Cold and clear, the dawn came earlier than we expected, we didn't really know what to expect. Not the clean lines curling around flat spills of reef nor the headland, cove, headland, cove rhythm of high cliffs and cobbled streets. An ache of orange throbbed in the corner of the sky. The sun doesn't rise from western seas.

There is a sense of mystery here but no secrets, more wry smiles and encouraging nods, promising much but giving nothing away. Our first morning was a procession of mis-timed steps, like a foal learning to walk, we arrived at each place a little late, saw what could have been, what will be again, never finding quite what we needed. It is a low tide land. That orange kept us chasing and the cold rushing into our throats kept us alert, staved off complacency and lazy disappointment. It was our first morning after all, everything was new, everything exciting, every wave ridden a moment of learning, minor in the grand scheme of things but monumental in a personal sense.

Our pre-trip research had taken place on Google Earth, a painstaking scroll over 100 miles of land meeting sea, kinks in the coastline pored over and zoomed in on to pixelated obscurity in the hope of finding cobblestone bottoms or tapering reef. When eventually we decided to stop and just surf, it was at one of our google nooks, a right angle in the north/south line providing shelter. We arrived to hollow lefts tucking in on themselves, slipping down the point, glassy brown beneath the high cliff. By the time we had unpacked and faffed, suited and waxed, we were too late. The quietly eager tide had crept up to the base of the cliff and the waves now refracted back off it and sent warbling washes into our path. A beautiful blemish on the oncoming waves. We surfed and laughed regardless, and there were a few moments of stillness in amongst the growing confusion. It was enough for a first surf, to introduce our skin to the frigid sea, but we would need more to furnish our homecoming stories with enough excitement to make them worth telling.

From the velux at the top of the cottage in which we were staying, you could just about see the sea, a slither of shimmering brown. My straining head poked out of the top of the window first alerted us to the possibility of waves so close by and the setting sun gave us no choice but to surf on our first evening. It had charted a course between two hills and cast a path of light onto the slowly ambling waves, as if chasing a river of molten gold we ran into the winter sea. The actual riding of waves was an exercise in trim, finding it and losing it and finding it again, standing tall through the rare moments of impetus, feeling the wave through our feet rather than trying to control it.

The next morning we expected a more adrenalin inducing experience, we knew the time to beat the dawn and did so, standing, braced against the wind and with salted skin, on a spit of rocks, peering into the bleary dark. It was impossible to tell what was happening in the near distance. We stared, trying to make sense of the grey brown fluctuations across the grey brown horizon, until, like the pulsing line of a heart monitor, plumes of spray were intermittently sent into the air. With the benefit of scale and a grasp of speed we knew the wave lived.

That morning it was unruly, big and with the wind gusting from the west, it wasn't an easy time for a comfortable acquaintance but there were sparkles of potential. One or two icy brown barrels, and some confidently tapering walls slipped through between the early morning angst. It was meant to be our last day of a short trip, a break from dealing with the winter and a chance to enjoy it, but after experiencing the wave we had come to surf we were eager to see her at her best. The dress rehearsal was stunning at times but rough overall, the forecast for the coming morning was too tempting to leave.

Up until that extra morning we had felt like pioneers, the one surfer who had lit up the pre-dawn horizon was a traveller himself and it seemed strange that such a place should be so bereft of local surfers. On one hand it was a hostile place, the sea did not look or feel welcoming to the untrained eye, but on the other it has such diverse potential, the sea is warped into such enticing shapes, someone must know that it is special. Someone must be discovering and understanding, surfing and keeping it special.

The locals came out for the main show. Chirping in the morning light, chattering their language full of smiles and moving in an intuitive pack, like starlings. They made room for us who were just passing through and gave us a fair share of the waves, which were as perfect as waves can be, tubes spinning with lightness and weight in equal measure. A man with a white oval face, framed in neoprene and with a clean shaven chin, nodded at me while he paddled past and smiled an uncontrollable smile. This is lovely, this he said. I agreed as enthusiastically as I could and thanked him, it ain't nothing to do with me, he grinned and carried on paddling. Past me and towards the inside he swung immediately into a smaller wave, pushing up for perhaps a second too long, before springing to his feet and riding the wave as it hugged the reef. He crouched just in front of the breaking lip for a few seconds before kicking out, the smile on his face had grown from one side of his neoprene hood to the other. 

Words by Reef Ambassador, Mike Lay

Photos by Jack Johns/ @Jackjohns