With surf forecasters Magicseaweed predicting a record-breaking swell for the North Sea and strong NW winds on the cards, John Carter and Timo Mullen pulled the trigger on a good old-fashioned road trip for a strike mission to Fraisthorpe on England’s northeast coast. From our June 2021 issue, JC tells us more about the session and Mark Dowson gives us the lowdown on his local.
Photos – John Carter // Words – John Carter and Mark Dowson
John Carter – “It had been a while since I had been on a road trip due to Covid travel restrictions, and to be honest it felt kind of weird to be heading anywhere north of London for the first time in over a year. A hefty fifteen feet at seventeen second period swell was forecast to rifle down the northeast coast and Timo and I felt duty bound to see if we could find a spot that was sailable. After scanning Google maps for spots, it seemed like our only options were to take a chance and head to some reefs up in Northumberland or try and score one of the better-known sheltered wrap around spots in Yorkshire such as Redcar or Fraisthorpe. Having had our fingers burned before on a trip many years ago searching for reefs north of Newcastle, we decided to hedge our bets and head to the safe option of Fraisthorpe, where we were pretty sure we’d score guaranteed conditions. The alternative of a long drive for a possible wild goose chase was something I was not in the mood for after many months of lockdown.
We left the south coast the night before the peak of the swell was due to hit, safe in the knowledge that the local crew had already scored an epic day, but were reckoning that the next day was going to be even bigger and cleaner! It is a solid six-hour drive from Southampton to Fraisthorpe and we decided to leave late evening and arrive in the early hours of the night and bunk down in Timo’s van at the spot. Driving six hours, sailing eight hours and then driving home another six, just doesn’t work if you want to make the most of the day, enjoy the sailing and be able to drive safely home. Luckily Timo for once was well prepared and had cleared out a sleeping area in the van complete with two beds, duvets, pillows and the ultimate trump card, a diesel heater!
The journey seemed to breeze by as we made our way northbound, recklessly eating our way through Timo’s pre-prepared goodie bag of biscuits, fruit, crisps and chocolate as you do on a roadie! We were hoping to set up camp right at the beach so we could wake up at the spot, but due to our lack of planning we arrived to find the car park at Fraisthorpe was locked overnight. We were forced to park close by in a less than glamorous layby and then head to the beach at first light to check the conditions.
Despite all the duvets and sleeping bags it was bloody freezing up in Yorkshire with the blustery northerly wind and clear skies sending the temperatures sub-zero. The diesel heater proved to be a saviour, although Timo had managed to snag the spot where his head was close to the heat, while my head was at the other end of the van in a draughty corner.
With northwest winds forecast we needed to find a spot with an element of shielding from a headland where the swell could wrap in and be groomed by cross-offshore winds rather than an open facing beach that was likely to be more exposed and messy. It seemed like Fraisthorpe ticked all the boxes, so that was our target for the mission, with Filey, the next bay up as a possible alternative.
The next morning we headed back to Fraisthorpe at first light, only to find the gate still locked. It was low tide and there was some reasonable swell but no sign of the monster sets I was expecting. Out on the horizon I could make out some weird shapes that I thought might be the outline of huge ships. On closer inspection though, through Timo’s binoculars, I realised these were actually colossal waves breaking on some sort of sandbar or reef in the distance. Even with this swell blockage from the outside sandbar we still had logo high waves on offer at 7 a.m. on a crisp spring morning and we were the only ones at the beach for first dibs!
As often with a northwesterly wind, it was initially quite light, but abruptly kicked in around 8 a.m. Despite the bitter windchill, Timo was keen to head out into the harsh elements for an early session before breakfast. Knowing Timo, he could possibly be out all day long if the conditions were epic, but with the wind so bitter, maybe he would have to pace himself and make use of the stash of dry wetsuits in the back of his van. The light was looking sweet and I was also hungry to hit the trigger and make sure we had some action in the bag to ensure this trip was worthwhile.
We were pre-warned by the locals to pay for a full day of parking due to a new evil parking system that scans your number plates, so made sure that was taken care of before hitting the water. Even with the early morning wintery sunshine poking through, it was bitterly cold and despite wearing gloves, my hands were numb within five minutes of shooting. Timo wasted no time sailing into the thick of the action, busting out airs, goiters and forward loops off the lip for his pre-breakfast session. I guess the cold was not affecting him so badly!
Lining the beach at Fraisthorpe are the relics of World War II bunkers, which came in handy for me to shelter from the wind. During World War II, the beaches from Bridlington down to Barmston were extensively prepared for resisting enemy invasion. Anti-tank blocks were placed along the foot of the dunes with pillboxes and other structures positioned behind.
So, a small sidetrack here! I am down on the beach around 8:30 a.m. hanging onto my tripod in 30 knots of freezing wind when out of nowhere a bright white football comes flying along the sand towards me. Normally I would have just let it roll on by, but as it passed, I noticed it was a lovely UEFA Euro 2020 Cup leather ball and from my fleeting glance appeared to be in brand new condition. With Timo struggling in the impact zone after a fierce wipeout, I abandoned my camera and tripod on top of one of the bunkers and proceeded to chase this ball along the sand, even though it was rolling faster than I could run. Anybody who may have turned up at this particular moment may have wondered what the hell was going on, but luckily the ball finally stopped as it hit the sea and I could grab it. Needless to say, my 19-year-old son is now the proud owner of this football that his dad generously bought for him while on the road trip up north!
By 9:30 a.m. Timo was heading in, obviously suffering the effects of the cold. His hands were burning, but he was already stoked on scoring this initial solo session. Back in the van the diesel heater once again proved to be a trump and we even managed to source some decent coffee from the local café, The Cow Shed, which was doing takeaways. We decided to take a break and wait for high tide so Timo could catch up on some work for his new flip-flop brand, ‘FoamLife’ and I could admire my newly acquired football.
By early afternoon, the swell was definitely building and breaking closer to the concrete blocks, with much more top to bottom power at high tide. We were joined by Mark Dowson, a local teacher who is also bonkers about wave sailing and usually competes at all the BWA events in the masters section. He had sailed for five hours the previous afternoon as it was so good, but was first to admit that today, the conditions were even better! The locals generally prefer to wait for low tide when the waves are slightly less intimidating, but with Timo hungry for a second session, Mark was fired up to face these challenging conditions alongside his expert visitor. For sure the high tide waves had far more consequence, but the glory for hitting a big hollow section was there for the taking.
Even at midday in bright sunshine it was bitterly cold, with the relentless northwest wind driving in off the North Sea. Mark reckoned it was relatively warm compared to some of the days the hardy Yorkshire crew brave the elements in during winter! Timo logged another two hours on the water to boost his wave count and with a decent midday session in the bag, he came in for a rest, keen to preserve some energy for one last sail before the drive home. We headed back to the van and that lovely heater to warm up again for our final round of action up north.
By 4 p.m. the tide was retreating again, but the swell was peaking with solid logo high sets consistently hitting the sandbars. We were joined by a few more locals making it up to five on the water for the late sesh! After the two warmups, Timo was well tuned into the conditions and nailing some huge aerials into the flats. A huge squall temporarily interrupted play, shutting down the wind for a solid forty minutes. I had trekked quite a way down the beach to shoot from a fresh angle and ended up stuck out in the open amidst a full power hailstorm. With no place to run, I just had to hunker down and take it like a man. When the wind eventually came back, it returned with a vengeance and it was game on for the rest of the final session with full power on the way out and non-stop waves rolling through.
By 6 p.m. Timo was done for the day after a solid six hours on the water in cold and challenging conditions. But having clocked up a tonne of waves, he was more than happy to have made the drive for this day of solid wave action. After all the necessary lockdown restrictions of the past year, it was awesome to go storm chasing and have a mini adventure. Timo has been working hard on his new flip-flop project, so it was a release for him also to have a day out wave sailing and escape the office grind. With more time on our hands it would have been awesome to explore those fabled Northumberland reefs, but that mission will have to wait for the next monster North Sea swell!”
Mark Dowson – “On the day Timo came up, the wave conditions were about as good as this section of the coast gets! Port tack, 4.7m weather and cross-off, down-the-line riding. My eyes lit up when I saw the waves rolling in and Timo’s van already parked up with kit rigged and glistening in the sun. We’d all enjoyed a long session on the water the previous day, and although for this day the wind was lighter, the quality of the wave was definitely next level.
The conditions were challenging when I arrived as the tide was high and close to the cliffs, which makes the wind shifty and gusty. In places the waves were breaking onto the old WW2 concrete defences, but luckily for us, the tide had turned and was dropping and we had the water to ourselves. Sailing with Timo is always special, he performs at such a high level it inspires me to push harder and go a little deeper than I would normally dare! Rob and Chris joined us after a couple of hours when the tide had dropped and the Juice Boardsports crew of Brad, Ben and Paul made up the after work contingent. I am still buzzing and smiling from the memories of a great day!”
Mark Dowson Rides for Juice Boardsports, Moo Custom, K4 Fins, Ezzy Sails and Flymount.
MARK DOWSON’S FRAISTHORPE SPOT GUIDE
For port tack wave riding I like to sail in north to northwesterly winds with a good quality swell, over 10 seconds period if possible. I like the higher tide on the push or drop, but many prefer the lower to mid tide, which has usually got a cleaner but smaller wave. There is also a lot less rock and concrete to worry about at low to mid tide.
A little further down, Barmston can also be an option, nd it is often more powerful here, but the tides and higher cliff can limit the time it is sailable.
A westerly usually gives offshore flat blasting conditions at Fraisthorpe, but if there is a swell running it can be good fun. Southwesterly is more bump and jump starboard tack, but with a good swell running can have some rideable waves.
At Fraisthorpe, a new parking company has installed a number plate recognition system, so make sure you get a ticket straight away, as even driving in and straight out again can land you in trouble. All information is on the signs.
‘The Cow Shed’ café sells a range of tasty treats and hot and cold drinks. It is currently open and has a slick one-way outdoor system in place. There are also toilets in the adjacent building.