ROGER COX Gallery images

Wave Power

Published: The Scotsman (Section: TSMAG) 05 Nov 2005

It started as a cult event 20 years ago – now Tiree’s annual windsurfing contest attracts surfers from all over the world

IT’S LUNCHTIME on the first day of the 2005 Tiree Wave Classic, Scotland’s premier windsurfing competition. According to the official programme, today is set aside for registration and an opening party – there isn’t supposed to be any action until tomorrow. However, King Neptune has other ideas. A hefty ten- foot swell is battering the island’s west coast and winds of up to 30mph are whistling in from the south-east. The rumour doing the rounds at the event HQ at the Tiree Lodge Hotel is that the Classic is going to start a day early.

The 50-odd competitors, some of whom have only just arrived on the ferry from Oban, mill around the hotel’s dining room. Duncan Coombs, one of the judges, returns from a reconnaissance mission to the other side of the island to report that conditions are looking promising at a spot called the Maze. “I think we’re maybe going to start it today,” he says, half under his breath. Eventually, event organiser Andy Groom announces that the Pro Men’s Wave Sailing Competition is to begin at 2pm. Everyone pours out of the hotel, jumps into an assortment of cars and vans and heads west.

Located between Kilkenneth to the north and Sandaig to the south, the Maze is a stunning crescent-shaped beach with rocky points at either end. It isn’t an easy place to access – its name refers to the labyrinth of hillocks that separate it from the main road – but thankfully none of the competitors gets lost en route to the contest site.

On top of the cliffs at the south end of the bay the sailors are struggling to prepare their equipment in the stiff breeze. Meanwhile, out in the water, a few early birds are already taking advantage of the meaty waves peeling towards the beach. The previous year’s amateur champion, Scott McDowall, turns a few heads by pulling off a backward loop, blasting up the face of a wave, spinning heels-over-head in mid-air and landing effortlessly on the other side. He is soon joined by several pros, anxious to get a feel for the place before the first round heats begin.

The inaugural Tiree Wave Classic was held in 1986 after Groom and his business partner, Joe Kelly, with whom he ran a windsurfing shop in Glasgow, recognised the island’s potential.

“In the early days there was no real rule book to follow,” Groom remembers. “The event wasn’t PR’d, it wasn’t marketed and there wasn’t a TV crew. It was just a word-on-the-street thing.

“It developed a real cult following though and every year the event got stronger, to the point where it was no longer ‘our little event’ – it became sanctioned by the national body, the UK Windsurfing Association.”

These days, the Classic is a major week-long festival. There are opportunities to try out activities ranging from windsurfing, surfing and kitesurfing to blo-karting and stealth catamaran sailing. Funded to the tune of GBP 42,000 by Event Scotland, Argyll and Bute Council and Argyll and Islands Enterprise, the Classic is estimated to be worth GBP 420,000 a year to the local economy, and that’s before taking into account the vital role it plays in promoting the island to the wider world. When the Classic was cancelled in 1996, tourism figures dipped, so the islanders got together and persuaded Groom to start it up again. When the event returned in 2001, tourism figures immediately rose.

In the beginning, the Classic only consisted of one category – Wave Sailing – where the aim of the game is to perform the most extreme manoeuvres in the most critical part of a breaking wave. These days, however, there are two further categories: Freestyle, an anything-goes format where points are awarded for artistic interpretation, and Supercross, a Grand National-style race over a course defined by marker buoys with big inflatable sausages to jump over instead of fences. The sailor who performs best over the three events is declared the overall winner.

When the waves are big, Wave Sailing heats can take place; when the surf is flat but there’s still plenty of wind, the Supercross event can run, and even if there are no waves and only light winds, the Freestyle competition can be held, although according to another of the judges, Julian Da Vall, “large helpings of both [wind and waves] can really make things interesting”.

On Tiree, with beaches facing in all directions, the event organisers can usually find the conditions they need somewhere on the island. Unfortunately, not all the beaches can be used for the competition.

“There’s a very, very small percentage of the crofters that just won’t let anybody near their land,” says Groom. “It’s not windsurfers – it’s people, any kind of tourist – and it causes a lot of problems. To use the Maze we pay a private owner GBP 400 a day to drive down his track.”

Back at the Maze, watching the pros flying across the waves as the grey, stormy afternoon turns into a hazy, sepia-tinted evening, that GBP 400 starts to seem like good value for money. In each heat, competitors have eight minutes to impress the judges, and their best two waves count. After sailing out through the towering surf they cruise up and down, waiting for the bigger set waves to rear up on the horizon. Then, when they’ve made their choice, they turn towards shore and race the wave in from deep water until it begins to rear up behind them. There’s a stomach-churning drop, a steep turn at the bottom, and – if they’re not bulldozed by the white water – a triumphant ride to the beach punctuated by sweeping, spray-flinging hooks under the lip.

In the 20-minute final, the Spanish rider Jonas Ceballos Sanchez is pitted against three Englishmen – John Skye, Ben Proffitt and Phil Horrocks. Proffitt snags a couple of strong early rides and then spends much of the rest of the heat waiting to see if any of the other finalists can better them. They can’t, so Proffitt moves into an early lead in the overall standings.

The finalists are all good-humoured as they stand shivering on the podium after the event, but there’s something not quite right: where are all the Scots? The lack of local windsurfing talent is something that bothers Groom.

“We’re trying desperately to get more of the local kids involved,” he says, “but they have an inbuilt fear of water. There’s no swimming pool on Tiree, their parents don’t swim and they don’t take them down to the beach. The local guys who windsurf here should be getting their asses kicked by 12-year-old rippers but they’re not.”

There’s no reason why, 20 years from now, Tiree shouldn’t be bursting at the seams with talented homegrown watermen and women – gifted all-rounders who have grown up swimming, surfing and windsurfing in one of the most challenging aquatic playgrounds in the country. Building a swimming pool on the island wouldn’t make that happen overnight, but it might be a step in the right direction.

FACT FILE: TIREE

How to get there

Caledonian MacBrayne runs a regular, year-round ferry service from Oban to Tiree via Coll. For details, tel: 08705 650000 or visit www.calmac.co.uk

WHERE TO STAY

The two main hotels are the Tiree Lodge Hotel at Gott Bay, tel: 01879 220368, and the Scarinish Hotel in Scarinish, tel: 01879 220308. For details of B&B and self-catering accommodation, tel: 08707 200 600 or log on to www.visitscotland.com

AND THERE’S MORE

For information on the Tiree Wave Classic, including pictures from this year’s event, visit www.tireewaveclassic.com For details of other watersports available on the island, visit www.visitscotland.com/adventure

Leave a Reply