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North Scotland's Surfers Are Tougher Than You

In the remote town of Thurso, surfers will risk floating chunks of ice for the best cold-water waves in Europe.

by Marcus Thompson
Jan 12 2015, 5:00am

Photo by Matt Ham, Off the Boat

This post originally appeared on VICE UK

Surfing in Scotland isn't easy. Nature sees to that. The waves are only decent during winter, and even then you can only surf during a small window of daylight. Have a crack at northern Scotland's best spots and you'll be forced to endure freezing water, snow, and blasting winds, while also having to dodge the blocks of ice that tend to creep up on you out of nearby river mouths.

The small town of Thurso boasts the best right-hand breaking wave in Europe and, despite its climatic disposition, has managed to spawn a group of hardened surfers. The sport has transformed a town—once famous only for agriculture and a nuclear power plant—to a place where those braving the cold are rewarded with uncrowded waves.

Mark Boyd is a regular fixture in the freezing line-ups along the coastline. I asked him how the area's taken transformation.

Mark Boyd. Photo by Matt Ham, Off the Boat

VICE: How and when did surfing get going in Scotland?
Mark Boyd: Surfing first started in Scotland on the east coast in the mid to late 1960s, with small groups of surfers forming around the Fraserburgh, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh regions. Andy Bennetts from Edinburgh, and his friends Stuart Crichton and Ian Wishart, thought they were the only surfers in the country when, in September of 1968, they set off for Aberdeen on the train to try out Bennetts's new board, which he'd purchased on a holiday to Cornwall.

When they arrived at Aberdeen, however, and asked a friendly man at the beach pavilion if they could leave the board with him for safekeeping, they were surprised to discover that he already looked after a board for another surfer—local lad George Law, who'd been surfing there since 1967.

A sign on the beach in Thurso. Photo by Matt Ham, Off the Boat

Can you tell me about the area of Thurso? What's it made up of industry-wise?
I grew up in the countryside near a small fishing village. Fishing and farming are the main industries in the area. I now live in Thurso, a town of around 10,000 people, where Dounreay Nuclear Power Plant employs much of the population. In the far north of Scotland, a large percentage of men work offshore in the oil industry in the North Sea and West of Shetland.

How far north are the waves?
On the mainland the most famous stretch of surfing coast is found on the north coast. But you can travel up to 60°N in Scotland and still find waves in the Shetland Islands.

Photo by Alexander Tatko Northlink

And how cold is the water?
Winter is from December until February, I guess, but the surf season is from late September to early April. Average sea temperatures can get down to about 6°C, but we're often surfing near river mouths with ice and snowmelt, so the average temperatures in these bays can be a great deal colder. Throw in below freezing air temperatures and some wind and it gets pretty chilly.

Sometimes the sea will appear to be steaming—the fog gets so thick just where the water starts that you can't even see the surf from the car park. When the rivers freeze over, the subsequent blocks of ice breaking off and floating into the lineup can become a real hazard.

How much light do you get?
In the dead of winter it's been getting light about 9 AM, and dark about 3:30 PM. But if we're lucky enough to get some waves in summer, it's pretty cool because you can almost surf all night.

Photo by Matt Ham, Off the Boat

What was the standard lifestyle for a teenager growing up in the area?
Those who weren't into football were hanging about in bus shelters, freezing and drinking Buckfast. The northeast of Scotland actually has a pretty bad reputation for drugs and, in particular, a high level of heroin addiction. It's a pretty strange contrast considering how beautiful and picturesque some of these places are. But, to be honest, through my youth I never really encountered drugs at all—I suppose I was too busy surfing. Surfing in Scotland most definitely repels anti-social behavior.

How accessible is it for kids to get into?
The best surf, unfortunately, is in the winter—so that means freezing temperatures, snow, and gales. So progress for a learning surfer is slow, particularly with short daylight hours, meaning surfing after school is not an option during peak swell season. And the waves are big and cold. It doesn't scream invitation.

Then you need a really good wetsuit, a hood, boots, gloves for the cold, and a board. It's pretty expensive, especially when wetsuits need replacing regularly to keep you warm, or if you're growing as a kid. It's really difficult to learn and needs a lot of persistence. It took me ages! And my wetsuits were always old and terrible, and I was always freezing. I never even knew it, though, until I got a new one.

Then, once you've worked out how to do it, if you're too young to have a car you're pretty limited to the spots you can surf. But once you get past all that, surfing offers you a lifestyle, sport, opportunity and a reason to travel and a network of friends across Scotland.

Photo by Matt Ham, Off the Boat

How'd you get to the beach when you were younger?
I used to walk most of the time—it was pretty cold and tiring as it was all uphill on the way back with all my gear. I lived close to the beach, but the spot we surfed was actually at the far end of that beach from my house, so it was a bit of effort. When it was really cold my granny would often pick me up and drop me off in the car. When surf was big I'd ask her to sit in the car to make sure I was OK while I surfed because I was scared and alone.

Any times the cold became life-threatening?
I'm not sure about life-threatening, but I've had my fingers get so cold walking back to my car, with wetsuit gloves on, that I thought they'd never come back to life, and when they did it was so painful. You just need to know when you start getting cold to get out of the water, or that's when you start making mistakes.

Photo by Dave Schlossbach

Is there much localism?
Like anywhere in the world where you go surfing, you have to give respect to get any, and there's not many places with world class waves these days that you won't find a degree of localism. Most quality surf spots in Scotland have a regular crew of locals who surf there day in, day out, so if you're a visitor you have to abide by the usual surfing etiquette guidelines you find anywhere else in the world and not just expect to get straight in among it at the peak.

Most Scottish surfers are pretty welcoming people, but that doesn't mean anyone will take too kindly to our welcoming nature being abused. If you take Thurso-East as an example you'll probably see the same few faces on most of the best waves, and if there ever was a purpose of localism, in my opinion, it is to ensure that waves aren't wasted. When locals see you're being respectful, waiting your turn, not hassling and not missing waves and wasting them, you could find yourself getting some of the best waves of your life in among a great group of people. Act any way in the contrary and the boys aren't shy to "get ye telt!"

Follow Marcus Thompson on Twitter.

Photo by Matt Ham, Off the Boat

Photo by Reagan Ritchie

Photo by Matt Ham, Off the Boat

Photo by Matt Ham, Off the Boat

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