BOOM-judder-judder-judder... BOOM-judder-judder-judder... If you take the ferry from Oban to Tiree at this time of year, you can usually tell what the waves are going to be like on the island long before you actually get there.
Unless there’s a gale blowing, things should be peaceful enough as the boat – usually the MV Clansman – cruises along the Sound of Mull. If there’s a big swell running, though, you’ll know about it as soon as you round Ardmore Point and head out into the Sea of the Hebrides.
That “BOOM” is the sound of the boat’s hull being thrown skywards by an incoming wave, then smacking down hard on the flat water on the other side. The “judder-judder-judder”? That’d be the Clansman’s five-and-a-half-thousand tonne structure vibrating under the strain.
To anyone suffering from seasickness, the onset of the BOOM-judder is bad news: a sure sign of an impending trip to either the hand-rail or the toilet. But for surfers and windsurfers, each rivet-rattling impact sends a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. Because if there’s enough swell to make the Clansman go BOOM-judder, then there’s enough swell to go surfing on Tiree’s beach-studded west coast. For most people, more than enough.
It’s no accident that Scotland’s premier windsurfing event, the Tiree Wave Classic, takes place in October. The third stop of four on this year’s British Wavesailing Association (BWA) tour, the Classic pits the best wavesailors in the country against the full fury of the Atlantic Ocean just as she’s waking up from her long summer break.
During June, July and August, the average swell height on the west coast of the island drops to a (still-respectable) 6ft, but by this time of year it’s back up to a meaty ten. And remember kids: that’s average swell height – it often gets much bigger. Add an average windspeed of 16 knots, and you have the perfect conditions for holding a wavesailing event: plenty of wind to get the competitors moving at speed, and, Neptune-willing, plenty of thumping breakers for them to use as launch pads.
For the last decade or so, the Classic has been dominated by the same elite group of British sailors, particularly previous winners John Skye, Phil Horrocks and Ben Proffitt, who took home the title at last year’s 25th anniversary event. Now, however, there are signs that a new generation might be on the verge of breaking through.
Tanya Brooks-Dowsett, event and marketing manager for Pura Vida Boardriders, organisers of the Classic, names Skye, Horrocks and Proffitt as potential winners (although, with Skye’s wife due to give birth imminently, there’s a chance he won’t be able to make it this year). But she also points to a couple of up-and-coming sailors with the ability to cause an upset.
“Even if someone like [John Skye] doesn’t come along,” she says, “we’ve got the likes of Lewis Merrony from West Wales. He moved up from amateurs last year, so it gives someone who’s having their first time on tour as a professional a great opportunity to get in the top three.
“There’s also a young chap called Aleksy Gayda from Cornwall. Last year, in just 12 months, he moved up from youths to amateurs to professionals – so we’re hoping to see him do well on Tiree. Like Lewis, he’s totally shining at the moment.”
If a new face is to break the stranglehold of the Skye-Horrocks-Proffitt triumvirate then the conditions could play a part. In 2009, Ireland’s Timo Mullen scored a surprise Wave Classic victory when he read the dropping wind correctly and switched to a larger, floatier board at the last minute, giving him an edge over the competition.
That said, there are no fluke winners of the Classic. This is still the most prestigious event on the British wavesailing calendar, and a win here is still as good as it gets, whatever the conditions.
The 2012 Tiree Wave Classic runs from 13-19 October. For more information, and to download daily podcasts once the competition has started, visit www.tireewave classic.co.uk