ROGER COX Gallery images


Published: The Scotsman (TSMAG) 3 March 2011

ABOUT eight years ago I was driving around the far north of Scotland in an elderly Peugeot 206, looking for surf and rant-ing at the radio. I’d just spent a few days riding beautiful, shoulder-to-head high
waves in staggeringly clear water – waves any Californian Beach Boy would have been delighted to find
– and yet here were a couple of Scottish news presenters talking about surfing in Scotland as if it was the biggest joke they’d ever heard. I can’t remember what the story they were commenting on was, exactly, but I’m pretty sure it was something to do with international big wave surfers travelling to the Isle of Lewis in search of monster surf. I can’t remember exactly what the presenters were chuckling about, either, but I’m pretty sure it was something to do with the water in Scotland being very cold and the waves not being up to much. Had these people not heard of wetsuits? Did they not know that the west coast
of Lewis was exposed to the full fury of the Atlantic Ocean? I was still fuming long after their knowing chuckles had died away.

A few years later I was back on the north coast again, this time to cover one of the first O’Neill-sponsored pro surf contests at Thurso for The Scotsman. While I was absolutely awestruck to see guys like 2000 world
champ Sunny Garcia weaving their way through heaving turquoise barrels, some of the other meeja folk in
attendance appeared to think they were covering some sort of novelty cheese-rolling contest. One hack
even threw off all his clothes bar his underpants and went splashing off into the surf, just so he could
confirm to the folks back home that – yes – the water in the Pentland Firth really is pretty chilly. I was mystified.

Nobody makes jokes about Scottish surfing these days – well, not in Scotland, anyway. Since the first O’Neill event took place in 2006, a gradual process of realisation seems to have taken place as, every April, around 100 of the best surfers in the world have made the trip up to Thurso, surfed their brains out for a week and then declared the waves either just as good or even better than the ones back home. The proliferation of mind-blowing photos from the contest has helped too, and, of course, money talks. The fact that the O’Neill event offered $140,000 (£88,230) in prize money made people think “hang on a minute – this
surfing thing must be quite a big deal if they’re throwing all that cash around… and these guys are coming
here to surf our waves every year… that must mean our waves are quite a big deal too.”

In the light of all this, then, what are we to make of the news that O’Neill have pulled out of sponsoring
the Thurso event this year? Obviously it’s a blow for the burgeoning Scottish surfing community, and it’s a
blow for the town of Thurso, too, denied a hefty injection of tourist revenue. In the long-term, though, per-
haps it’s not such a disaster. The O’Neill contest has had a profound impact on the Scottish surf scene: there are way more surfers in the water now than there used to be, and they’re surfing better too. Much better. Which brings us to this year’s Scottish Surfing Championships, scheduled for the weekend
of 31 March and 1 April.

Yes, it’s an amateur contest, but the best amateurs in Scotland are at least as good as the travelling pros.
Some are even better, as Chris Noble demonstrated in 2010 when he romped through the first round of the O’Neill contest. So if you’re free that weekend, and want to see some incredible surfing in Scotland’s best waves, head to Thurso. And if you’re a company looking for eye-catching sponsorship opportunities, contact the Scottish Surfing Federation.

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