The most prestigious windsurfing contest in the UK, the Tiree Wave Classic celebrates its 30th birthday this weekend and all next week, when an estimated fleet of between 65 and 70 sailors will descend on the small Hebridean island along with crowds of spectators. All will be praying for the Atlantic to deliver the howling winds and towering waves that are a very real possibility in mid-October – perhaps even conditions like those that greeted the legendary contest of 1994, which saw Niels Larsen defeat Farrel O’Shea in an epic final in 20-foot surf at Ballevulin, in the island’s north-western corner.
Willy Angus MacLean has literally grown up with the Wave Classic, and he remembers 1994 as a landmark year. A Tiree native, his first involvement was as a runner at one of the very first contests back in 1989. “Two kids were drafted in from school to hold up flags for the week – I was one of them,” he says.
He won the junior division in 1992, aged 15, finished second in the amateur division in 1993 – no mean feat for a 16-year-old – and now, after several years of competing in the pro division and many years of involvement in the administration of the event, he’s running the show – 2016 will be his second year as
the Wave Classic’s first ever local director.
As far as MacLean is concerned, the 1994 contest is the one by which all others should be measured. “It was phenomenal to watch,” he says. “You’d just see guys – masts, everything – just disappearing under the breaking waves. You had previous British champs and even world tour guys humbled and sent back to the beach that year. And bizarrely, two lesser-known guys, Niels Larsen and Farrel O’Shea, less well-known than the top ranking pros, but much more experienced big wave guys – they absolutely took the established pros to the cleaners.”
The Wave Classic traditionally accepts entries right up until the first day of the competition, so it’s difficult for MacLean to say who he thinks this year’s main contenders will be, as he can’t be sure who will turn up. Based on the entries he’s had so far, though, he expects Phil Horrocks and Andy Chambers – both regular Wave Classic attendees – will be among the main challengers for the coveted winner’s broadsword in the men’s pro division.
“I think we’re probably going to see Andy and Phil as the two top seeds this year, whether or not we get any of the heavy-hitters who have won the event before,” he says. “Phil’s got a bit of a mission here, because in 2014 he won what was introduced as ‘The Quickening.’ It was a trial format – so technically he won ‘an’ event in Tiree, but he didn’t win the Tiree competition proper, and he hasn’t won it before, so there’s probably still something niggling away at him.
“Andy Chambers has come across from a different division of windsurfing – he’s now very, very good, so probably the head to head will be between those two.”
If there’s a surprise winner on the final day, MacLean predicts it could be one of the new generation of sailors. “There’s also a chap called Aleksy Gayda from Cornwall,” he says, “he’s been to Tiree on a number of occasions and he’s got a lot of kudos in terms of his wave sailing ability.”
The Wave Classic may be best-known as a showcase for high-performance wave sailing, but it has long prided itself on its youth programme, and this is something MacLean is keen to continue. This year, the Wave Classic is teaming up with RYA Scotland and the British Wavesailing Association to put on the second annual Youth & Junior Windsurfing Wave Camp, which will run at the same time as the Wave Classic, and aims to help youngsters develop their wave sailing skills.
The youth category of the Wave Classic is growing too – last year there were 24 entries, but this year MacLean says he’s aiming to attract as many as 30, and he also thinks a couple of young Tiree-based sailors – Stewart Cowling and Tristan Levie, both 19 – might be in with a shout of winning the amateur division.
Much, of course, will depend on the conditions. Even though October is a prime time for wind and swell, one or two recent Wave Classics have suffered from less than classic conditions. You can’t help feeling, though, that Mother Ocean must know a great event when she sees
one, will recognise this 30th anniversary as a significant landmark, and will be cooking up something special, out there in the middle of the Atlantic, that will set the bar for years to come.
The Tiree Wave Classic runs from 15-22 October, see www.tireewaveclassic.co.uk