The northeast coast of England on its day has some of the best surfing and windsurfing conditions in the UK, but many of the spots are a closely guarded secret or off the beaten track. Redcar though is a well known windsurfing beach and its credentials as a windy spot not in doubt given the huge wind farm just offshore. John Carter, Timo Mullen and Steve Thorp fill us in on a recent Redcar session, one of the North Sea’s top windsurfing spots.
Words John Carter, Timo Mullen, Steve Thorp // Photos John Carter
John Carter – “Over the years I have ventured up north to explore the stretch of coast between Northumberland and Yorkshire with varying degrees of success. Fickle winds, unreliable swell and difficult to access spots make finding quality windsurfing a roll of the dice. If you want a slice of the pie or pudding up north, then you will have to remember it will be a bit colder, grittier and the water is not as blue as down south! But the sessions I have scored have more than made up for the efforts required and were worth every penny of the risk.
When a north swell comes down from an Arctic low there are numerous reefs and beaches which can come alive, but you also need the right wind direction which is where the stars need to line up. Eight or nine years back Timo Mullen and a hardy crew of locals sailed Redcar in a WNW wind, in the midst of winter and scored some a decent cross offshore logo-high beach break. Timo had already sailed an epic reef break at first light and this was a bonus session to top off the day. I vividly remember the industrial landscape and a raw wind that made my fingers burn. It was bitter cold, but epic conditions and interesting to experience the power of the North Sea as opposed to the Atlantic. I like exploring, but as far as I was concerned the box on Redcar was ticked and I had no particular reason to go back.
A few years later I spotted some windsurfing pictures of Redcar on Facebook, but now with a new drama added into the equation. Twenty-seven huge wind turbines had been erected a mere 1.5 km offshore, creating a very surreal backdrop to the waves. As a photographer I wanted to go back to try and capture this rare wavesailing setup on a decent forecast! The turbines were built around 2013, each rising over 100 metres out of the North Sea and between them supplying over 40,000 homes with energy, all by seabed cables via a sub-station at Warrenby. With these giant wind powered beasts looming in the backdrop I just had to wait patiently for the right opportunity to return to Redcar and score the shots I had been imagining. It would prove to be a long wait!
Fast forward to January 2019. A short absence of wind, meant it didn’t take too much persuasion to tempt Timo Mullen up north on a promising forecast that promised westerly gales and a long period North Sea swell! A hefty band of low pressure had been hovering off Iceland, driving lines of North Sea swell down to the reefs, slabs and beaches of the east coast of England. It was crying out for a smash and grab mission. Luckily the two best days of swell landed right on the weekend so we decided to pick the biggest and windiest day and roll our dices all on the Sunday. Our main aim was to explore some secret reef breaks but also squeeze a few hours at Majuba Beach in Redcar at high tide so I could at least score some shots with the huge wind turbines as a bonus. The formula of driving five hours from the south coast, sailing five or six hours and then driving straight back home at night was not particularly appealing so we decided to head up early Saturday evening and camp out in a Travelodge in Middlesbrough so we could hit the beach early and fresh.
Looking at the logistics from the south coast Redcar was only an extra hour or so than the drive to Cornwall, but it is probably an option most sailors wouldn’t even consider when checking the forecasts. We made it to Middlesbrough by 1 a.m. to the sight of a few youths staggering around the streets on a breezy Saturday night. Fifteen years ago we might have gone searching for a club and joined in, but times move on and we were happy to check-in and snag a decent night of sleep. We were out on the road by 8 a.m. Sunday morning, having polished off a full English and several cups of strong coffee ready for action. We made it to Majuba right on sunrise at 8:20 a.m., as the first rays of light poked over the chimneys and steelworks in the background. Approaching the beachfront, all I was focussing on was the giant turbines looming behind the waves, finally the opportunity was here to capture this crazy seascape.
The wind was light but with gales forecast and solid logo high swell I wasn’t too worried. It is funny how a windsurfing dawn patrol rarely works the same as in surfing. Unless it’s a full blown gale on the cards, the wind just needs a bit of time to materialize and sort itself out, especially when it is blowing from the west. In the car park a few locals and crew from surrounding areas were screwing in straps, tinkering with sails and preparing for the day ahead; I guess we were in the right place. Steve Thorp had also made the seven hour journey up from Cornwall for this forecast and was here for three days to cram in as much sailing and surfing as humanly possible.
By 10 a.m. the winter sun had crept above the morning clouds and the wind had suddenly cranked in from pretty much zero to over 25 knots in a matter of minutes from the west; we were on. It was looking so solid at Redcar, any plans to go search for secret reef spots were thrown out of the window, as the saying goes – ‘why leave wind and waves?’ The boys were soon out amongst it, flying around a churned up brown North Sea and vying for the best sets in front of the imposing wind turbines. Years ago I pulled off a shoot with Nik Baker sailing alongside a wind farm in the Thames Estuary, but with pluming waves and cross-offshore winds, this was much more dramatic in my books. It wasn’t long before both Steve and Timo were drawing their lines onto the canvas of epic North Sea peeling waves, with sections for turns, aerials and even Timo’s trademark forward off the lip. Brown walls up to mast high were surging across the bay and when the sun peaked through the clouds it lit up the arena making for some unreal shots.
Rumour has it there are some epic surfing waves in the nearby area but break so rarely and in such a toxic river mouth that the few surfers who take this phantom on, only ride it when it is all-time. Apparently the surrounding steelworks and chemical factories cause pollution levels off the charts and some guys might even miss the first day of a building swell for fear of getting sick. Fortunately we were well away from the main river mouth along a glorious 2 km stretch of windswept sandy beach. Today was all about the force of the wind combined with the power of the North Sea. There was quite a contrast between the man-made wind turbines harnessing the wind power and producing electricity through a combination of generators and giant 70 metre blades and the likes of Timo and Thorpy zipping along using the same wind with tiny 4.7m sails and 2.25 metre boards.
OVER AND OUT
By 2.30 p.m. the tide had drained out and the swell had dropped slightly. Timo had sailed for four and a half hours straight and weighing up the fact we had a long drive ahead back home we decided to call it a day. Even after derigging we were still tempted to go check some other spots and sure enough the swell was pumping up and down the coastline but with a bit of north in the wind we decided we had Been in the right spot. No doubt there are plenty of amazing down-the-line setups on the east coast prime for discovery. If you need some exploration inspiration, you’re in the right place as Marton, just outside Middlesbrough, was birthplace to Britain’s most famous explorer, Captain Cook, and he actually had his first ever job as a grocer’s apprentice in the quaint town of Staithes just down the coast. He went on to become one of the greatest maritime explorers in British history, especially for his voyages to the Pacific on his ship the Endeavour; the history of sailing adventures runs deep on this coast!”
“It’s now been a year since we (the Thorp clan) upped sticks from Leicester and moved to Cornwall. Whilst in Leicester the nearest quality waves to windsurf and surf were actually two hours away at Redcar, North Yorkshire, so that was kind of my local and I’ve always been very fond of that stretch of coast. Yes there’s a lot of ugly industry, but also some very beautiful parts. On its day there are many world-class waves in the area and some of them manage to remain quiet despite being right under everyone’s noses. The locals do their best to guard the best spots, but I’ve always been a fan of seeking out the empty corners on dog walks and trying to hunt down a solo session, so not much gets past me!
Being the North Sea the good forecasts don’t come around very often, 3feet @ 9seconds is your average forecast, 4@12 is a classic. We were looking at 3@16 (touching 20 second periods in the morning!) followed by 4@14 the next day! That requires a pretty big fat low right up near Greenland to get those kind of numbers. So for me it was impossible to resist heading up for a few days despite the 7 hour drive! The fact that Cornwall was getting waist-high onshore mush made the decision a lot easier too!
JC and Timo had also spotted the forecast of course and we all hooked up at the beach on the Sunday morning. A few other east coast regulars such as Mark Dowson and Carl Thomlinson also joined the party! For sure we scored some very epic windsurfing, but I actually expected a little more. Down the coast, where the wind was offshore, the surf was pumping, lighting up some rare spots with the best surf in years. I guess the wind we were enjoying was steering the swell out of our corner a little, although it still touched on mast high at times! I stayed up for three days before returning back to Cornwall and got absolutely nailed by numerous late night road closures, so it actually took me 17 hours with a stop for some sleep! Despite the nightmare drive it was easily worth the effort though for those two days of epic sailing and lots of thick, heavy and cold surf!”
“It had been a good few years since my last trip to the east coast; family and work commitments and lack of a good forecast have been the main reasons! The start of 2019 had been pretty quiet on the south and west coast, so when I saw a deep low pressure system sat stubbornly of the NE coast of Scotland, sending plenty of north swell down the east coast I got pretty excited. Team that up with west and northwest winds and that equates to wavesailing paradise on the east coast! Only slight issue was the fact it was January, literally the coldest time of the year, but as luck would have it the temperatures were in double figures, a balmy 12 degrees, practically unheard of even in the summer up there!!
My intention on this trip was to score a few of the slab reefs that grace the pages of the UK surf mags, but after checking the beach at Redcar first, it looked pretty good, with no reason to leave. Redcar is a classic beach break, with peaks and bowls winding all the way down its length. I have sailed here quite a few times now and love it. The sailing was pretty epic, the state of the tide had uncovered a section of reef that was like a magnet to the 8ft@14 seconds groundswell with wall upon wall of the thick black and blue surf, setting up for some insane lips to hit. The swell size was perfect, 4-6 feet, so about logo high at best, just enough to get the adrenaline pumping, but not too big to break any gear! I was pretty stoked to achieve the ‘trifecta’ of a 360, a goiter and a forward off-the-lip; actually the ‘trifecta’ can be anything you want, but that is my benchmark for a progression goal.
We did not manage to score the slabs we were hoping for, but this surprise session on the reef really did make the trip worthwhile; in fact we did check the slabs on the drive home and Redcar was 100% the best call, so our F.O.M.O. (fear of missing out) could rest easy that day! Thanks and respect as always to all the locals for guiding us in the right direction and ripping it up all day, I can’t wait for the next trip ‘oop’ north!”.
“ The state of the tide had uncovered a section of reef that was like a magnet to the 8ft@14 seconds groundswell .”