Finisterre: Cold Water Surf Pioneers

On the surface it doesn’t seem like Breaks and Finisterre have a lot in common. Granted, this is the first surfing piece we’ve ran, and I’d hasten to say it won’t be the last, but there was something about the brands story that really spoke to us. It’s no secret that the Breaks crew come from an action sports background, all of us are proficient at at least one boardsport, and a few of us (very rarely) surf.

That isn’t it though, there are other reasons we’re interested in Finisterre’s story and it’s because there are more parallels than the love of boardsports. For one, they’re iconoclasts, forging their own industry around Cold Water Surfing, a niche band of a globally recognized sport. It’s the same as us, when we launched over two years ago, everyone told us our original content / quarterly issue structure would never work, we’ve evolved since then, but it put us on the map in much the same way that Finisterre’s CWS kit is doing for them. They’re also British and independent presenting further parallels between them and us.

We were contacted by the brand a while back in the wake of the release of their new Cold Water Surf range and the level of investment they’re putting in something that may have never had a name before, but always existed. UK surfing is not the loud shorts, hang 10 paradise of its California birthplace, but that isn’t putting anyone off and it’s amazed me that it’s taken this long for a brand to build clothes and kit to help these pioneers survive.

But Finisterre have, and it’s fantastic.

Talk us through Finisterre, and how you guys started?

Tom Kay started Finisterre back in 2002, with little money and in the attic of a little cottage on the north coast of Cornwall. He designed a waterproof fleece that people who spent time along the coast and in the sea could stay warm in and began selling the waterproof fleece at the London boat show to get the business up and running. In 2006, he began building a team around him to build a brand and a product range for surfers. It was around this time that the idea of cold water surfing began to take shape.

Was there a real gaping gap in the market that you wanted to fill? 

There are 2 options brands have, they have the option to join categories i.e. join the warm water surf category, join the energy drinks category, join the portable computers category or they have the option to build new categories i.e. Quiksilver (with the help of O’Neill, Ripcurl and Billabong) built the surf category, Red Bull built the energy drinks category, apple built the portable computers category and Finisterre is building the cold water surf category.

This is one of the main reasons you can’t find a definition for CWS, because there isn’t one – it is all so new. I bet the accessibility of information on packet switching in the early 1960’s was tough to get a hold of. It was 20 years later, that packet switching became one of the fundamental networking technologies behind the internet. My point, people were building something in the early 60’s that eventually became defined as the internet, same as people have been travelling to cold water surf spots for years and living and surfing within these environments. It’s only now that we’re calling this cold water surfing.

The question then is, what are the products cold water surfers need and who are the brands that are going to build these products and as a direct effect, build a cold water surf industry – think about it.

What did the first seasons look like, you surely didn’t come out with a full range? 

We did not. The first range was built in 2006 and its inspiration was to build technical clothing that surfers could wear.

How long have you been going for now? 

About 12 years now

What were some of the early challenges you faced with the brand? 

Seeding technical products into surf retail was tough, the market wasn’t ready for it and at the time, war water surfing was at it’s height, so the idea of surfing cold, perfect uncrowded waves and buying the right product for it (product for both in and out of the water), wasn’t necessarily on anyone’s mind – but we believed in it and continued to push it.

Has it got easier as you’ve grown or harder? 

There is always a challenge, nothing worth doing is easy and all that. It has been tough, probably tougher than we would have ever imagined, but nothing ever really gets in the way of belief – we believed that there were cold water surf spots worth surfing and that we had to build products to keep people alive in these conditions.

To most, surfing is surfing. Hanging loose, shorts, hot weather, but for most of the world, that isn’t the case. What are some of the fundamental differences between surfing and cold water surfing, aside from the water temperature?

With cold water surfing, it requires two types of products, products to live in these remote, below freezing, wet, windy places and products to surf these places – we are specialising in the former and we believe the latter is only scratching the surface.

The background of CWS. If it wasn’t for Jack O’Neill and the first wetsuits, being able to surf in cold water wouldn’t have evolved as it has. In saying this, these were wetsuits designed to surf in cold waters, not so much cold wet environments. So back in the day, the majority of cold water surfing was happening in areas like northern California, Australia, where the water temperatures can get cold, but the land temperature is warm.

CWS origins come from cold waters and warm land temperatures, but as CWS has grown over the years, so to has the regions of the globe that people are living in and also traveling to and the products required to both live and surf within these environments has not grown with it.

If you look at the quality of cold water surf products the surf industry makes (focusing more on the products required to travel and live within cold water surf spots), the standard isn’t remotely close to where it needs to be. CWS environments require bombproof products to handle the conditions a cold water surf environment comprises of and therefor many cold water surfers go to brands outside there own industry to buy these products. In saying this, the products designed by brands outside of the cold water surf industry are designed for a different purpose, they’re not right, they function differently – this is why we started Finisterre.

The cold water surf industry is happening, people are going to Alaska, islands off Vancouver, the Kamchatka Peninsula, Nova Scotia, Scandinavia and the list goes on, we now have to build better products to surf these environments and we have to start making products to live in these environments – it is such an exciting time.

The reasons people do it – why do people hang off the North Face of the Eiger? Why do people swim across the Channel? Why do people attempt to break the 4minute mile? Why do people fly thousands of miles to atolls in the middle of an ocean with very little running water and no hospitals to surf? Why do people cold water surf – some do it because they live in these areas and are influenced by it and others love the chance – to explore a cold coastline, that has never been surfed, with the chance to surf a world class cold wave, this is what drives us. The same feelings are what fuelled people to explore warm water surf spots over 60 years ago and an industry was born, the same is happening right now, only in cold water surf spots and we now have to support this exploration with the right products.

Talk to us about the Cold Water Surf Range, what prompted you to start that? 

All of surfing is dependent on the forecast – right tides, right wind direction, right swell direction, so this is where surfing starts, but then you add the depth of winter, with -15 wind chill and some remote area of the planet with very little running water and electricity and the real difficulty is dealing with the cold and the many different types of weather that’s thrown at you. The challenge is being properly rigged up, having the right products in order to chase the thing you love – which is to surf uncrowded cold waves.

It all comes down to geography with cold water surfing. People can climb hills in their backyards, but in order to climb mountains, they have to travel (not all but the majority) to remote locations with the right products to do the thing they love most. It is the same with cold water surfing. People do it around the UK coastline, the North East and Northwest of the Americas etc, but if they want to get uncrowded beautiful waves, they have to travel to places more remote and this is why we make the products we do and why more brands have to begin building more products for cold water surfing. We need cold water surf brands creating stoves, we need brands creating boots, we need brands creating sleeping bags, but ones that address the needs of cold water surfers and fulfill these needs with specific design features, until they decide to show up, Finisterre will lead it – it’s happening, can you imagine what the future will look like?

One of the pieces I’m really interested in is the merino lined denim, tell me more about them. What’s the idea? 

People told us not to fuck with denim, they said it had been done. People also told Steve Jobs not to fuck with phones and look what happened there. Our denim is built specifically around the way a cold water surfer interacts with his/her environment. The pockets are larger so hypothermic hands can access them easier. We’ve brushed the inside so that the inner merino is raised, wicking away sea water and providing warmth. They are not denim, they are not trousers, they are cold water denim. We believe and we encourage other brands to begin building them, get more styles out there, grow the idea and supply the need for them.

What’s the deal with your wetsuits? Companies like O’Neill invented the wetsuit, and are continually pushing it, where does Finisterre fit within that market? What’s missing from the current market? 

We believe there are wetsuits built to surf in cold water. We do not believe there are cold water wetsuits, wetsuits built to function both in and out of a cold water surf environment. O’Neill started wetsuits on the west coast of California, water temps were low, land temps were high and these suits would be dry in an hour or so. In cold water surf environments, the water is cold, the land is even colder and cold water wetsuits have to be built around both factors – land and sea. That is what we’re doing – we will be introducing the world’s first cold water wetsuit, we believe it will change everything.

What are some of the ethical qualities that you guys hold that make up Finisterre as a brand and an entity? 

We just do good business, we build great relationships with all our suppliers and we make responsible decisions. It really simple, people talk about ethical and eco and CRM and being green and offsetting things by planting trees – all of this is good, but if we could do good business from the start, then there would be less need to do all these other things to pick up the pieces/cover up the damage done. If there were one thing we would say to other businesses, it would be to build great relationships, work with responsible, good people – you’d be amazed with the results.

I’m looking forward to the wetsuits and the CWS range, but beyond that, what’s the next frontier for Finisterre?  

To grow cold water surfing, to make it an industry as big as warm water surfing, but to do it with a different approach, a more responsible one, cold water surfing is happening, it’s all around us.

Photos: Al Mackinnon
Words: Tom Kirkby

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