Cold Water Surfing Snowy Beach

An image from Chris Nelson's book Cold Water Souls. Photo: Tommy Colla


The Inertia

Chris Nelson grew up surfing the cold and often frost covered beaches along the Yorkshire coastline in the North Sea. There is something about growing up surfing cold water that breeds an overabundance of stoke. During the ’90s he put that stoke and energy into creating “Asylum”, the UK’s first free sport magazine and then onto “Freeride”, the UK’s first boarding lifestyle publication. It seems that each decade brought a new incarnation of Chris’ enthusiasm for surfing. The 2000s brought a series of best selling surf travel guides with his partner and co-author in crime Demi Taylor. The beginning of this decade brought one more publication: “Cold Water Souls”, a book about cold water surf culture from around the globe. The book was a huge success. Then his focus changed from writing and publishing to film. So began the creation of the London Surf Film Festival (LSFF). It is now over a month past the inaugural event, and the festival was considered a huge success. Keith Malloy’s film “Come Hell or High Water” walked away with the Best Film category. But more importantly was the introduction of the LSFF’s Shorties competition that celebrated homegrown talent and has given the local surf filmmakers a platform to bring their visions to the surf world and to inspire a new generation of budding filmmakers. Chris was coming off a three-week decompression upon the completion of the LSFF. Three weeks of no Internet, no email, some DIY and surfing.

When did you start surfing?

Chris Nelson: I started surfing back in the mid to late 80′s. I had to wait until I was old enough to drive to get to the beach, as I lived about an hour inland at the time.

What was your local spot?

I surfed on the Yorkshire coastline. There was only, one surf shop on the whole northeast coastline back then. My local break was a beach at Whitby called Sandsend, then progressed onto the local reefs. It’s a great area – loads of history, Captain Cook and Dracula country.

Can you remember the first surf film you ever watched?

I can’t remember the actual first one I watched but I do remember seeing guys like Pottz, Tom Curren, Tom Carroll and Barton Lynch on video in Hawaii and being blown away. I think Pottz might still have been English back then, which was an inspiration for us. He had ‘The Saint’ spray job on his board. The first ones I owned and watched again and again – they were of the Gripping Stuff, Rolling Thunder, Green Iguana era.

Up until recently it seems like surf films were strictly for home viewing. Has there been history of surf films being shown in the theaters in the UK? I know for us in NY there was hardly any film screenings in theaters until a few years ago. Do you find it to be the same?

The only films that made it to the big screen here are of the “Big Wednesday”, “Riding Giants” variety. There is a tradition of films in village halls, toured from town to town. I saw “Rolling Thunder” back in the day, and there were always the occasional classics screened. The other place that screened films were surf shops but often these were ‘brand’ films. Yet it’s amazing just how fantastic surf films work in a cinema environment.

What do you think it is about seeing a surf film in a cinema that makes it so special as opposed to a bar, surf shop or home?

Seeing it in a cinema just blows away any other way of veiwing it. It’s a bit like someone showing you a picture of raging Pipeline on an iPhone or being there on the beach to see it in person. I first saw “Finnsurf” as a vimeo version they sent, which was great, but seeing on the big screen blew me away. It pulls you in and engages you on so many levels. Also sitting in an audience that responds to the film, laughs at the humor, jumps at the shocking parts. It’s not just viewing something, it’s about being part of a happening.

You and your partner Demi started the “London Surf Film Festival.” At what point did you guys realize you wanted to put on a surf film festival in the UK? Was it a string of influences or one moment where you said, “We’ve got to do this”?

We’d always wanted to go to the Surfilm Festibal in San Sebastian but we always seemed to have book deadlines and we’d never managed to make it. We’d also seen that New York had an exciting and vibrant festival so it was a thing we’d kind of discussed for a while. When I was writing the US East Coast chapter of my book Cold Water Souls, I interviewed you about being a surfer from New York. Chatting with you about the festival in New York was a real catalyst and proved to be a spur. Demi and I started thinking “Why not here in the UK?” We could see there was a real demand for something like this. London seemed like the natural home for it. After writing about surfing and surf culture for nearly twenty years it felt like a natural progression. It’s an exciting time at the moment. There seems to be a movement of likeminded people who are working with filmmakers to promote surf movies like you and the guys at SMASH in NY, the Canadian Surf Film Festival, and Sancho in San Sebastian, Spain.

What were the challenges that you faced with doing a surf film festival in London?

Wow, where to start? Finding the right venue… sponsorship… there were so many logistical things involved in a year one project. But the biggest challenge was that so many great films came out this year that finding space for all the films we’d have liked to have had screened proved impossible. Ten films over three days were as much as we could cram in and there were some good films we just couldn’t find space for. We had nearly forty features submitted!

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