Roger Cox: My mixed emotions over discovery of secret surf spot

ANOTHER week, and yet another watersports magazine publishes a set of pictures of perfect, wind-sculpted waves breaking off the coast of a little-known Scottish island.

Roger Cox. Picture: Neil Hanna
Roger Cox. Picture: Neil Hanna

Over at VisitScotland head office they’ll probably be throwing a party, and why not? Exposure like this can only mean more surfers and windsurfers heading for the west coast in the summer, booking accommodation and ferry crossings, hiring gear, buying food, and generally boosting the local economy. Nothing wrong with any of that, but not everyone’s a winner, baby, that’s for sure. For people like your humble correspondent, who have been making the pilgrimage to said island for many years now, largely because it’s a remote, mostly crowd-free zone, publishing events like this can cause, let’s say, a mixture of emotions. Yes, of course you’re chuffed for the people you know who live there and may stand to gain economically from all the coverage, and sure, maybe you’re even a little bit proud-by-proxy to see one of your favourite places in the world being acknowledged by a big-deal magazine. But unless you’re one of the top ten most selfless people on the planet, a shoo-in for a sainthood when you eventually pop your clogs, when you see something like this there will also be a small, selfish part of you that starts screaming “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Because you know, deep down, that one day in the not-too-distant future you’re going to go sauntering through the dunes to what was once a near-deserted beach and find 50 people already out in the water, hassling each other for waves.

On the up-side, at least the article I’m referring to didn’t reveal any secret spots – the breaks it namechecked were all very much on the beaten track. According to the strict etiquette of the secret spot, then, the publication in question has done nothing wrong. It may send more people to a general area in search of waves, but it hasn’t revealed any information that wasn’t already available in surfing guide books or on tourism websites.

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This is one way in which surf journalism has always been different from pretty much every other kind of journalism you care to name: rather than trying to add to the sum of knowledge, the archetypal surf mag story obfuscates like crazy, with writers tying themselves in knots in their attempts to provide just enough detail for a decent yarn, but not so much detail that they give the game away. Occasionally, surf mags may leave a trail of breadcrumbs for readers to follow (the clue is sometimes in the headline), but mostly you’ll get nothing more specific about the location of the latest dream-wave discovery than a deliberately vague reference to “a remote atoll somewhere in the Indian Ocean.”

Over on the worldwide web, however, and particularly on social media, the time-honoured rules of surf journalism do not apply. Cue all kinds of unpleasantness, as Surfer A proudly posts pictures of himself getting the ride of his life at a top-secret break, only to be attacked by Surfer B who accuses him of giving away the location of a little-known wave and ruining it for long-time devotees. You don’t even have to name a wave or describe where it is to fall foul of the secret spot police – even a picture with a tell-tale landmark or cliff formation can be enough to get you in trouble.

All of which no doubt sounds mildly ridiculous to the non-surfing world, and I’d love to be able to join in with the get-a-life sneering, but the events of recent weeks have confirmed that I’m just as susceptible to the fear of secret spot exposure as the next angry loon on Twitter. By pure coincidence, my two visits so far this season to my hiding-in-plain-sight, semi-secret snowboarding spot have been made in semi-darkness, one beginning before dawn, the other ending after dusk. In years gone by it never really occurred to me to try and keep the location of this little stash secure, but these last two forays got me thinking: in future, should I only visit under cover of semi-darkness? Have I been too careless in the past? There are certainly a lot more skiers and snowboarders out there these days who are prepared to hike a little to find fresh snow.

Then again, maybe having your secret spot crowded out is a good thing. If you manage to keep it a secret then you’ll probably end up surfing, skiing or snowboarding it forever, and variety, as they say, is the spice of life. Better, surely, to be forced to go looking for an alternative earthly paradise, even if getting turfed out of Eden hurts like hell at the time.