Roger Cox: 'The reef is smooth, but rock is rock - it's always hard when you hit it'
It's no secret that the north coast of Scotland is home to some world-class surf spots.
Every April since 2006, the best waveriders on the planet have congregated in Thurso - an unlikely surf town if ever there was one - to take part in the Coldwater Classic, a megabucks professional contest sponsored by US wetsuit company O'Neill.
And they'll be up there again later this month, all those bronzed Australians and Hawaiians and Californians, battling it out for points and prizes in the frigid waters of the Pentland Firth, and no doubt turning the heads of the local womenfolk while they're at it.
Depending on conditions, the contest is usually held either at a reef known as Thurso East, close to the harbour entrance, which produces long, endlessly peeling walls of water in a big swell, or at Brims Ness, a point a few miles to the west where spinning liquid cylinders explode on to a shallow rocky ledge with frightening force, and where the difference between a triumphant tube ride and a brutal, bruising wipeout is measured in fractions of a second.
Thanks to the Coldwater Classic and the resulting media exposure, these two spots are now in all the guidebooks - your average 15-year-old Aussie surf nut could probably point out Thurso on a map - but for every on-the-radar gem such as Thurso East and Brims, there are still plenty of other spots up there on the wild, windswept coast of Caithness that are known only to a few hardcore locals.
This winter, surf journalist and photographer Tim Nunn spent several weeks in the far north, following local surfer Chris Noble and Jersey's Ian Battrick - both sponsored by UK clothing company Finisterre - as they hunted down ship-killing waves at a time when the rest of the country was busy shovelling snow. And one of places they surfed - pictured right - makes Brims look like a beginner's spot.
Out of respect for the local surfing community, Nunn is keeping schtum about the precise whereabouts of this particular deep sea monster, but he is happy to describe the general seriousness of the situation.
"The wave actually breaks just a couple of metres from a low cliff," he says, "and that's what makes it tricky. It's really shallow, just a slab of barely wet rock really. The reef itself is actually quite smooth, but rock is rock - it's always hard when you hit it."
Any surfers reading will be able to appreciate the dangerousness of the wave just by looking at it, but non-surfers may wish to consider that most of Battrick's body is well below sea level, the fact the falling guillotine of water above his head is about as thick as a motorway overpass, and that if he falls he's only got a few inches of water between him and the reef below. "That picture was taken back in January," says Nunn, "one of those rare, magical Scottish winter days when there's not much wind and blazing sunshine, with a really good swell running."
When waves get beyond a certain size they start moving so fast that paddling into them under your own steam becomes almost impossible, so Battrick was towed into this behemoth, hanging on to a rope attached to a jet ski piloted by Noble.
Meanwhile, in order to get the right angle for the shot, Nunn was patiently treading water just yards from the impact zone.
"Just getting in and out of the water there is tricky," he says.
"You have to negotiate a nasty shorebreak onto dry rock and then it's a long cold swim just to stay in position against the current - I think I swam for about three hours that day. But it's worth it when that golden moment comes along."
Most surf photographers tend to gravitate towards warmer latitudes, where a day at the office typically involves setting up a tripod under a palm tree.
Nunn, however, who studied Geography at Aberystwyth University before turning his hand to surf filming and photography, is more interested in colder climes. He has a new book out this month - appropriately entitled Numb - which will showcase his pictures of coldwater surfing in out-of-the-way places such as Iceland and Northwest Canada. But Scotland, he assures us, will definitely be on the cover.
To order a copy of Numb, visit www.timnunn.co.uk; the 2011 O'Neill Coldwater Classic runs from 13-19 April, see www.oneill.com/cwc
This article was first published in The Scotsman, 2 April, 2011
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