The noble art of surf exploration (that is, the act of searching for new, previously unridden surf spots) was supposed to have been killed off by the advent of professionally produced surfing guidebooks in the early 1990s – tomes such as the minutely detailed Stormrider Guides, which appeared to lift the lid on every stretch of surfable coastline on the planet. Then, in the Noughties, surf exploration was supposed to have been killed off again, this time by the advent of Google Earth, which really did lift the lid on every stretch of surfable coastline on the planet, at least for anyone with a half-decent PC and a bit of time on their hands.
But while the guidebooks and Google’s eye in the sky certainly helped us find more waves, they also highlighted just how much was still out there, waiting to be discovered. As if to prove the point, last year saw the unveiling of what may well be the best wave anyone has ever seen or surfed – a remote sandbar in Angola which, in the right conditions, can produce perfectly formed barrels that grind along for a distance of around 3km. “If you look at it on Google Earth there are thousands of waves which could be this wave,” said Dan Mace, one of the first filmmakers to document the spot. “It will be extremely difficult for people to find it.”
All that technology, all those guidebooks… and yet somehow a 3km-long hell-wave managed to remain hidden from the world’s millions-strong surfing population until the middle of 2013.
Of course, there’s no law that says you have to go to an exotic location in order to find a virgin surf spot, but it certainly helps to look away from surfing’s obvious heartlands. Hawaii, California and Australia may seem exotic from the perspective of our grey, soggy little island, but they are now largely known quantities; Scotland, by contrast, is a place where much of the coastline is still uncharted by people in rubber tracksuits.
It may not feel very exotic surfing here in December, while semi-frozen raindrops pitter-patter on the hood of your wetsuit as you wait out a lull between sets, but in surfing terms this is one of the last frontiers – a place that may still yield hidden gems – and nowhere is this more true than on the west coast, with its maddeningly complex, drunken-monkey-designed coastline of infinite possibilities.
It’s no secret that there are good waves to be had on Lewis, Tiree, Islay and on the southern tip of the Mull of Kintyre, but what about the rest? What about, say, the little island of Colonsay, sitting there unassumingly between the north coast of Islay and the south coast of Mull, and exposed to the full force of the Atlantic Ocean? Why do we never hear about anybody surfing there?
The map of the Inner Hebrides in My Stormrider Guide to Europe (1998 edition) marks several surf spots on Tiree and Islay, but Colonsay appears only as an anonymous green blob.
And yet I know it’s possible to surf there, because five years ago I spent a fun couple of days messing around on waist-high beachbreak waves at Kiloran Bay.
Kiloran is the only obvious surf spot on the island, but can it really be the only surfable wave on Colonsay’s nine-mile long west coast (12 miles if you include its connected-at-low-tide neighbour, Oronsay)? Last month, I returned to find out. In the absence of any surfing literature about the place, I turned to a 1910 book, Colonsay: One of the Hebrides, written by Murdoch McNeill, a former head gardener at Colonsay House. McNeill was mostly interested in the botany of the island, but he does mention in passing that, from a certain headland “an extended view is obtained of the rock-bound coast” where “huge green seas rise over sunken rocks far out from shore, sometimes passing onwards with white and curling crests, sometimes breaking into surging masses of snowy foam”.
It’s not an easy coast to explore by foot – as many potential breaks are a long way out to sea a boat would come in handy – but I did spy a reef that produced a very serious-looking right hand barrel for about an hour either side of high tide.
A flash in the pan or the tip of the iceberg? Until somebody studies Colonsay’s coastline with the same dedication that Mr McNeill once studied its flora, we may never know.