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Published: The Scotsman (Section: TSMAG) 18 April 2009

With the lure of joining the pros as the prize, Scotland’s best surfers rise to the occasion

IT’S 1pm on the second and final day of the 2009 Scottish Surfing Championships, and the best surfers in the country are gathered in a farmyard-cum-car park, overlooking the fabled reefbreak known throughout the surfing universe as Thurso East. In an ideal world there would be perfect, hollow waves spitting and reeling along this kelp-covered rock slab, but today: nothing. A few heats were held here early in the morning in smallish surf, but now the sea looks worryingly calm.

Thurso East is Scotland’s premier wave, but it only works in a big swell. There are other spots in the area which should be surfable under these marginal conditions, however, so contest director Chris Noble and his team are going to have to up sticks and transport their entire operation to a different beach. And with only a few hours to go until dark, and lots of heats still to run, they will have to move fast.

“I know this isn’t what a lot of you guys are going to want to hear,” Noble tells the assembled competitors, “but we’re going to get this event finished today, even if it’s in the ugliest waves you can imagine.”

In years gone by, there wouldn’t have been any great rush to crown a Scottish surfing champ, but times have changed. Since 2006, the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) has held a major contest in Thurso every spring – the O’Neill Highland Open – and offered a first round “wildcard” berth to that year’s best Scots rider. With the 2009 pro contest just weeks away, the Scottish Surfing Federation (SSF) needs to select a representative to compete against the big boys, and soon, preferably today.

When the surf is too small for Thurso East, there are usually surfable waves at Brims Ness – a nearby reef open to the full force of the North Atlantic. The surf here is reported to be more powerful but also lumpy and unpredictable because it’s exposed to the wind, so in the end, Noble gambles and calls the contest on at Melvich – a beachbreak half an hour’s drive to the west. Within seconds, a convoy of surf mobiles is bouncing out of the farmyard and heading for the coast road.

The arrival of the ASP event in Thurso in 2006 wasn’t to everyone’s liking. Sure, local surfers would get to see the best in the world riding their waves, but they would also have spectacular pictures of their favourite spots plastered all over the surfing media, potentially sending hordes of foreign surfers high-tailing it to the north coast of Scotland.

At the SSF’s AGM, held at the end of the first day of this year’s Scottish Surfing Championships at Thurso’s Tempest surf shop and cafe, the general consensus seems to be that the media feeding frenzy surrounding the ASP contest has definitely resulted in more crowded waves, but that the thing is here to stay, so the Scottish surfing community may as well try to get something out of it.

The SSF is very keen to foster youth development. At one point it looked as if event sponsors, O’Neill, were going to get some of the pros competing in the 2009 event to put on masterclasses for young Scottish surfers at beaches all around the country, but now, the humongous multinational retailer claims it no longer has the budget for such altruistic acts. Credit crunch or no, it would surely be a nice gesture – a way of putting something back into a surfing community that has, on the whole, welcomed the pro surfing circus with open arms.

Melvich is a beautiful surfing spot – a huge sweep of white sand – and it’s a relief to see small but perfectly formed waves breaking in front of the rivermouth at its eastern end.

As the tide pushes in, the waves get a little bigger until, by the time the four-man final hits the water, they’re shoulder-to-head high and peeling into the river with machine-like precision. Fraserburgh’s George Watt takes an early lead, surfing with real power and style – at just 21 years old, he’s surely one of the brightest hopes for the future of Scottish surfing. In the end, though, he is narrowly beaten by last year’s champion, Mark “Scratch” Cameron, 31, who pulls off a spectacular 360 to clinch first place.

“I’m obviously delighted to have come out on top,” Cameron says, at an awards ceremony at the nearby Halladale Inn, “particularly when such a good crew of surfers came up for the competition.”

Last year, Cameron narrowly missed out on causing a major upset in the first round of the Highland Open with a brave display of tube riding. Does he think he can do something similar this year?

“It’s a great experience to come up here and see all the pro surfers,” he says. “They’re really good compared to me, so it boosts my surfing, having to compete with them. So, we’ll see.” sm

The O’Neill Highland Open, Thurso, 29 April until 6 May. For more information, visit www.oneilleurope.com/highlandopen

To watch a short film about the 2009 Scottish Surfing Championships, visit www.scotsman.com/video-archive

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