ROGER COX Gallery images


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 16 April 2011

YOUNG surfers of today: You have no idea how lucky you are. Yes, I know, I sound like a grumpy old man, but I speak the truth. Back in the lo-fi 1990s, when I was a surf-mad teenager, there was no world wide web. Well, not in any meaningful sense. The only way I could find out what was happening in the surfing universe outside the UK was to subscribe to American magazines which, when they eventually arrived, contained information at least two months out of date. Thus, I would usually discover who had won December’s nail-biting world tour showdown in Hawaii sometime around the middle of the following February.

And surf films. Surf films weren’t things you watched for free on YouTube – they were prized possessions, to be saved up for over several weeks, purchased on VHS and then viewed over and over again until you knew every line of the usually appalling commentary off by heart. And when I say appalling, I mean appalling. Sample quote from Bruce Brown’s iconic 1994 film, The Endless Summer II: “The surf. Was. Gangbusters.” Really Bruce? “Gangbusters?” Swingin’.

Very, very occasionally, surfing would make an appearance on TV, at which point a prolonged debate would ensue with my brother over which of the first two Die Hard movies should be erased from a blank videotape in order to make way for a nugget of surf cinema of as yet unproven quality. I remember on one occasion recording an episode of the Holiday programme about a group of jolly metropolitan muppets (sorry, but they were) attending a surf school somewhere in Devon. The segment consisted of about ten minutes of footage of these chubby beginners gamely flailing around on brightly coloured foam boards in marginal conditions, followed by about 15 seconds of proper surfers surfing proper waves at Croyde. Disappointing? You have no idea. But I still watched those 15 seconds on a loop until they were seared into my memory.

It goes without saying that professional surfing competitions were never broadcast on’t telly when I were a lad. In an age when chain-smoking snooker players were considered role models (and given correspondingly endless coverage by the BBC) anyone with even a hint of colour in their cheeks was viewed with suspicion. Things haven’t changed much in that respect – British television execs still seem incapable of screening sports that don’t take place on a green surface with white lines drawn on it – but, in contrast to my generation, today’s young surfers don’t give a damn. Thanks to the internet, they can watch all the surf competitions they want live online.

Which brings us to this weekend, and the last few rounds of the $145,000 O’Neill Coldwater Classic at Thurso. Billed as “the most extreme contest on the world tour,” the Classic attracts some of the best waveriders on the planet and has a habit of generating high drama. Whether it’s top British surfer Russell Winter winning the inaugural event in 2006 with a heart-in-mouth tube ride, Hawaiian hardman Sunny Garcia storming the judges’ booth after a controversial elimination, or Thurso local Chris Noble making history last year by becoming the first Scot to advance beyond the first round, there’s never a dull moment.

Well, actually, that’s a lie. The thing about surf contests is, there can be quite a lot of dull moments. As with many sports, there are often long gaps in the action – the sea can suddenly become calm halfway through a heat or surfers can use tactical positioning to prevent each other from taking waves. But just as fans of cricket and American Football aren’t remotely bothered by the stop-start nature of their favourite sports, so surf fans are happy to go with the flow.

Having won the Scottish National Surfing Championships last month, Noble once again has a wildcard entry into round one of the Classic. Hopefully he’ll still be in contention by the time you read this. If you can, get yourself up to Thurso and cheer him on. Or, of course, you could always just watch his exploits online.

*The O’Neill Coldwater Classic runs until Tuesday. To watch it live, visit

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