I never really had. The frequency of waves is a struggle up in the North East too, compared to surfers in Cornwall who might surf three times a day.
But what we have got up here that a lot of surfers from around the UK haven’t got, is the heavy, dark, cold water. That’s getting a lot more recognition nowadays. Putting the time in to surfing these heavier waves well will translate to surfing heavy waves in Scotland or Ireland - and you can try and get coverage that way.
Social media is a platform that could work wonders, so long as you’re bang into it. Ideally you’ll need a photographer to come and shoot with you and put out a quality edit, but if you can find that, it can be a great outlet to express yourself. And see what happens from there.
I’d say it all depends what your desires are really. If you’re hellbent on getting a sponsor you’d probably need to be really active on social media.
What boards are you riding nowadays?
For the last couple of years I’ve been riding a lot of twin fins and what some might call ‘alternative’ boards. I was always a three fin thruster, performance type of guy but then when I got a twin fin I realised how fast and fun they are.
To round things off, what are you most proud of so far in your surfing career?
The fact that I can call it a career. That’s not solely surfing, it’s working for the RNLI too. Being able to do this full time at the age of thirty still totally blows my mind and I’m so grateful for it. And, it always makes for a good conversation in the bar when people ask ‘so what do you do?’