Friday, 5 March 2010
It took the stale light and pre-packaged air of the departure lounge. I’d written nothing, despite a promise to myself to document my trip. My flight was delayed and I was bored of watching the suits debrief each other about their night out and their hangovers. I felt uncomfortable in the manufactured environment. I felt the damp heaviness of the wetsuit in my hand luggage, slumped into a leather chair and reached for my notepad.
My past winters’ week had been spent on the sunniest island in the British Isles, a place backed with mountains and fjords but with prairie wide skies. Three rocky peaks lock the island in place, giving foundation to the sand, in the middle of the sea.
The island is also the windiest place in the British Isles. The signs of wind were evident; there were no native trees, cottages had thick walls like shoulders, windows facing east, nylon ropes and crusted lobster pots had been flung into the dune hollows, far from the sea. To my eyes this was also evidence of big storms and big waves.
With this reputation in mind, the island seemed paused for thought as we arrived, excited after an early morning ferry trip through the islands. We found warm footprints in sheltered dune paths. We found thick shell sand in rock framed coves. We found five days of calm in February.
After a month off surfing for one reason or another I had been looking forward to some powerful North Atlantic swell. Although we surfed in some beautiful spots I was struggling to hide my disappointment at the small surf we found. I was surfing badly and blaming everything for it. I’d come to hunt waves and had felt disappointed.
I felt stupid in my arrogance. On this island we had been treated to every visitors dream, all the locals had said how lucky we had been with the sun, the wind, the wildlife. But I had been absorbed in myself, connected only to internet forecasts and surf reports but in every way disconnected from the fun of surfing.
As the swell dropped we spent our mornings climbing the low hills that dominate the island. At the summits I gazed at the puzzle of inlets and mountains inland, all thoughts of the beaches forgotten. The hill we climbed was less than 200m high but as I looked down on the mirror lochs, reddened grass and blue stone of the island I felt higher than I had for a long time. We spent the lazy afternoons spotting birds and otters from the conservatory windows of our campervan.
Remoteness had turned off our mobile phones and unplugged us from surf reports and weather forecasts. Yet I realised that remoteness is a relative term; for I now felt less remote from the land, the ocean and the coast than I had for a long time.
We strolled to the beach the next day. Overhead waves on the outer banks whispered a drama that unfolded for a hundred yards before a final curtain call on the inside. I paddled out feeling refreshed and recharged. With no expectations and my big wave agenda forgotten, I remembered the simple fun of surfing. The trip had turned into a true holiday, a holiday from my surf obsession, which we all need from time to time.
The waves that day were fun. Not big, not too small, not too steep or fat. Just nicely shaped fun waves that required no other skill than being able to smile. One wave sticks in my mind. It was a left that I caught as it peaked on the outside, before it sucked out on an inner bank allowing me a classic tubed view of sunlit green water and the sun passing over the headland at the end of the beach. The fun was back!
“How are yee with babies?” asked the improbably young and attractive mother of three. She handed me her 3 month old daughter before I could mutter a protest. We were boarding a 15 seater plane to fly back to the mainland. I was leaving after a week, leaving my companions with another ten days to visit the other islands.
“Was that you with the campervan surfing the bay?” she asked. News travels fast on small islands. We chatted about the island and my trip for a while before the distractions of children left me alone with the window.
The flight cost £50. I’d have paid that just for the sight seeing. From the air I could see the fingerprint of ice in high lochs and the eddying wake of the tide between islands. I could make out the grassy scars of a river’s seaward struggles of rivers. Harbours edged the land, their boats basking in the sun. Saltwater runs in the arteries of these islands, the sea providing with one hand and taking away with the other. Life up here may be beautiful but it is also hard. All my complaints about the lack of decent sized surf had been put firmly in perspective.
“Would you come back again?” the mother asked. She had to repeat the question to get my attention. A few days ago I might have said no, thinking that holiday money could be spent on better surf spots, with better waves, with better barrels. I might even get better at surfing, but I wouldn’t have relaxed, wouldn’t have reconnected with the simple fun in beautiful places that I’d been neglecting recently.
I looked up at the suits in the terminal lounge. Of course I would come back.
The life of your average surfer is becoming a moral maze. We find ourselves at the crossroads of green issues and personal gratification. Most surfers I know are concerned about the health of the seas and beaches, and try to live environmentally conscious lives. Some are concerned about carbon footprints and the environmental impact of their boards and wetsuits.
But all surfers I know want to check the reef down the road, want to surf in tropical waters and own a new wetsuit to make the most of the short grey days of winter. Unfortunately these goals come into conflict with each other. Tough decisions must be made.
I am lucky enough to live next to the beach. The surf’s not always great but at least it is close enough to allow a quick session before work, even in winter. By living here I’ve made a decision that reduces my drive time to zero, despite it not being the best spot in the local area.
I try to resist the urge to drive around checking spots, more out of need to reduce my fuel bill than my carbon footprint. Once or twice a month I’ll fill a car with my friends and head to a nearby point or reef if I know it’s going to be good. I text my friends with the surf report to stop them driving to the beach if it’s going to be crappy. However, this may not be working too well as I am an optimistic kind of reporter.
Am I doing my bit for the world? Hardly, but I’m saving money and getting creative with my choice of surf spots. Have you ever wondered what sort of wave that little patch of reef round the corner from your local beach might make? Of course you have. But few of us have bothered going for a look when we know there’s good waves at the well known spots.
On a recent hefty January swell I hiked bleary eyed up the cliff path and found a rare slab producing heavy, hollow lefts in the misty morning light. The sun was just coming up and I only had nervous sheep for company as I pulled on my wetsuit. Being there by myself felt like a reward for the effort I’d put in; I’d made a mental note of the slab during a low tide summer stroll along the cliff, and then checked it religiously on every swell and high tide for a month. When the conditions came together I knew where to go.
As I paddled out between the double overhead sets they weren’t the only nervous ones. Waves broke hard and hollow along a shallow ledge of reef before ending yards in front of a low cliff. I was pushed into the line up by the strong rip on my neglected 6’8 pintail. Not really a board for Wales but needed that morning. The take off spot was next to a nasty boil but gave a nice ramp into the wave before it started to suck. I was 2 hours late for work.
The fact that I only got a few waves and spent most of the time wide eyed and frantically paddling out of the way is neither here nor there. The point is that with a little creative thinking and adventurous spirit, we can find what we’re looking for right around the corner. At home. Having the time and knowledge to know when and where to look is an advantage of being a regular (I don’t want to use the L-word!) at your spot.
It is too easy to drive around checking all the well known spots, too easy to book the cheap flight to somewhere with warm waves. It is harder, but more rewarding, to hike round the corner, book your holiday time for a solid at-home winter swell and to make the decision to reduce foreign travel. Although I abhor the use of Americanisms, I urge my fellow surfers to butter up their bosses and take a last minute “staycation” rather than check out flights to Indo or Morocco on lastminute.com. I’m not asking people to give up their search for challenging waves, because we have plenty of them right here in the UK. We just need to summon up the courage to look for them.