Surfing in Shetland: How it all began with a late-night walk home from the pub

Last month, Shetland played host to its first ever surf contest – the Scottish Surfing Federation’s Gathering of the Clans. Vince Attfield, one of the original Shetland surfers, explains some of the pros and cons of chasing waves at 60 degrees north. Interview by Roger Cox

Mark Boyd on his way to winning the Men's Open division at the 2022 Gathering of the Clans PIC: Malsurf
Mark Boyd on his way to winning the Men's Open division at the 2022 Gathering of the Clans PIC: Malsurf

Long-time Shetland surfer Vince Attfield is talking about the plentiful marine life he sees while riding waves at the various beaches, reefs and points near his home in Sumburgh. It’s dolphins and porpoises mostly, he says, although he’s also had a couple of encounters with “whales” over the years.

“Is that ‘whales’ as in ‘killer whales?’”

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“Aye,” he says, “orcas.”

Vince Attfield, one of the original Shetland surfers PIC: Dave Donaldson
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So how does he react when he suddenly sees one of those unmistakable fins knifing through the water? “I just paddle in slowly,” he says. “They say you’re not supposed to panic when you see a shark, so I guess it’s the same with an orca.”

Anyway, for surfers in this part of the North Atlantic, fearsome apex predators are fairly low down the list of day-to-day concerns. Public enemy number one is the wind.

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"The surf here’s pretty hit and miss," says Attfield. "Sometimes it can just be totally blown-out for days. The low pressures track straight across the Atlantic and usually end up right over the top of us, so it’s only very occasionally that you’ll get an offshore wind."

Last month, surfers from all over Scotland travelled to Sumburgh as the Scottish Surfing Federation held its annual Gathering of the Clans team contest in Shetland for the first time and – thankfully – the wind didn’t spoil the fun.

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Tamzin Rosie competing at West Voe Beach PIC: Malsurf

Not only was this the first time the SSF had held a contest in Shetland, it was the first time there had been a surf contest in Shetland full-stop. Thurso’s North Shore Surf Club took the title for the fifth consecutive year, with current Scottish champions Mark Boyd and Phoebe Strachan winning the two open divisions. However, the Shetland team, 60 Degrees North Boardriders, did themselves proud, with Joe Morton (Open Men), Peter Georgeson (Longboard) and Tom Wills (Masters) all making the finals in their divisions.

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As president of 60 Degrees North Boardriders, Shetland’s only surf club, Attfield played a key role in making the contest happen, helping to organise accommodation and using his local knowledge to decide where to hold the heats each day . In the end, the contest was held in two different locations: at a reef break called Boat Ramp on the first day and at the beach break at West Voe on the second.

Both spots are close to Sumburgh, but there are plenty of other options in the area. "The Boat Ramp is six minutes away from my house," says Attfield. "The nearest break’s maybe two minutes away, and within less than ten miles there are maybe ten breaks, so there’s not a lot of driving around.

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"There are other breaks up in the north of the island and in the west, and then there’s the outer islands, like Unst and Yell. If you’re going there you make a day of it or even a weekend of it. I don’t think there’s anywhere in Shetland I’ve not checked yet. There are maybe one or two spots that have eluded me over the years but I think I’ve got most of them."

Now 54, Attfield is originally from Fife, but moved to Shetland 32 years ago, where he works as an engineer. He’s also pretty sure that he and two friends, Anthony Teart and Chris Jackson, were the first people ever to try surfing there, back in 1992.

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"There was nobody surfing here when I started surfing," he says. "Me and my mates were coming back home drunk from the pub one night and we thought it would be a good idea to go surfing, so that’s how it all kicked off. We could see the reefs at the end of the [airport] runway breaking on a beautiful moonlit night and we thought, ’that looks pretty cool , we should maybe try surfing sometime.’"

"We made a surfboard out of plywood and expanded foam,” he continues, “got a couple of Typhoon wetsuits, chucked ourselves in the water and got belted.... and then it snowballed from there."

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"We actually went to Quendell Beach first, so the Boatramp bay, but the shorebreak was pretty big and we didn’t have a clue."

These days, while there may be over 50 members of 60 Degrees North Boardriders, crowding still isn’t much of an issue for Shetland surfers. Many of the people who belong to the club are only occasional visitors, Attfield reckons, and on a “busy” day at one of the more popular breaks, there might only be six people in the water.

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When professional surf contests first started being held in Thurso on a regular basis in the mid-Noughties, there was a fear that the waves there might suddenly be overrun by tourists, and numbers have increased. Are there now similar conversations happening in Shetland, in the wake of the SSF event?

"We’ve been speaking about this for years," Attfield says, "and we’ve always kept things pretty low-key here. But it costs so much to travel to Shetland, I can never see it really getting busy.

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"I always tell people to come to Shetland to see Shetland," he adds, "because it’s a beautiful place. Take a surfboard, and if you get waves, well, it’s a bonus."

For more on this year’s Gathering of the Clans, see www.thessf.com