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Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 1 May 2010

IT’S 8am on the penultimate day of the O’Neill Coldwater Classic, the international surfing circus that visits Thurso every spring, and local surfer Chris Noble is sitting in his van at the contest site at Thurso East, expertly demolishing a bacon and egg roll and dreaming big dreams for Scotland’s waveriding future.

“I was told a long time ago ‘Oh, you’re never going to have a professional surfer in Scotland – it’s just not going to happen.’ But why not? At the end of the day we’ve got waves that are just as good as anywhere, and we can surf just as good as these guys.”

By “these guys,” Noble means professional surfers – the tanned ‘n’ toned army of aquatic athletes sponsored by multi-million dollar surf companies who tour the world’s best surf spots year after year, desperately battling for the contest points and prize money that will allow them to go on living the dream. Up until a couple of days ago, his claim that the best Scottish surfers are at the same level as their itinerant brethren from Australia and Hawaii might have raised a few incredulous eyebrows; now, though, it’s a proven fact.

On 14 April, Noble made surfing history when he became the first Scot to progress from the opening round of the Coldwater Classic since its inception in 2006. He didn’t just sneak through his heat, either – he won it emphatically, getting barrelled to beat Brazil’s Ricardo Dos Santos and Cornwall’s Lyndon Wake.

“Things just sort of fell into place for me in that heat,” he says. “Straight off the hooter I got a wave that never really did that much, but it let me see the standard of the guys I was surfing against because I got stuck on the inside for a wee bit. Then I got back outside and got another wave and got a cutback on it and thought ‘well, that was OK,’ and then I paddled back out and got a nice tube and took it from there.”

Noble didn’t fare as well in the second round, where he was eliminated by Basque surfer Eneko Acero and Australia’s Adam Robertson (who won the Classic in 2008), but he’d already made his point: Scotland doesn’t just have world-class waves; it has world-class surfers too.

Classic director Matt Wilson emphasises how difficult it is for a surfer like Noble, with a full-time job in the real world, to compete against the pros.

“These guys are surfing heats all day, every day, so for someone like Chris, who works offshore and surfs when he can, to come here and beat them – it’s just incredible.”

Traditionally, the winner of the amateur Scottish Surfing Championships, held in March or early April, is granted a wildcard entry into the first round of the Classic. This year, however, due to last-minute no-shows, Wilson was able to hand first-round berths to all four finalists from that event: Mark Cameron, who placed first, Noble, who came second, and also George Watt and Mark Boyd.

After winning the Scottish in previous years, Noble says he had felt the pressure of being the only Scot competing in the Classic; this time, though, he was able to sneak in under the radar.

“Because I’d only entered at the last minute my name wasn’t on any of the sheets – nobody asked to speak to me beforehand so I could just go surfing.”

Things were very different when the heat was over, however, and Noble was mobbed by friends, well-wishers and journalists.

Noble is now 35, so when he talks about Scotland producing its first pro surfer, he isn’t talking about himself – he’s looking a few years further down the line. A good first step on the road, he believes, would be for Scotland to be recognised as a member nation of the International Surfing Association (ISA). It’s a move that would allow Scottish surfers to compete at the annual ISA World Surfing Games, gaining invaluable contest experience, and in his role as president of the Scottish Surfing Federation (SSF) he is working hard to make that happen.

“We’re just getting the paperwork together to become recognised and then we’re going to join,” he says. “Right now we’re not in a position to put forward a team (for the games] – we don’t have enough kids and we don’t have the infrastructure. But who’s to say in a few years time we’re not going to have the ability to push forward?”

At this year’s Scottish Surfing Championships there were plenty of competitors taking part in the senior divisions but only two entrants in the junior category. So if you’re under 18 and think you’ve got what it takes to be this country’s first pro surfer, visit and get involved.

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