Roger Cox: Thurso still boasts world-class waves

Roydon Bryson, last year's CWC winner, surfing at Thurso East. Picture: Contributed
Roydon Bryson, last year's CWC winner, surfing at Thurso East. Picture: Contributed
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ON the afternoon of 27 October, a short video clip started pinging around cyberspace – the first hint, for those who couldn’t be there, that this year’s UK Pro Surfing Championships event at Thurso had been a roaring success.

Just 13 seconds long, it showed Woolacombe surfer Stuart Campbell charging down the face of a perfect, deep green cylinder, then disappearing beneath a tumbling curtain of whitewater for the count of one, two, three, four, five, before finally flying out onto the safety of the shoulder in a cloud of spray, arms raised in triumph.

When he posted the clip online, Campbell simply captioned it “my 9.4 in the final today”. Most people seeing that would have assumed he’d gone on to win the event – a 9.4 out of ten in the final of a surfing contest, in which only your best two wave scores count, is usually enough to secure a victory. But no, Campebll had in fact been beaten by Luis Eyre, from Manchester via Portugal, who said the waves were “some of the best I have ever surfed”.

Praise for the thumping swell that hit Thurso that day was pretty much unanimous. Event organiser and seasoned surfer Dave Reed described the waves as “the best I have seen in the UK;” head judge Mike Durkin called them “world class” and “absolutely amazing – a surfer’s dream”.

All of which must surely be making the bean counters at multinational surf brand O’Neill gnash their teeth in frustration.

From 2006-2011, O’Neill sponsored an international surf contest at Thurso known initially as the Highland Open and latterly as the Coldwater Classic. It regularly attracted big name surfers – notably 2000 world champ Sunny Garcia and current World Tour stars Adam Melling and John John Florence – and year after year it delivered waves that had competitors and spectators alike struggling for superlatives.

In 2012, as reported in this slot, O’Neill decided to mothball the event “for the foreseeable future” so they could concentrate on their long-running event at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz, California. Fair enough – times are tough and a certain amount of belt-tightening is understandable. If and when more money becomes available, however, surely reviving the Thurso event must be a high priority for the folks at O’Neill HQ. And if they still can’t quite make the numbers add up, could a modest amount of public funding be found to bridge the gap?

Locally, there certainly seems to be a desire to capitalise on Thurso’s world-class waves. In a recent article on the Invest Caithness website, Highland councillor John Rosie spoke of his plans to install showers and changing facilities beside the surf zone at Thurso East. He also says he plans to meet council chief executive Steve Barron to see if an official can be dedicated to the task of making Thurso “the UK’s watersports hub”. Surely one of the first things such an official should do, if appointed, is start talking to O’Neill about how best to get the world’s best surfers back into the chilly waters of the Pentland Firth. Hot showers are one thing, but in terms of boosting profile and attracting investment, having the world surfing circus descend on your town for a couple of weeks every year is impossible to beat.

In other surfing news, the online version of the Encyclopedia of Surfing launched recently, to much acclaim. Written and researched by former Surfer Magazine journalist Matt Warshaw, and packed with rarely seen archive photos and film clips, it’s a real Aladdin’s Cave for anyone with even a passing interest in the sport.

One slight gripe is the fact that, at time of going to press, Scotland doesn’t merit a single entry. OK, we’re not as central to the development of surfing as Hawaii or California, but still – a footnote would have been nice. A quick email to Warshaw, however, soon clears up any confusion. Apparently he’s only put 600 of a total 1,800 entries onto the site so far and is working on uploading the rest. There is an entry for Scotland – I’ve seen it and it’s very thorough. “I’ll probably get to it sometime in 2014,” says Matt. “Wish I could be more specific.”