On a bright, chilly morning in April 2010, I found myself in the farmyard overlooking the reef at Thurso East, sitting in a van belonging to many-times Scottish surfing champion Chris Noble while he munched on a bacon and egg roll and considered the future of Scottish surfing. “At the end of the day we’ve got waves that are just as good as anywhere, and we can surf just as good as these guys,” he said, motioning in the direction of the water, where some of the best pro surfers in the world were contesting that year’s O’Neill Coldwater Classic. It wasn’t just empty talk: Noble had proven his point the day before by becoming the first Scot to progress from the opening round of the Classic since its inception in 2006. But when he looked into the future, the 35 year-old wasn’t dreaming big dreams for his own career, but imagining what the next generation might achieve.
“We’re just getting the paperwork together to become recognised [by the International Surfing Association],” he told me – he was president of the Scottish Surfing Federation at the time – “and then we’re going to join. Right now we’re not in a position to put forward a team – we don’t have enough kids and we don’t have the infrastructure. But who’s to say that in a few years’ time we’re not going to have the ability to push forward?”
Fast forward to the present day, and Scotland is indeed a member of the ISA, and has been sending teams to ISA-sanctioned contests all over the world since 2014, exceeding expectations at every turn. And earlier this year, at the Nordic Surf Games in Jæren, Norway, another milestone was reached when 19-year-old Megan Mackay from McDuff became the first Scottish surfer ever to win an international competition.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says down the line from the University of Aberdeen, where she’s studying Geology. “The waves were kind of similar to home. I found the water a bit warmer than here, but I found the air temperature much colder – I remember just shivering whenever I came out of the water. It was snowing one day too, but it was really cool – like something in a film.”
Held at the end of February, the Nordic Surf Games were open to surfers of all nationalities but mostly saw competitors from Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a few more exotic countries such as Brazil and Hawaii also represented. The Scottish Surfing Federation fielded a team of four: Mackay (ladies), Jamie Marshall (longboard), Mark Boyd (men’s open) and Elliot Young (Juniors). Like most surf contests, the Nordic Games have a knockout format, with four surfers in each heat and the top two finishers progressing to the next round.
“In my first heat the conditions were really good,” says Mackay, “head high waves, offshore wind and the waves really had a bit of punch to them. I came second in that heat – I got a couple of good left-handers and a couple of good rights as well. Then I came second again in round two. Again I got a couple of good waves but I missed out on first place because I didn’t complete one of my turns properly. I was a bit annoyed about that, but I learned from each experience and built on that in the other heats.”
By the time the semi-finals rolled around, the waves had lost a bit of power, so Mackay made the decision to switch boards: “The next day it had dropped off quite a lot and the wind had turned onshore so I took out a different board. It’s one I use for Aberdeen when it gets... well... crap! It’s a Rusty Dwart and it’s just better for messier, sloppy conditions – it just felt right under my feet.”
It turned out to be an inspired decision: Mackay came first in her semi-final heat, and was on song when she reached the final.
“My first wave in the final was a left-hand wave. I took off, completed a big top turn, did a big bottom turn and then it walled up on the inside and I managed to complete another turn. I remember hearing everybody cheering. Then another left-hander came through and I managed to complete a few good turns on that.”
Mackay didn’t know what position she was in until the last few minutes of the heat, when the commentator read out the scores over the loudspeaker and she realised she was in first.
“I was really hoping that no more waves would come through, but then Guro [Aanestad of Norway, the reigning champion] got a really good wave and I thought ‘ach dammit, I think that’s me lost my position.’ But I think my manoeuvres were in a more critical part of the wave, so in the end I got the higher scores.”
“It was really good to see girls from other coldwater countries – how good they were, and how we’ve all got to go through the same struggle through the cold to get good waves.”
*The 2017 Scottish National Surfing Championships take place at Thurso from 13-17 April, see www.thessf.com
*The Scottish Surf Team are trying to raise funds to attend the ISA World Surfing Games in France this May. To donate, visit https://tinyurl.com/mecf7pg