Unhappy news reached Four Seasons this week from Daan Meijer, European marketing manager for US-based surf clobber brand O’Neill: the Thurso Coldwater Classic, the surfing competition that has drawn some of the best aquatic athletes on the planet to the north coast of Scotland in recent years, has been mothballed for the foreseeable.
UNHAPPY news reached Four Seasons this week from Daan Meijer, European marketing manager for US-based surf clobber brand O’Neill: the Thurso Coldwater Classic, the surfing competition that has drawn some of the best aquatic athletes on the planet to the north coast of Scotland in recent years, has been mothballed for the foreseeable
“Sadly, it doesn’t look like we will be running the event next year,” says Daan “and for now there are no plans to come back to Thurso in the near future. There might be a chance we will organise a surf event in the UK next year, but it will most likely be more of a grassroots event.”
So that’s that then – the end of an era. For Scottish surf fans, no more superstars from Australia and Hawaii doing incredible, impossible things out on the reef at Thurso East; and for the businesspeople of Thurso, a fond farewell to all those lovely tourist bucks handed over every April by the small army of permatanned foreigners driving a caravan of rental cars up and down the coast in search of waves.
O’Neill first held a pro surf contest at Thurso in 2006. Back then it was called the Highland Open and many suspected it would be a one-off – a wrapped-up-warm novelty in a world where people typically like to walk around with not much on. But when footage of the final rounds – held in thumping barrels at Brims Ness – leaked out to the wider world, the event’s future seemed secure. O’Neill even launched other Coldwater Classic contests in places such as Canada and Tasmania, showing the world that if you’ve got a good wetsuit – preferably an O’Neill wetsuit – then surfing in high latitudes can be just as much fun as surfing in the tropics.
Earlier this year, however, it was announced that the 2012 Thurso event had been cancelled so resources could be redirected to a special contest in Santa Cruz, California to mark O’Neill’s 60th anniversary. There were hopes that this would only be a hiatus, but now it seems it will be permanent. Unless, of course, another of the megabrands that dominate the sport of surfing decides to get out its chequebook and pick up where O’Neill left off.
That might not be as fanciful an idea as it sounds, because in many ways Thurso offers a unique opportunity for a canny investor.
The majority of surfing competitions can be slotted into one of two categories: Urban Beach Circuses and Fantasy Drool-Fests. In the case of the former, the location is chosen primarily for its proximity to a major population centre and the quality of the surf is a secondary consideration. Case in point: the Nike US Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach, California. The largest surfing competition in the world, the 2012 edition of this behemoth lasted for nine days and saw more than 200 surfers battling it out for $300,000 (£186,185) of prize money in front of sun-baked crowds of up to 250,000. The waves for the final, however, were small and inconsistent, and the world’s top surfers faced the ignominious prospect of flailing around in uninspiring dribble to see who would take home the giant cardboard winner’s cheque.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Fantasy Drool-Fests prioritise wave quality, and rely on the power of the internet to reach the masses. A good example of this is the Billabong Tahiti Pro, held at the infamous Teahupoo – a reefbreak so ferocious it has already claimed the lives of five surfers, even though it has only been ridden for the last decade or so. Usually the only spectators at such far-flung events are the competitors and a few hangers-on, but the action is webcast live, reaching an audience of millions.
Thurso offers the best of both worlds: a quality wave (80th best on the planet, according to Surfer magazine) and a nearby town. Later this month, from 25-28 October, the UK Pro Surf Tour will stop off at Thurso for its penultimate contest of the year, and a festival called Wave North will run alongside it, featuring pop-up exhibitions, outdoor film screenings and live music. If I was a brand manager for one of the big surf companies, I’d be up there in two weeks’ time, taking very careful notes.