Dawn Days: Riding the Waves with Photographer Nick Pumphrey

Dawn Days: Riding the Waves with Photographer Nick Pumphrey

Nick Pumphrey is the Cornish photographer behind Dawn Days, a photographic project focusing on the connection between man and sea. We caught up with him to talk about the healing power of ritual, finding beauty in discipline and what’s on the horizon

says that it takes an average of 21 days for a behaviour
to become a habit. When the pandemic hit, we were all forced to
slow down and take a deeper look inward. For most, the uncertain
road ahead provoked feelings of anxiety and a loss of control –
sensations that naturally led to the forming of new habits. This
was certainly true for Nick Pumphrey. Born and raised in St Ives,
Cornwall, Pumphrey has always lived close to the ocean, but it
wasn’t until he found himself craving a sense of calm that the
power of being out on the water became clear.

Pumphrey, an avid surfer and professional photographer, is
behind the Dawn Days movement – a project that celebrates the joys
of being present and finding stillness in the water. Faced with
limited time allowed outside during the dark days of the pandemic
(remember those state-sanctioned hour-long walks?), Pumphrey began
waking at dawn, squeezing into a wetsuit, grabbing his camera and
heading out into the waves – all in the hope of capturing the
sunrise from the sea. When he started sharing a selection of snaps
and learnings from his daily adventures on social media, he found a
receptive audience.

The positive benefits that came from the ritual inspired the
photographer to continue the challenge during the winter months,
often accompanied by his friend and collaborator James Warbey.
Together, the pair conquered 111 dawns. We caught up with Pumphrey
to talk about the project and find out what lies ahead.

Blue hour: in conversation with Cornish photographer Nick

Nick Pumphrey, Self-Portrait
Water Awel, Nick Pumphrey

A self-portrait of Nick, left, and a snapshot of rippled

Where are you from and what inspiration do you take from

I’ve lived in St Ives since I was six months old. Me and my
sister were brought up on the beach. As a child, I was scared of
the water – I learned to swim later than most. I started surfing
when I was 10, and that’s when my connection with the ocean was

Tell us about the project.

It wasn’t planned – it wasn’t meant to be anything. It was a
personal ritual to help me become more comfortable, calmer and
reduce my anxiety. I wanted to feel motivated and create a routine
of sorts – something I’d never had. Initially, I planned to start
getting in the water in April 2020, but I missed the month. May
arrived, and I thought, here goes. I set my alarm, drove to the
beach in the dark, swam out with my camera and photographed until
the sun came up. There was no intention other than to move and
capture the canvas of the sunrise. Ultimately, it was a project to
help me, but it ended up helping other people, too.

What is it about the water that calms you?

I think it comes from being by the ocean from such a young age.
I feel happy when I’m in or by the sea. It’s hard to describe
unless you live in a coastal environment, but it definitely shapes
your identity. I was in London for a week recently, which was
great, but I had a sudden urge to escape the intensity and retreat
to the ocean. The sea is a living thing: there’s an energy that
settles everything – it’s a reset.

Why dawn?

It felt like a challenge. The sunrise can both impact mood and
align the circadian rhythm, which in turn can create huge benefits
for the human body. I was lazy. I now recognise that waking up
earlier is hugely influential on our thoughts and behaviour. I’d be
pretty tired sometimes, but looking forward to the western morning
sky gave me a burst of adrenaline to get into the water.

Nick Pumphrey, Nej
Nick, Pumphrey, Water

Birds at dawn, left, and the first beams of light shimmer
across the water.

Did you ever get cold feet?

We did the Dawn Days of Winter – 111 dawns through the coldest
months of the year. Some days, the temperature plummeted below
zero. The north-east winds are strong and can often be fierce.
There were times in the first 10 days when I thought, what am I
doing? But my stubbornness and determination propelled me. There
were times when the water was so cold that I couldn’t feel my lips
– the cold was everywhere. It’s a different experience. You have to
be fast and understand what the body can physically endure. I went
in every time.

Were there any surprising benefits?

I hadn’t been sleeping properly, but the natural morning light
reset my body clock within a week. A friend of mine hadn’t slept
properly in 16 years. Within five days of his joining me in the
water, his wife came to me, astonished that he’d been sleeping
soundly. It makes sense that our loss of connection to nature and
increased screen time throw us off-balance. Nature nourishes our
bodies, with the light telling us when to start moving and when
it’s time to slow down. We should all connect with it more.

How did people respond to your updates?

A network formed naturally. Lots of people were getting
involved, including creatives that I’d never met before. Since
then, I’ve met a handful of people who followed the story – it’s
been amazing. It’s taught me to go for it and always put things out
there. I followed my intuition and it worked. It was an incredibly
simple thing for me to do – a straightforward practice – but doing
this has connected me to all kinds of inspiring people.

Nick Pumphrey, Arnewa
Nick Pumphrey, water

A dramtic wave, left, and underwater bubbles.

Are you still doing it?

Not daily. I’ve always imagined I’ll do another stint – possibly
this winter. I enjoy the immersion of it. It took me a long time to
appreciate the beauty in discipline. I’m free-flowing in every
other aspect of my life, but it’s been rewarding to commit to a
healthy routine. I’ve found other doors open when I have a balanced
and positive mindset.

How did you choose which pictures to share?

It was very random. I’d get back home at 6.30am, make a coffee
and sit down with my laptop. The idea of sharing 10 photos started
unintentionally and then stuck. I wanted to post to Instagram by
8am, because I knew this would be the best time to capture a wider
audience. Midway through the month of May, I found my ego creeping
into the picture, and something that had started with pure
intentions became tarnished by the overwhelming pressure to create
something bigger and better. A conversation with my dad was a real
pivotal moment. He reminded me why I started – to enjoy the ride –
and that I didn’t need to chase an unattainable goal. That was a
big lesson, which ultimately stopped me from slipping back into the
place that the ritual had lifted me from.

What’s next for the project?

I’ve created a book from the initial days, which is more of a
reflection space for myself. Each page has a photograph accompanied
by a written entry from that day. I wish I’d journalled more at the
time. I hope to do exhibitions on the sea in the future. Watch this

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