PHOTOS | JAMES NORMAN
The seaside town of Tynemouth in England’s northeast is described as damn near faultless on a should-I-live-here website. I’m convinced it is. Named for the opening of the River Tyne to the North Sea, it is home to Sally, the quietly passionate soul who runs the Yonder surf training academy for women with her husband Tom and son Billy in tow. When they’re not staking out iconic swell literally all over the world, they travel up and down the coast in a charming van, putting on fully catered surf camps for all skill levels, beginners and above.
She fosters community and camaraderie wherever she goes, and has fought hard to make a life that works for her and her family. They’re living the genuine-article lifestyle; it’s not just overlaid with a flimsy veneer of ‘style’. Oh, and she’s good friends with the women of VC London and has spoken on a panel with Olympic cycling medalist Victoria Pendleton and the photographer/Petrolette Amy Shore.
Her vehicles are loved and hated and used and pushed, and (with maintenance and love) keep her coming and going, doing what she loves. It takes a special kind of person to prioritise that which makes them most alive.
Sally is a rare gem.
JO McEWAN: What came first: traversing the ocean or the land?
SALLY McGEE: Definitely the ocean. I’ve surfed since I was eighteen but it became a huge part of my life when my now husband Tom and I started exploring places together. We really encouraged and pushed each other and pretty much put surfing at the centre of everything we did. Riding dirt bikes came about because of surfing. We’d ridden bikes in Indonesia whilst out on surf trips and realised it was totally possible to ride with a board, from that, we decided to take it to another level and ride from Chile to North America, surfing the Pacific Ocean as we went.
JM: Is that why you started riding motorcycles?
SM: I got my bike licence about a week before we flew to Santiago to embark on the 16,000 mile (25,000 km) long trip. I’d ridden before but really wanted to make sure I had the proper training and qualification under my belt before we went but yeah, I definitely cut it fine ha. It was an intensive love affair with the Honda XR 150 dirt bike from there - riding every single day on all sorts of terrain meant I learnt pretty quickly how to ride and be confident.
JM: How did that conversation start (to quit your jobs, sell a lot of your stuff, and go riding and surfing for twelve months on 149cc bikes)?
SM: The idea to go essentially came from Tom. He was working in a school at the time, teaching and hating pretty much every minute of it. He was fast going from a very relaxed laid back person to an unhappy, stressed out one. Tom was teaching art and photography but all he wanted to do was take pictures himself that he was proud of, build his portfolio and have an adventure, step away from the nine to five. Me, I was absolutely sold on the idea of surfing every day but it was definitely scary quitting ‘good’ respectable jobs and heading to the completely unknown. We were pretty naive I think but I also think that’s why it ended up being such a great adventure.
JM: How does one plan a trip of this magnitude?
SM: I don’t think it’s really possible. We tried and thought we had it all in hand but quickly realised that everything we planned in terms of routes and timings changed anyway. We were very spontaneous, if we liked a place, we’d stay. If we didn’t, we’d move on and think of it as days in a savings account for a place we wanted to spend them. We talked to a lot of people and tried to plan the next few days or week ahead, with paper maps and a GPS system. In the end it all came down to swell. We needed to be in Central America for swell season: as a rough guide we’d make miles when it was flat and stay put to surf when there was swell.
JM: What was the most nerve-racking part of the trip?
SM: I hadn’t ridden a motorcycle much at all before we embarked on the trip so I was pretty nervous about that, especially as the plan or aim was to travel so far on one. When we first arrived in Chile and met our now friend and former Dakar racer, Alejandro Briones, he was definitely amazed that we were about to attempt the journey and was particularly concerned about some of the desert passes through northern Chile… he talked to us a lot about what routes he thought we should take. When we finally reached the desolate Atacama desert I completely understood his concerns. The magnitude of the emptiness was unbelievable; the choice between the terrifying highway with horrific side winds and semis hurtling towards you in both directions, sucking you into their wind and spitting you out with a near-fatal wobble every time, or the endless empty trails that run through the barren wilderness. We did both to get through that desert. Neither were much fun but we made it and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.
JM: A lot of motorcyclists talk about riding as a zen experience, providing a way to both focus and escape. Does riding have this effect on you or does it offer something else?
SM: Surfing does… but I’d saying riding bikes for me is often quite exhausting as you are constantly thinking about everything around you, especially in many of the countries we travelled through, full of potholes, winding blind corners with trucks hurtling past or goat tracks full of boulders and deep sand to traverse. If you are on an endless empty road then it’s definitely pretty zen and you have time to take it all in. I remember parts of Chile feeling like this: ocean on one side, cliffs on the other and endless empty roads with nothing but time to think… and listen to podcasts. We both learned a lot from podcasts.
JM: How would you describe the sensation of surfing to someone whose only experience of it is watching Keanu in Point Break?
SM: There are many reasons why I surf but I honestly think the best thing about it is that you can’t really think about anything other than what you are doing in that moment. The other stuff just has to be put somewhere else. I definitely surf to experience the elements too - here on the north east coast of England it’s cold, the water is cold, the air is cold, you could happily stay indoors all day to avoid the weather sometimes but for me surfing gets you out amongst it and makes you feeling truly invigorated.
JM: Does it hurt more to fall off a board or a bike?
SM: I did pretty well at staying on my bike to be honest - I think I’m a careful rider - I am great however at wiping out on a surfboard but am way more fearless about that prospect as I’m so used to it. It can definitely hurt though, and the fear of losing your breath is very real (especially on the heavy spots) but the thought of falling off my bike on some of those roads with huge trucks was terrifying!
JM: You have a Talbot campervan that allows you to take Yonder on the road. When and how did the van come into your lives? Has it been easy to maintain and repair?
SM: I love the Talbot but it can be a nightmare. It came from an old guy who’d packed it full of problems that we (and most of our friends) have been trying to fix since we got it. It’s an on-going project but when it works it’s amazing. The van came to us at such a perfect time, it feels a bit like it was meant to happen. It’s such a huge part of my business now though we never planned it that way. I am very grateful for it. We have always had vans: a ford transit, a VW T25, a VW T4 and now the Talbot. I’ll never be without a van again but we sold our T4 to help pay for the trip but when we returned home we didn't have enough money to buy one and it felt strange to not be able to just pack up and head away. We actually went to pick up a £150 Skoda from an elderly fella across the river and he had the van in his driveway and said that he was looking to get rid. At this point I was eight months pregnant and didn't care at all about a nursery for our newborn but felt very strongly that he needed a van (I felt convinced about that). I wanted Billy our son to grow up surrounded by everything we love doing and have it a huge part of his childhood and I knew we needed a van for that.
JM: Has your lifestyle changed since baby Billy arrived?
SM: It’s definitely harder to do the things we love doing but we do keep doing them. He doesn’t get much choice in just coming with us. At thirteen months he’d already been to Europe, Asia, Australasia, and Africa. He spent most of his crawling phase playing with stones around reefs in front of waves while one of us surfed. He loves the outdoors, motorbikes and being on the beach. It’s hard for us both to sit still and not do what we love. We’re not natural parents in that way but we try and we are hoping that Billy will grow up loving his lifestyle with us.
JM: Where to next?
SM: I’ve got a load of Yonder camps planned for the summer, on the south west coast and in Wales, then Wheels and Waves with Tom and Billy and the Dirt Track Riders Association, then Yonder camps in Morocco through November and December. We hope to head to Cali at some point too! Lots to do with both Tom’s photography business and the surf school so we just plan to keep doing what we love and holding it together as a little family.
Jo is a buxom redhead looking for adventure. She loves her motor children equally, and if you ask really nicely, she might let you take them for a spin. Easily distractible, but also easily obsessed, she is our Editor-in-Chief, resident proof-reader, and zany ideas lady. Caffeine is her fuel of choice.