I’ve always been suspicious of surf-related statistics – the kind that tell you that X-thousand people now surf in Scotland or Europe or the world. Counting the number of people surfing in a given place during a given period of time is not like counting crowds at a football match. There are no turnstiles, no ticket sales. People roll up to the beach, they surf, they get back in their cars and they go. And all being well, they leave no trace.
Having said that, over the last ten years or so, statistics or not, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of people surfing in Scotland. Surf spots that once might only have seen a handful of souls paddling out all day during a decent swell can now feel busy from dawn till dusk. When I say busy I don’t mean Southern California busy or Gold Coast of Australia busy – not overcrowded or even crowded but... humming, buzzing, in a way they weren’t before.
One of the zones where this increase in the surfing population has been most noticeable is in East Lothian, and perhaps the epicentre of the surf scene there – in terms of the sheer volume of surfers using the place, at least – is Belhaven Bay near Dunbar.
It’s no accident that this is the beach most frequently used for lessons by Dunbar-based Coast to Coast surf school. Over the years, hundreds of people, thousands, probably, will have had their introduction to the Sport of Kings along this sandy strip, so once they’re feeling confident enough to paddle out on their own, this is most likely where they’ll come.
Back in 2009, Sam Christopherson, who runs the surf school, held the inaugural Coast to Coast Retro Surf Comp at Belhaven. Competitors could ride whatever surf craft they liked – longboards, fish, eggs – as long as they were based on designs that pre-dated the so-called “shortboard revolution” of the 1980s, which saw most surfers switch to riding the short, pointy, tri-fin boards called thrusters that still dominate competitive surfing today. I went along to cover the contest, and even though it was a beautiful sunny day with good, fun-sized waves, there can’t have been more than 30 people taking part. Fastforward to last April, and the offspring of the Retro comp, the Coast to Coast Lowland Longboard Competition, drew some 89 competitors. True, that doesn’t exactly put it on a par with the Edinburgh Marathon, but still – as an indicator of a growing surfing population in the south-east of Scotland, it’s about as empirical as we’re going to get.
And Scottish surfers aren’t just getting more numerous – they’re getting younger, too. Regular readers of this column will already be familiar with Ben Larg of Tiree, who, at the tender age of ten, came runner-up in the under-18s division at last year’s Scottish Surfing Championships at Thurso. Well, now meet Mikey Wimbledon-Hall from Dunbar, who, while representing Team Scotland at last December’s Eurosurf Juniors in Morocco, made it through four rounds of the under-16 bodyboard division, aged just 12.
“I’d only been in little competitions before,” he says, “so this was quite nerve-wracking. I thought I’d maybe get past the first round, but probably not even that. All the other kids were a lot bigger and a lot more experienced.”
Sometimes when the waves are small, lighter surfers can have the advantage, but this certainly wasn’t the case in Morocco, where the swell was solid and the paddle-out considerable.
“The highlight for me was this time when I got stuck out-back behind the waves,” he says. “The waves were so big and I was really scared to catch them, but I caught one and then it reformed and I got into this lovely, perfect wave and managed to get through my heat.”
Wimbledon-Hall’s results are particularly impressive when you consider he only started bodyboarding seriously in May 2016, just seven months before the Eurosurf event. He credits the instructors from Coast to Coast – and in particular Josh Christopherson – with helping him develop his skills so quickly. “They took me out pretty much every Friday and every Sunday and that really helped,” he says.
This year’s Lowland Longboard Competition is scheduled to take place from 25-26 March. Wimbledon-Hall hasn’t done much longboarding before, but – as with bodyboarding – that’s not going to stop him taking part. “I first learned to [stand-up] surf on Barra the summer before last,” he says. “I’m not amazing at longboarding but I’m going to give it a go.”
The Coast to Coast Lowland Longboard Competition runs from 25-26 March,www.c2csurfschool.com