Souliest of soul surfers, this time we find good friend of Surfyogis, Rhys Smith taking on the gritty breaks and surf culture of Tynemouth, Northern England
Posted: Aug 20 2020
Souliest of soul surfers, we always enjoy spending some time in Rhys’s world. Going with the flow is what our high flying team rider does best, and this time his heart has taken him to Tynemouth, Northern England, where the surf culture is gritty, the winter temps are sub zero and food and coffee are… Well, read on.
Looks like you've found love in & out of the water.
I met Katie in Agnes Waters, Australia by complete coincidence. She has these bright green eyes which lured me in, and it felt like I’d known her forever. I fell in love with her instantly and haven’t looked back since. I was living in Byron Bay at the time and travelling up and down the east coast doing various kayak and surf instructing jobs each week. Katie was travelling around the world, and I showed her around some of my favourite spots in Australia and Indonesia. By the time she was due to be leaving for England, we were inseparable, so I just figured I’d go with her, relocating from Australia to Tynemouth, England in 2018. This was my first time to the United Kingdom.
As usual, baggage allowance became a problem at the airport when leaving Australia, as I had to somehow fit my entire life into 30kg. I was way over that still. Honestly, I narrowed it down to pure essentials: my favourite boards, a spare pair of clothes and a jacket, incase it got cold. I later realised I needed many more layers than that to survive a winter in Northern England and my first proper snow. The rest of the space in my board bag was filled with camera gear that wouldn’t fit in my carry on.
For the first few months of living in the north of England, it felt like surfing barely existed. We didn’t know anyone to gauge things off and would usually just surf alone wherever it looked surfable. There was plenty of swell as we were heading into winter, and the waves here are as good as anywhere else in the world.
To be fair, I liked surfing that way. It felt like we were discovering breaks that had never been surfed before, and realistically maybe a few hadn’t? There seems to be very few places left on Earth where you feel the rawness like that, and surf perfect waves alone.
From where we live in Tynemouth you can drive north to the very tip of northern Scotland in about 8hrs and across the entirety of England to the southern tip in about the same time – which feels like nothing compared to the distances we travel for waves in Australia.
Scotland is one of my favourite places on earth, and I love that we’re so close. The coastline up there gives you a real sense of adventure. It’s isolated and beautiful, with an amazing rugged coastline and mind-blowing waves around just about every corner and endless hills and moors for hiking. It has some of the best deserted white sand beaches I have ever seen in my life, especially along the west coast and the outer islands.
We took a trip to the Outer Hebrides for 10 days in my mate’s campervan soon after arriving in the UK, which was the experience of a lifetime and a place I would happily live given the opportunity. The Hebrides is where some of my heritage originates from, before they got cleared out to Australia. We explored some of the old crofter villages, the ruins are still hidden among the hills. Words can’t describe how insane it is. It makes you feel like you’re in a place at the beginning of time… with perfect waves!
Most of the main breaks here are not the type of spots you’ll be able to purchase access to from a £5 servo road map. Local knowledge is essential. My mate Sandy Kerr, a great local charger, was kind enough to take me under his wing and introduce me to some of the surrounding waves and the community. He is super onto it when it comes to chasing heavy water swells.
It’s a pretty raw coastline, and because of the 8m tides some breaks only turn on for a couple of hours. Surfing a spot can definitely take a bit of juggling practice to be there at the right time.
Our local beach, Longsands in Tynemouth, has a massive surf culture pioneered by Mark Ward and Stephen Hudson who started the original surf shop and surf school here in 1995 - Tynemouth Surf Co. They run surf lessons for the local groms, as well as recently running a charity surf competition allowing people of all ages and all styles to showcase their talent.
Very few big surf companies have a presence here which makes it harder for local groms to get sponsorships etc, unless they move down south to Cornwall which is where the spotlight is for competitive surfing in England. Full-time pro surfing seems like distant dream to pursue, but this also keeps the motivation for surfing here very pure.
Surfing here just has that little extra challenge which I think is what makes it so fun. The best breaks are mostly hidden behind rural properties. The locals that live around these small towns don’t like you blowing in, or you parking your car there. Cameras are not welcome either.
The water temp is just above freezing in winter, and duck-diving without a good hood will definitely give you brainfreeze. A lot of the best waves are in river mouths, and break best on low tide, so you get all the city industrial runoff draining out on the break. The water can make you sick for a few days if you swallow it. Which also describes some of the food and most of the coffee as well.
Once I spent 3 days laid out vomiting out of both ends from surfing at one of my favourite lefts in a river mouth right directly out front of our house. The wave gets so good though, it doesn’t hold anyone back from surfing there. Recommended to drink a coke after.
There are so many contributing factors to scoring waves here, but once you unlock the many secrets, it’s as good as anywhere else in the world. I surf more now than ever before.
That’s exactly why I love it here. The people have a lot of heart and are full of character, surfing still feels very raw and underground. Air reverses don’t mean shit to anyone, and the line-up rules still exist. There’s a really respectful commodity for sharing waves. It’s a complete flip on what I was used to, growing up on the Gold Coast.
Share with us your quest for cold water slabs & perfect waves & everything in between since you left comp surfing
I’m blessed that I have the opportunity and power to surf every day however I see fit to, I’ve got that child-like passion for surfing more now than ever. I love to travel which is half the reason competing is so enticing with all the international destinations on the calendar. But due to the set time frames for events, you don’t always get the best waves possible for that area. I want to surf places around the globe that have an overloaded sense of adventure, being subjective rather than objective.
We had just got back from a surf trip to Portugal in February 2019, when I got sick with a persistent pneumonia for the next 8 months. It really took a massive toll on my body. I had blood tests and x-rays and multiple courses of antibiotics, and even now the infectious diseases unit don’t 100% know what caused it. I would spend all day laid out with no energy and really struggling to breath. I slowly started to recover around December 2019.
During that time, I spent a lot of time on the yoga mat each day, my mind got fixated on what was actually going into common yoga mats. I began looking further into the materials used in my mat and started asking why they are mostly made with toxic materials instead of eco-friendly biodegradable materials.
We began ordering in different types of sustainable fabric samples, such as micro fibres, cork, hemp and eco-friendly rubbers to refine our own personal yoga mats. I love the creative and explorative process of it, testing all kinds of materials and dimensions, then we would pass on our yoga mat creations to our friends to see if others liked them as much as we did.
It all began to snowball pretty quickly, sparking the birth of our eco-friendly company - Regeneration Yoga. We have sold to 5 different European countries so far and continue to grow rapidly.
I’m really proud of our company, and of everyone that works with us to make it possible. I feel it’s making a real change to how people perceive their yoga equipment and what is possible with sustainability. I think it mirrors the way we as an international society have started to acknowledge the issues of plastic pollution and are now truly putting in the effort to turn things around.
See you competed not so long ago & got a win. Congrats!
Thanks! Tynemouth Surf Co ran a really well organised event at the end of 2019, there’s a lot of talented surfers in the north so I was stoked to win the Men’s Open. It was held at Longsands beach, my local break. We had a really good swell for the event, which went onshore in the middle of the day, and I love doing airs so that favoured my surfing through to the final.
It was run as a charity competition to show off the hard work everyone had been putting into their surfing, as well as raising money for two amazing charities – Mind and Surfers against Sewage. They raised almost £2000 and everyone had an amazing day out on the beach.
What advice can you give to crew that feel the need to compete?
Well I think as long as comps help drive you to progress, then you should compete, because the competition and calibre of athletes doing them is going to push you to be a better surfer all round.
Judges want your surfing to be textbook, and not one bit of wasted motion. They have to have a way of reducing so many complex movements and an entirely subjective feeling about your style into a single number. But there is definitely a sterility to all that, which I feel can supress your natural ability and the creativity you need to distinguish yourself from others.
You have to be able to do all the stuff: airs, turns, tubes etc, in every condition. That’s the vocabulary we all have to learn, but it’s the type of poetry that you make of it, and how you make it look - to me that is what makes surfing great.
That personal expression we all have to give, creates a bifurcation in surfing and helps it stay a culture, more than just focusing on the sheer athleticism of the sport.
But don’t get me wrong, I still practice ‘textbook’ comp surfing all day long. Although personally, when I’m just playing around, I tend surf a lot better and improve. There are really no limits except for the ones you make for yourself. It feels really good to be creative and make mistakes, to fall and try again, then you hit that moment where something changes, and you land or overcome something for the first time. I think those moments of progression can change your DNA and your way of thinking.
Last time we played pong it was pretty close, keep it up as I plan to smash you next time!
I can’t wait for our next match up, you’re always on another level with it, I’ve bought my own butterfly paddle now for the next showdown, so I hope for your sake your game is still tight, because when surfing’s off, it’s on!