Upon the North

It was 4am. Dark, cold, and a little drizzle in the air, it seemed as though this was a sign of things to come. It was early October in the Midlands, and I was about to embark on a 12-hour journey to the far north of Scotland, nearly 600 miles away.

It was my first proper surf trip. I was nervous. The plan was a simple enough; there wasn’t one. Myself and good friend Simon (affectionately known as Oz for self-explanatory reasons) were to make it up to Thurso town for mid-afternoon, find a spot where we proposed to camp for the next few days, and surf as much as our arms could paddle at as many different spots as we could. Thurso East was the main attraction. A right hand point break that gets hollow when good, it is one of the most famous spots in Northern Europe and a good swell was forecast for the upcoming week.

It would easily be the heaviest wave I have surfed. Confined so far to beach breaks in Northern Cornwall, with occasional rocky bottoms, the thought of surfing over steadfast basalt was not an enticing one and I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.

As we careered our way up the M1, a slow drip-feed of natural light made its way into the battered old fiesta, heaters on full blast not for warmth but to stop the engine from overheating. It was coffee time.

The hours passed and we were making good time. It became somewhat of a race against the sun. About 3 hours out from Thurso, we realised that we may still have a little light left when we got to the north coast for a brief surf before we lost the light to the autumnal night. As we parked on the promenade overlooking the beach, we could hear Thurso East pumping in the background, an uneasy groan of waves breaking ashore. In front, a 100m paddle off shore, was the less well-regarded break at Sh*t Pipe. The name says enough. Another reef, it breaks just off the end of the pier and quickly descends into a fat shoulder over deeper water providing a shorter ride that its bigger sister.

We were squinting into the dusk. It was breaking. Just. But there was only one guy out and after a few whoops and hollers from Oz, we suited up and ran down to the water. We hadn’t driven half the length of the country for nothing. Breaking both left and right, and myself being natural and Oz a goofy, we both exchanged quick rides and my confidence grew that I might actually be able to make it through this week without too much turmoil. As the last light faded over the horizon, the temperature dropped and we paddled back to shore in complete darkness, guided only by the flickering orange streetlights on the waterfront walkway. I noticed Oz was looking a little concerned. Normally a chilled out paddler, he was screaming ahead at full tilt and I had no idea what was up. Picking up the pace myself, I shouted forward to him in question.

He snapped out of it, slowed up until we were side to side and he simply said: “Sorry mate, where I come from you really don’t want to be in the water after dark”. Of course. In my nonchalance at surfing in British waters, I had forgotten he had learned his craft on the Gold Coast and usually had a little more to worry about than we do. Anyway, upon warming up in the car (heaters actually required this time), we set about finding a campground.

Emerging from the tent at dawn, the conditions seemed perfect. The swell had increased overnight and Sh*t Pipe was properly breaking. Light offshores graced Thurso East in the distance and we hurried our stuff into the boot and shot round the coast, through the farm, and parked up amongst half a dozen other surfers perusing the break from the shore. There was no one out. And it wasn’t really breaking, or small at least. Lacklustre straight-handers caressed the shallow reef at low tide and it certainly did not remotely resemble the photos I have seen in the magazines and films. Still, we decided to be patient, giving it an hour or so for the tide to push in. As Oz snoozed in the drivers seat, and other surfers began to dissipate, a few semi-surfable waves began to build before crumbling into non-existence. It was improving though, and as the first couple showed signs of change we prematurely suited up and scampered out across the rocks alone.

“This could be ok,” I muttered to myself as we slipped across the exposed seaweed, butterfly’s following with an eerie intensity. Duck diving the first couple of waves, braving the brain-freeze, I made it comfortably out to the channel and swooped around to what I assumed to be the take-off spot. After a couple of fake paddles to get a glimpse over the edge, there still was little on offer. As another surfer joined us in the line up, a bump over the horizon took a different form to those before. I scratched over the first wave and turned to swoop for the next one. A little too deep, I cursed myself for too eagerly paddling away from the take-off spot and missing my first opportunity, particularly as our unknown companion shot down the line and kicked out some distance down the reef.

That was the least of my worries however. A switch had been flicked. As I turned to paddle back into position, the horizon was dark. A bomb set at least twice the size of anything before it rolled through the line-up, clearing up both Oz and myself in the process. Still, at least that was out the way early on. Sitting deeper now, the waves had grown in size and were comfortably one and a half overhead, with bomb sets rolling through bigger at times. Where had it grown from? It must have been the tide, or the reef, we did not know. But Thurso was certainly now showing its beautiful teeth, sets lining up along the reef with the odd hollow one rewarding those in the right place at the right time. I had not been in that place yet. A few more ill timed paddles, and a few falls had set my nerves going and I was losing confidence. I needed a wave.

As the next set perked up on the horizon I paddled deeper in the line-up, telling myself that I was to be the one on this wave. Breaching over the first wall, slightly chopped from the growing breeze, the second wave was perfect. Clean, groomed and not too sizeable, I turned and paddled. Head down, I took a cursory glance over my left shoulder as the wave began to break up the line. Thurso is regarded as quite a friendly wave for its power and size. The take-off is generally a roll in, allowing the rider plenty of time to position as the wave steepens and quickens towards the channel. As I rose to my feet, I had so much time. Drifting to the base of the wave, I lazily bottom turned and watched as the face steepened ahead. A couple of pumps, little glides up and down the face and I found myself casually kicking out some 100m down the line yelling my head off. From shore it must have looked the most average ride of the morning. To me it was perfect. I had surfed my first proper wave at Thurso, my biggest wave yet in my short surfing life. I had become a barrel dodger in the purest form and I was proud of it.

As I paddled past Oz back into the line-up, I was quickly put in my place. A larger set showed up and as Oz took off on the first one I lined myself up again for the clean looking second wave of the set. The slightly bigger size of the first wave had drawn more water off the reef, and as I scratched to get to the friendly section of the take-off zone, I knew I was too deep. This wave was far steeper, far more hollow, and at least a couple of feet bigger. As I pushed to my feet, trying to get all my weight forward down the face, I saw I had not made it. I had got over confident, after one wave! I pushed the board from under my feet, preparing myself to go over the falls and I certainly did not want my clunky 6’7 anywhere near me. As I began my journey to the floor, I looked down and for the first time noticed the complexity of the reef. Iridescent and willowing strands of seaweed masked a dark and uncompromising rocky base, and it was far shallower than my previous wave. The first wave in the set must been chuckling as its energy dissipated on the shore. It had beaten me, and I felt sure I was going to contact the rocky base as I fell through the air. I landed at the foot of the wave on my side; both a blessing and a curse. I did not penetrate the water, and so missed the reef. Initially. As the wave broke over me, I was sucked back up and over and driven deeper than before. I only lightly tapped the rocks, and it certainly was not as bad as it could have been. As I calmed myself down and held my breath, I felt my board re-join me as it plunged underwater too. It began to calm again, and I pushed up to the surface to determine how far inside I was and how many more waves were going to punish me. Grabbing a breath, I neglected my board and plunged under the next wave. Re-surfacing, I paddled to the channel and something was not right. My board felt flimsy, clumsy even, unbalanced. It was not broken though, so why? Flipping it over to check the underside, I noticed the issue straight away. My right fin had snapped clean off, and central fin was bent to the point of no return. That was my session over then. Shouting to Oz, I scrambled in and grabbed my camera to get a few shots of him before the tide decided to cull the wave count, when he too paddled to shore for a brew and to put the heaters on.

My first true reef session was done. I had survived, surfed, and broken my equipment and felt great for it.

As we settled down for the evening in our underperforming tent, a storm began to blow in that not only soaked everything in sight, but also rendered Thurso largely unsurfable the following day. Although a few guys ventured out on larger craft, most returned battered and with broken boards and we opted for the user-friendlier break off the pier. That was a wrap, my only session at the infamous break.

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As we pondered our trip in the car on the way back to my landlocked hometown, heaters on full, I felt good. I had been conquered by the break, humiliated to some extent. But it was wild, untamed, and not an easy swell to surf on. I had learned quick and improved as a surfer too, and the longing to go back and grow and do the wave justice was entrained as deeply as my fondness for this amazing sport itself. Bring on round two; I’ll take more fins this time.

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