Words Lauren Davies Photos Lewis Arnold
One would be forgiven for picturing a North East surf contest in October as a bitterly cold affair of windswept judging tents and a handful of hardy surfers battling in hostile waters for a trophy that has lost its shine. The Tynemouth Surf Co. Open is most certainly not that. On the weekend of October 9th and 10th, a field of around eighty surfers across nine different categories, congregated to compete in the event on Tynemouth Longsands. The competition is held in memory of local legendary surfer and surf shop owner Stephen Hudson, who tragically died in 2017. This year, it also formed part of the North Sea Weekender; a series of water-based and music events along the coastline in North Tyneside.
Louis Thomas-Hudson of Tynemouth Surf Co. who runs the event with his mum and surfer, Mel Thomas, explained, ’We do the contest in memory of my dad, Stephen Hudson to highlight the surfers in the North East and to gather the community together, whilst also raising money for Surfers Against Sewage and the Wave Project Charities.’ The Wave Project provides surfing therapy for young people who are at risk of mental health problems and has an established base in Tynemouth. Surfers Against Sewage is an environmental charity working to create activists for a thriving ocean and thriving people, and pushing for positive change at national policy level. Both Charities had a physical presence at the event, sharing their work with spectators, some of whom were then inspired to undertake beach cleans throughout the day. The goal of the competition is clearly to have a positive impact on all levels.
On Saturday, a stunning morning of sunshine, light winds and perfect 2 to 3-foot surf greeted the competitors. As the heats progressed, a crowd of hundreds lined the shore to watch the spectacle, benefitting from the chance to safely unite in the open air and in nature. Surfing is still stereotypically seen as predominantly a sport of warmer climes and Cornish coves, but the cold water crew in the North East and Scotland is ever growing. The beauty of the North East coastline is undeniable. South African surfer, Jacob Melish, currently living in Edinburgh, was very pleasantly surprised by the size of the event. He said, ’It’s a much bigger turnout than I could ever have imagined. The level of surfing has exceeded my expectations. I am blown away by the surf community. I didn’t think there was a such a surf culture here where you could sit on the beach in the sun and go surfing!’
The scene was set for a full showcase of elite surfing on day one and the competitors did not disappoint. The Men’s stand-up paddle (SUP) final was confidently won by Nick Graham over visiting Head ISA Judge, Andy Joyce. Nick was metaphorically carried to the win by members of the South Shields Surf School cheering him from the beach. Andy had also run a judging course for local people the previous evening. He told me, ‘The guys have been amazing the way they have organised this event. Every time I come up here, it’s just an amazing place to come to. The people are fantastic and, if you get the weather like this morning and yesterday, it’s just so good.’
In the Women’s SUP, local Annabel Page pushed her mum, Georgie Sowman into second place, showing how generations are coming together to appreciate the benefits of the sea. Heather Peacock in third place shared the fact that she, ‘was isolating with Covid till recently, so I’ve been tired today, but it’s important for me to be here to support the event. It’s an amazing atmosphere. This is a brilliant community and there is nothing better than being here on the beach in Tynemouth when this community comes together.’
This atmosphere remained electric despite the rain that swept through in the afternoon. Spectators’ spirits were not dampened and they stayed at the shoreline to watch Elle Sutherland become Women’s Longboard Champion in her final with Samantha Metcalfe. In the Men’s Longboard final, it was the turn of Louis Thomas-Hudson to take on current Welsh Champion Evan Rogers from Saltburn. The smooth waves matched the graceful elegance of these stylish yet powerful longboarders, as they traded waves to the beach. There was no organiser bias, however, when Evan Rogers was awarded the win, with Louis in second, over Tom Cross and Louis’ protégé, Billy Ansty. ‘It’s a great event,’ said Evan, ‘and it’s to support a good cause and in memory of Steve, so it would be daft not to be here. It’s so class here. Surfing has boomed in the last few years and there is a really good vibe around.’ The Women’s Shortboard final enjoyed better conditions of the tide. Ruby Wyborn opened with a long right-hander to the beach, but was eventually pipped for the win by Zoee Jones. All four women highlighted the strength of women’s surfing, with Emma Tweddle and Erin McIntosh taking third and fourth. In accepting her prize of £300, matching the prize money for the men, Zoee said, Thank you, it was great to be part of today, but I am giving my £300 cheque back to SAS and the Wave Project.’ To which commentator James Cummings whistled to the other competitors, ‘Wow, she has set the bar right up there!’ It was another illustration of the positivity and sense of togetherness surrounding the event.
This was especially strong perhaps, because that is something we have all been missing of late. Surfers in the Men’s Open category faced some challenging conditions in the early heats, with sporadic sets and small waves making wave selection and good positioning essential. Local surfers were out in force, with Alexander Tatko and Jimmy Pearson reaching the quarter finals. The standard of surfing was impressive from the outset in the Open with an international field, including South Africans Jarred Veldhuis and Jacob Melish, Tynemouth-based Australian Rhys Smith, and Scottish Champion Mark Boyd from Thurso. Former pro big wave surfer from Tynemouth, Gabe Davies, joined locals Trevor Smeaton and Sandy Kerr in the semis, but tricky, close-out sets saw only Sandy advance to the final to represent the North East. The final was a genuine highlight of the day as the sun slowly set on a calm evening that belied the fierce competition taking place in the water. It was as if the organisers had flicked a switch on the North Sea to deliver the best waves of the day for the climax, watched by an avid crowd on the beach made up of both surf enthusiasts and those experiencing the sport for the first time in its competitive form. The four surfers also took the level up a notch, boosting 360 degree air reverse manoeuvres, radical tailslides and powerful turns that sent arcs of spray into the air. When Sandy Kerr rode a long right-hander to the delight of the fans, fireworks literally exploded in the darkening sky over the headland at Cullercoats behind him. There was a genuine sense that this final was a celebration of both surfing and of the North East.
In a close-run heat, Rhys Smith emerged the eventual winner, with Jarred Veldhuis second, Jacob Melish third and Sandy Kerr in fourth. Sandy summed up the moment by saying, ’I am buzzing to make a final. It’s crazy to see this many people. It’s like our equivalent of Pipeline with everyone lined up on the beach. I love it. It shows the best parts of Tynemouth and the fact it is so close to Steve’s birthday [Stephen Hudson] it means a lot to us and the locals here.’
Of the event, Rhys Smith said, ‘Over the last few years, the Tynemouth Open has felt like more than just a surf comp, it’s a real community event. I never met Steve Hudson myself, but I can definitely see the massive role he played in paving the way for the surf culture that exists here
today. The Tynemouth Surf Co. Open memorial event is definitely one I’m proud to compete in each year, and to give my respects to surfing here in the North East and the community, which I’m incredibly grateful to be a part of now. The dedication of the crowd on the beach was surreal! It was one of the biggest crowds I’ve ever surfed in front of, and it definitely made all the competitors step up for the finals. The fact that it was raining, and everyone hung in there, really shows the support and warmth of the crowd, which gave it a major event feeling. It felt incredible for everyone to come together after the last couple of years, and showcase our sport and the local talent, as well as helping clean up the beach and raising money for charity.’ At the close of this first memorable day, in reference to Stephen Hudson, Louis commented, ‘I think my dad would have loved this. He wouldn’t have expected this to be so big and with as many spectators as there are. He would be buzzing to see it.’
Surfers and spectators alike dispersed with a quiet reluctance at the end of a day of action, entertainment and positivity, but the Tynemouth Surf Co. Open was not yet finished. Day two would welcome the young guns aged 6 to 16. Sunday dawned with another beautiful sunrise, sending a wash of pink hues over the glassy, offshore surf conditions. It was a bright and promising start to World Mental Health Day, which was marked by a ‘positive paddle out’ on Cullercoats beach as part of the North Sea Weekender and a global initiative. This positivity continued to the Tynemouth Surf Co. contest site, where the young surfers were gathering for their day of competition. There was an evident buzz of anticipation, but even more evident was the camaraderie and the support the young surfers were showing to each other, both in and out of the water. Mel and Louis, through the Surf Co. make a point of nurturing the young talent in the North East. In the same way Louis’ father Stephen Hudson supported up-and-coming surfers and created a hub for the community in the surf shop, Mel and Louis actively continue this legacy and encourage the ‘grom crew’ with squad coaching, over and above their usual surf lessons. The under 16 boys opened Sunday’s proceedings with the semi-finals. The luck of the sea remained with the competition as the eight young talents traded small but perfectly smooth, contestable waves, lit by unseasonably warm, autumn sunshine. Local surfers Cillian White, Lucas Campion and Charlie Marshall were delighted to progress to the final, alongside Scottish surfer Craig McLachlan who had travelled eight hours to take part. Craig’s journey paid off when he showed his skills in the final to take the win. The grom crew of girls and boys cheered every wave from the beach, which encouraged the gathering crowd of adult spectators on the water’s edge to cheer louder.
A buzz was in the air. This positive vibe intensified in the mini grom final contested by tiny cousins Blake and Bo Reef Davies, sons of local surf brothers Jesse and Gabe Davies. As a former British Champion on multiple occasions, Gabe’s highlight this time was not his own performance, but his 7 year-old Bo taking the title of Mini Grom Champion. The waves peaked in magnitude for the mini groms, but Blake and Bo were unfazed and put on a show that had the crowd laughing, hooting and applauding, as they rode waves to the beach and claimed their rides by throwing both arms up in the air. They were, quite simply, loving every minute.
‘They were very glassy and smooth, smallish and biggish and I liked them,’ said Bo of the waves. ‘Me and Blake are very good surfers and good friends, so we cheered for each other and the fans were all cheering on the beach.’ In an innocent display of fairness and positive sporting attitude, Bo and Blake emerged from the water, ran towards each other and hugged to congratulate one another on a great final. On World Mental Health Day, it was a very heart-warming and hopeful sight. ‘This is the future,’ noted commentator, James Cummings, who was equally enjoying the mini surf action. What a bright future that looks to be for these youngsters and for this North East surf hub. More girls took part in the Under 16s category than in the Women’s Open and Longboard events. The girls were in their wetsuits and raring to go from the moment the event was underway. Current English Under 12 champion, Bethan Davies joined Orla White, Taylor Jett Miller and Alexandra Husson, with Lilly Skelton just missing out on a finals place.
The girls all actively searched for rights and lefts in the decreasing surf and attacked each ride with skill. It was the turn of Taylor Jett Miller to take the win. She described the final as, ‘An amazing experience. I just wanted to go get a couple of waves and improve from there. Bethan is amazing and Cillian and all of them, they really drive me on.’ These young surfers throughout the day all felt like winners because they were participating in such a special event to celebrate their community in the North East, the surfing community at large and their passion for surfing. At a time when our lives have been drastically affected by the global pandemic, surfing has boomed, as we search for healthy escapism and a connection to nature and to each other. Seeing people come together in this way across generations to support surfers riding waves and witnessing the athletes lifting each other with genuine support, was a beautiful representation of the positive benefits of this sport and lifestyle, and of the importance of community.
‘Why does the contest have to end?’ asked Bo, as the final prizes were awarded and spectators dispersed to walk dogs, enjoy the stunning beach, or seek refreshments in Crusoe’s café. He summed up the feeling of us all. The surfers, judges, Tynemouth Surf Co. team, the crowds, the families supporting their competitors, North Tyneside Council, the RNLI, NSVL, and Tynemouth’s stunning coast had all united to create an event of which to be proud; not just in the spectacle of the surfing itself, but in the spirit of the entire competition that shone as bright as the sun all weekend. After a very challenging time over the course of the past twenty months, this felt like a community looking to a future full of renewed energy and hope, with the young surfers leading the charge.
Stephen Hudson would indeed have been proud.
Tynemouth Open Surf Contest, in memory of Stephen Hudson, we will see you next year!