Interview: Tiree's teenage world surfer Ben Larg stars in the film Ride the Wave
It’s something Scottish surfing champion Ben Larg’s parents, Marti and Iona, face on a daily basis as their son spends his time risking his life surfing some of the world’s biggest cold-water waves. This week saw the 16-year old from Tiree riding 50ft monster waves at Nazaré in Portugal, home to some of the most dangerous waters on the planet while they can only stand on the shore and watch.
One of the youngest big wave surfers in the world, Ben learnt to surf and walk at the same time. By the age of 12 he was Scotland’s Under-18 Surfing Champion and began competing in international events and at 14 had conquered his first big wave at Mullaghmore in Ireland, the youngest surfer ever to do so.
Capturing it all on film is Martyn Robertson, whose debut feature documentary about Ben and his family, Ride the Wave, funded by Screen Scotland and supported by Scottish Documentary Institute and Film City Futures, has its premiere at Glasgow Film Festival on 10 and 11 March.
The film's BAFTA winning & BIFA nominated producer/director spent four years following Ben and his family in Tiree, around Scotland, Japan, Ireland and Portugal to capture his journey from 12-year-old schoolboy surfer to international surfing competitor to big wave surfer taking on some of the biggest and most dangerous waves in the world.
Not your usual surf film - although there are plenty of waves and beautifully filmed action to keep boarders happy - Robertson’s is an inspirational, entertaining, heart-warming and heart-stopping story of a boy’s journey from child to adult, about parenting and protecting, about family and finding your own way, about not taking no for an answer.
“The film is a coming of age story,” says Robertson. “It’s a story of boyhood. Surfing is the backdrop to explore a young boy growing up and his family around him. For me, it's not a surf film because I'm not a surfer and there's loads of great surf films out there. That was the backdrop to this whole story about a boy in his adolescence on an adventure growing up and finding his tribe.”
“His family are not actors, they’re just a family going through real moments and trying to be good parents, grappling with the fact that the son has set the bar so high with risk.”
As mum Iona puts it in the film: There’s this overwhelming need to protect Ben from doing something dangerous alongside the fact that he really wants to do something we have supported him in. How can you encourage your child to do something and when they get to the point that the want to do this thing, can you pull them back? That wouldn’t be fair but equally that’s what I want to do sometimes.”
Ben’s dad Marti feels the same: “If anything we’ve held him back. You can’t keep doing that. While you’re young and have the skills to do it, you might as well do it.”
Larg is not just a surfing phenomenon with hugely supportive parents who run a watersports business on Tiree, Blackhouse Watersports, he’s also a typical teenager whose mum tells him washing doesn’t just walk itself to a machine, whose dad tells him that sometimes his attitude is stinkin’, while Ben can be heard uttering the universal plea of the embarrassed teenager - “Dad, stop talking.”
Iona is a mum who also has to do the homeschooling as well as work and while dad Marti has 20 years’ experience in teaching water sports and acts as Ben’s coach for competitions, he also has a thing about playing Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing and occasionally his beachside pep talks will run to “just imagine there’s a crowd of hot babes on Balevullin Beach beach and you’ve got to impress them.”
“Yeah, we blew the entire budget on Money for Nothing,” laughs Robertson who has set up a FaceTime call with Ben and his family in Nazaré, Portugal where the youngster is tackling the biggest waves in the world right now.
Still buzzing from a day’s surfing and with hair still damp, Ben comes on the phone and there’s laughter off camera from his parents and little sisters Robyn and Lily. After a summer working every day at their surf school beach hut on Balevullin Beach back on Tiree, they’ve been able to spend some time in Lanzarote where Ben can train in warm water, and have just joined him in Portugal.
“I’m at Nazaré just now because this is where the biggest waves in the world are breaking. I managed to get a couple of good waves today and next week the swells will be really big, probably 50ft plus. It’s more exciting to come somewhere like this,” he says.
“My mum and dad have been watching from the cliff. They still get quite nervous, understandably, but they’ve supported my whole surfing life. It’s amazing to have them here in Nazare and all these things, the surfing, the podcasts I do, it’s because of them.”
Since making the film Ben has gone on to master the monster waves at Nazaré, been mentored and befriended by big name surfers like Nic Von Rupp and landed sponsorship from surf brand O’Neill.
“Getting sponsorship is amazing. I’ve never had support like that before. O’Neill are providing wetsuits and I’m stoked with that because they are my favourites,” he says.
After competing in Scotland, Japan and Portugal the teenager changed tack to going solo and take on the big water waves, a decision that gives everyone in his team, family and filmmaker, pause for thought.
“These big waves are massive and hugely dangerous and risky,” says Robertson. Everyone was thinking, ‘is this the right thing? But Ben is immersed in surfing magazines and videos and so had probably done much more research than any of us, so by the time he lands in Ireland, he was ready to take on a big wave. It was a moment for Ben to go and find his tribe and to do what he wanted to do.”
Ben’s life has changed since he was a 12-year old in Tiree, surfing to escape the hard time he was getting at school, and at 16 he seems older than his years.
“Yeah it’s gone from, growing up in Tiree, a tiny island where I was the only surfer, then when Martin started filming it threw up a lot of opportunities. We went to Ireland to surf big waves and I decided I wanted to continue, so I’ve ended up going to Lanzarote for some of the winter and now I’m in Nazare surfing with other amazing surfers that have taken me under their wing.”
Among his mentors in Nazare it’s Nic von Rupp, a professional surfer and big wave rider from Portugal that inspires him most.
“He’s surfed some of the biggest waves in the world and is a really accomplished surfer. He goes out of his way to tow me into waves or rescues me if I’m kind of drowning or whatever. He’s let us use his equipment - jet skis, surfboards, everything. All that stuff’s really expensive and he just let us take it. He’s also introducing us to other well known surfers, and sponsors… he’s opened a lot of doors for me. He’s been a good pal. Actually I don’t know if he’s still a pal because yesterday I snapped one of his favourite boards. I told him about it but he’s not messaged back yet,” he says and laughs.
“Also Sergio Cosme has been a great help. He’s one of the jet rescue drivers here and every time you fall he’s there to pick you up. I’ve also got great friends in Lanzarote who take me out surfing, like Max Miller Cooley and Garcia Ferrera who makes all my surfboards.”
“These are the guys leading big wave surfing at the minute. They’re really pushing the limits for performing on bigger waves. Some guys just like to go straight down the wave but these guys also do turns and tricks, really trying to push the limits. Guys like Nic von Rupp, Lucas Chumbo and Kai Lenny - they perform, do airs and turns. Lucas is doing 360s on 100 foot waves. It’s crazy. And really inspiring. That’s what I’m pushing for, more performance on waves.”
“So far, to be honest, I really enjoy just turning on a wave, doing big curves. A wave is a massive wall, so the bigger the wave, the bigger the turn you can do. So that’s been my main focus, rather than go at them straight. And sometimes I like to do airs and stuff but I think just now turns look cooler.“
So what does Larg feel, what does he think, when he’s at the top of a big wave, about to go down?
“Well,” he says and laughs. “I try not to think about it too much. I try and focus and get down and make it. You don’t want to fall at the top of one of those waves! But it’s a mixture of being a little bit scared and knowing that if you hesitate at all you’re more likely to fall, so I just try to stay calm and get down. As soon as you hesitate, that’s when you’re going to fall. So you’ve just got to keep focused.”
Larg is on a mission but what exactly is it that keeps him coming back, for the next wave and the one after?
“About the age of 12 I realised the bigger waves you surf the more adrenaline you’re getting and the more fun you’re having. I think that’s what keeping me going. Being stoked, like super happy with your wave, you’ve got a great adrenaline rush.”
As Larg ages and gains more experience, he also has an evolving awareness of the physical challenges of his sport, particularly big wave surfing, where being smashed down onto the seabed or rocks can be fatal, and an injury to his foot last year put him out for months.
“Before I had my injury, I definitely had no fear whatsoever, but sometimes when I’m on a wave now I do think ‘oh, I don’t want to break my foot again,’. But I try not to think about it. Everybody says that after an injury happens you’re a little more scared but try not to think about it. So I don’t think about it too much.”
While Nazaré is an amazing destination for Larg to surf, Scotland is still his favourite place to be on a board.
“I love it at home. It’s cold and it’s miserable but I kind of enjoy that and we’ve got some of the most amazing waves. Some of the locations are super beautiful, especially Tiree. It’s very quiet, and if you’re the only person surfing in the water it’s very special.”
He’s also a fan of Thurso, for its “world class waves. Apart from you’ve got to wear really thick wetsuits and can barely move with boots and gloves”, while St Andrews also gets his vote.
“You can get good waves there,” he says. “I surf there quite a lot because my uncles live there and one runs The Cheesy Toast Shack and the other has a creperie, so after we’ve been in the really cold surf, that really helps.”
Being a big fan of the restorative properties of a hot snack, Larg has launched his own food enterprise to fund his surfing life, making and selling pizzas at home on Tiree.
“A friend gave me a pizza oven so in the summer I rock up to folk’s houses and make them 30 pizzas or something, and that’s how I’ve been paying for my trips to Nazare and for wetsuits and surfboards. No-one else does pizzas in Tiree so I’m definitely the best pizza guy there.”
Asking someone who is 16 what their biggest achievement so far seems a bit premature but Larg has already packed a lot in, and he rises to the challenge.
“I’ve done so many things that I’m super happy with that it’s starting to change every day. But surfing Mullaghmore in Ireland when I was 14 was a breakthrough for me. I’d never really surfed any other big waves and it was my first time going on a tow board. Just to surf a wave like that was really quite a big step.
“I also always had a goal to surf Nazaré, to be one of the youngest and the first Scottish person, and this year I did that, so I’m really happy with that.”
With Larg’s fame comes his ability to inspire the next generation of young surfers and the sport is definitely on a wave.
“More and more kids are starting to come up - you see it at the Scottish Surfing Federation competitions. My first competition there were only four other kids the same age as me and now there’s like 50, kids of eight and younger and they’re really good. I’m really excited for the future of surfing in Scotland. It’s becoming really popular.”
“With Covid loads of people came surfing in Scotland and a lot have kept it up and are doing competitions. I get daily Instagram messages saying ‘hey how’s it going? Saw your stuff in Nazare and was wondering where are the best places to surf in Scotland?”
Larg isn’t really one to hand out advice, but when pressed he says, “The trick is just to try and surf every single day.”
And if they were getting a hard time at school from other kids?
“Find something you enjoy and focus on that. Try to block out the folk that aren’t being sound. The kids at school probably didn’t like me because I surfed and was a little different. It kind of boosts you to focus on your sport and almost drives me a little bit, to make sure I do well.”
“But for all kids, get your mates into it as welI. It’s much better fun if you’re pushing each other. If I’d had a mate, I’d be a much better surfer today.”
In Ride the Wave we see Ben making friends with other surfers, including one his own age, Nicaraguan surfer Cande (Candelari Resano), which prompts a dad/son conversation which Ben closes down with: ‘You can’t have a girlfriend who’s a better surfer than you.”
He laughs and says, “Cande’s still a much better surfer than me. She still shreds. We keep in touch every now and again.”
“There are just as many girls surfing as boys - my sister Robyn’s amazing. Lily’s thing is horses - and some of the leading young surfers are girls. Like Sierra Kerr, she’s out of this world. Ok, she’s grown up in places that are really good for surfing, but so’s Scotland - we’ve got no excuse. It’s cold yeah, but we’ve got as good surf as anywhere in the world.”
Not only does Larg argue that his homeland is equal to anywhere in the surf world, he thinks there are advantages to surfing in Scotland.
“There’s a hundred more waves you can catch in Scotland because it’s not nearly as busy as Hawaii. Because it’s colder there are fewer people in the water. If you think Hawaii has the best waves in the world, Scotland has equally good waves. Really world class. Nic Von Rupp, loads of other guys, world champions, they all come to the UK. And Scotland in particular has really great waves.”
After catching the big waves in Portugal Larg plans to head home to Tiree and save money over the summer so he can return to Nazare next winter.
“That’s my goal. But I really want to explore Scotland too, as it has a lot of potential for bigger waves that just haven’t been found. Yet.”
Ride the Wave, from Urbancroft Films will be shown at Glasgow Film Festival on 10 and 11 March. https://glasgowfilm.org/
Blackhouse Watersports, Balevullin Beach Hut, Tiree, https://www.blackhouse-watersports.co.uk/
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