Listen – can you hear that sound? That barely audible rumble? That’s the Atlantic Ocean slowly waking up from its long summer nap and getting ready to throw its toys out of the pram with the first major hissy-fits of the autumn.
Big wave season is coming, and with it two of the most important Scottish wave-riding events of the year: the Tiree Wave Classic windsurfing competition, which runs from 11-17 October, and the UK Pro Surf Tour Scottish Open surfing contest at Thurso, which runs from 27-30 October. Both offer the chance to see some of the finest aquatic athletes in these islands taking on some of the meatiest waves Scotland has to offer but, for most of us, they also take place in pretty inaccessible locations. It takes a good five and a half hours to drive up to Thurso from the main population centres of the Central Belt, and even if you’re lucky enough to live near Oban, getting to Tiree still involves a three-hour ferry crossing. So if you’re reading this somewhere south of Inverness and east of Loch Lomond, chances are you’ve already decided it’s not worth the hassle of going to see these events in person. Why would you, when the highlights will no doubt be spliced together into super-HD film clips and posted online anyway?
Well... because you should. It’s hard to explain the appeal to somebody who’s never been a surf spectator before, but let’s start by comparing a surfing contest to a football match. Imagine being able to move freely around a football stadium while watching your favourite team play: if there’s a penalty, you can walk right down onto the turf and stand behind the goal; if you want more of a tactical overview, you can clamber all the way back to Row Z and watch from there. That’s pretty much what the spectator experience is like at these events – as long as you don’t get in anybody’s way, you’re free to choose your own camera angle. Oh, and imagine being able to walk out onto the pitch at Celtic Park or Ibrox and take part in the warm-up before kick-off. Trying to catch waves while heats are in progress is a bit of a faux pas, but there’s nothing to stop amateur surfers and windsurfers mixing it up with the pros in between bouts of competition – and there’s no better way to watch a top-class surfer ride a wave than from the water, as they come flying down the line towards you.
There’s a real sense of camaraderie at these events, too. Partly this is because there are often about as many competitors as people watching, so after a couple of days everybody gets to know everybody else, but partly it’s because making these contests happen at all requires much patience and flexibility from all those involved. Not enough swell at Spot A? Then everybody has to pile back in their cars and vans and head to Spot B. Tide too low at Spot B? Sorry folks, the contest is over for the day – we’ll have to run the rest of the heats tomorrow morning.
In our instant-gratification culture, it’s not hard to see how the unpredictable, stop-start nature of surf comps might put a lot of would-be fans off, but when everything finally comes together and you find yourself perfectly placed to catch that single, magical confluence of wind, wave and athlete, it feels like witnessing a minor miracle.
A couple of evenings ago, I found a pile of old photo albums gathering dust. Remember photo albums? They were the things we used to keep our memories in back before digital photography, smartphones and Instagram made it possible to share every moment of our lives with hundreds of complete strangers. In one I found a picture from the first Tiree Wave Classic I ever attended, back in 2005, and it perfectly sums up why events like this really need to be experienced in the flesh. The shot was taken at The Maze, a spot on the west coast of the island which you access via a bumpy track through a sheep field. I remember being a bit miffed when I took it because another guy with a camera ducked into the frame just as I was lining up the shot. In retrospect, though, I’m glad he’s there. It just goes to show that, no matter how good you think your vantage point is, there’s always going to be one that’s a little better.