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A Swell Time

Published: The Scotsman (TSMAG) 12 Nov 2005

South East Scotland – The Big Wave Challenge

WHEN most people think of big waves they imagine Hawaii or California – not the south-east coast of Scotland. But at some point between now and Christmas, conditions permitting, Dunbar-based surfer Sam Christopherson plans to stage the region’s inaugural big wave surfing competition, the Big Wave Challenge.

Open to men and women, the contest will be run on the first weekend in November or December with a swell of 8ft or more and favourable winds. The winner will receive a small cash prize and large dollops of respect from his or her peers.

Wave and wind patterns can be hellishly difficult to predict, but Christopherson, who has been surfing in the area for 15 years, says he’s “pretty confident” that the right conditions will materialise.

“The biggest waves we’ve ever surfed around here have been two and a half times overhead – that’s 15ft on the face,” he says. “But there are only a couple of places that hold waves that big on our coastline, and most of the time they’re a bit smaller.”

The most likely venues for the event are White Sands Beach near Dunbar and the daunting reef break at Skateraw, just next-door to Torness Nuclear Power Station.

“Skateraw’s our big wave spot,” he says. “It’s the only place I’ve surfed at that kind of size and that I’ve seen work at that kind of size. The big days tend to be quite few and far between, but it tends to be November and December when it will break that big.”

Christopherson likens Skateraw to Mavericks, the fabled big wave spot at Half Moon Bay in California which claimed the life of surfing legend Mark Foo on an 18 to 20ft day in 1994. Like Mavericks, the waves at Skateraw rear up out of deep water and break onto a shallow reef. The two spots also share the same menacing aura. An American surf journalist once described Mavericks as “like Edward Scissorhands’ mansion”, and Christopherson talks of a similarly forbidding vibe at Skateraw.

“It’s a sketchy place to be,” he says. “Because you’re next to the power station it feels like you shouldn’t be there anyway, and when it’s big there’s lots of water moving about over a relatively uneven reef so you know if you don’t get it right it can all go a bit Pete Tong.”

Christopherson learned to surf in Cornwall when he was “really young”. Now 32, he runs the Coast to Coast Surf School in Dunbar, helping beginners ride their first waves at Belhaven Beach and taking parties of intermediate and advanced surfers to more challenging spots further afield.

Coast to Coast also boasts Scotland’s first junior surfing programme, which not only teaches children how to stand up on a board but also how to surf competitively. The goal is to produce surfers who can compete at both a British and international standard in years to come.

In spite of his efforts to bring on the next generation, however, Christopherson reckons there are only a handful of local surfers who will be able to handle a really big day at Skateraw.

“There are probably half a dozen guys who can handle big waves down here,” he says. “If the swell’s slightly smaller – maybe double overhead – then you could probably attract 20 to 25 surfers from down here. Much above that and I’m having to attract people from other regions. There are quite a lot of people up in Aberdeen and in Thurso who surf some solid waves up there, but it really depends on whether they want to make the journey down here.”

The format of the Big Wave Challenge will vary depending on what the waves are doing. If the conditions are epic, the prize money (the amount is still to be confirmed) will simply go to the best ride of the day.

If the waves are smaller, however, there will be a conventional knockout competition, with surfers facing off in timed heats and receiving marks for the size of waves they catch, the length of their rides and the manoeuvres they perform.

Of the all the surfers Christopherson expects to enter the competition, three stand out as possible winners: “One of the guys really charging down here is Damon Hewitt,” he says.

“He used to be a bodyboarder and he’s still got that bodyboard mentality now that he’s surfing, which is just: ‘go for it, over the falls, it doesn’t matter’. There are a few others – a guy called Euan Bruce is pretty good and so is Chris Cook. Outside those three, you’re kind of hitting the next level down.”

Giant surf can be a great leveller, though, so the Big Wave Challenge may yet throw up a surprise or two.

For more information about the Big Wave Challenge, tel: 07971 990361 or 01368 869734; or visit Coast to Coast’s website at

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