There’s a picture of Tiree surfer Ben Larg, taken during the recent ISA World Junior Surfing Championships at Ribeira Grande in the Azores, that makes my blood run a little bit cold on his behalf. Whenever I show it to other surfers it either causes them to catch their breath or do that low, descending whistle that’s internationally accepted as code for “wow, that’s impressive – but rather him than me.”
Larg isn’t even surfing in the shot; instead, he’s paddling out through a swirling maelstrom of whitewater as a hollow, ten-foot wave breaks like a giant, watery guillotine a short way in front of him. There’s no obvious easy way through, no safe, deep-water channel to aim for. The only way of paddling out beyond the breaking waves at this spot appears to be Route One, straight through the jaws of the beast, with a few hefty beatings more or less guaranteed.
The picture was taken during Larg’s second heat at the World Juniors earlier this month. Aged just 11, he was competing for Team Scotland in the under-16s category, punching impressively above his weight. In the first round he’d lost out to Samuel Pupo of Brazil, Koby Oberholzer of Russia and Mattia Migliorini of Italy, and so went into the first round repercharge – a sort of last chance saloon for those who had fallen at the first hurdle. Pitted against Jack Mathias of Wales and Gal Ziger of Israel, he needed a second place finish or better to advance – and with the rest of Team Scotland already knocked out of the competition by the time his heat rolled around, he had the added pressure of being the last man (well, boy) standing.
As the swell hammered the shoreline, though, the question on everybody’s lips was: would he or either of the other competitors even be able to make it out the back and catch some waves? In addition to the size of the swell, there was the extra complication of a tricky rip current moving across the break – as Larg explains when I catch up with him by phone after the event.
“The rip was kinda going out and to the left,” he says, on a fuzzy line from the Azores, “and you really wanted to be going out and to the right.”
Thanks to the unhelpful rip and the thumping surf, it took Larg more than ten minutes of the 20 minute heat just to paddle out, but paddle out he did – and once he’d made it to calmer water and had a chance to catch his breath, a rideable-looking wave swung in his direction.
“I didn’t do any turns or anything on it,” he says, “it was just huge, with a really lumpy face.”
So you were just hanging on?
Hanging on proved to be enough, though, allowing Larg to progress to the next round behind Mathias. Here he was defeated by Gael Jimenez of Mexico, Matias Veloz of Chile and Arpad Leclère of Belgium, but his heroics had already helped Team Scotland to a respectable 27th place finish out of 39 competing nations, and won him many new fans on the beach, not least the enthusiastic Portuguese commentator. Plus, whereas many of the surfers he came up against this year will be moving on to the under-18s division in 2017, he’ll be able to keep chipping away at the under-16s for the rest of this decade.
Not that competition is the be all and end all for Larg, who, along with the rest of Team Scotland, has been using the Azores trip as an excuse to get in some warm-water free surfing.
“We went to an amazing place yesterday,” he says, “I can’t remember what it was called, but it was a pointbreak, a left hand pointbreak. The walk-in is really steep – there are big cliffs down to the beach and it’s got this big bamboo forest...”
After we get off the phone, Ben’s mum and dad, Marti and Iona, email me some pictures of the spot. It looks like a surfer’s paradise – a bit like Tiree on a good day, in fact, only with bigger cliffs and warmer water. In one shot, Ben and Andrew Robertson, who represented Team Scotland in the under-18s category, are standing beside a little stream, while in the background a just-breaking wave walls up and begins to peel its way along a black cobblestone point. In another, Larg and fellow Tiree surfer Finn MacDonald are grinning wearily at the camera, having slogged their way back up the cliff, post-surf.
Expect to hear much more from these three in the next few years, as they build on their Azores experiences, and as surfing’s inclusion in the 2020 Olympics brings this once niche sport increasingly into the mainstream. n