Roger Cox: Tiree is a windsurfer’s paradise

Roger Cox. Picture: Neil Hanna
Roger Cox. Picture: Neil Hanna
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FIRST held in 1986, the Tiree Wave Classic windsurfing competition has always been a unique event.

The remote island setting, the companionable bond that often develops between athletes and spectators, and, of course, the fact that the Atlantic Ocean has the capacity to deliver some wild and woolly conditions in mid-October, all adds up to an atmosphere that’s about as far away from a conventional sporting event as it’s possible to imagine. When I first covered the Classic for this paper back in 2005, I was surprised to find that, far from acting like spoiled prima donnas, most of the competitors would happily hang out at the bar of the Tiree Lodge Hotel every night. And when, in 2009, a thumping west swell coincided with several days of no wind, it was more than a little surreal to paddle out on a surfboard of the old-fashioned, sail-less variety at places like Balevullin and Balephuil, and discover that some of the biggest names in British windsurfing were also in the line-up waiting for waves – the watersports equivalent of turning up for a kickabout at your local park and finding members of the Man United first team joining in.

If there’s one thing previous Wave Classics may have lacked, however, it’s perhaps a sense that the local community has been fully involved. Since its inception, the Classic has always been run by organisations based off the island, so the feeling the event had been parachuted in, rather than growing up organically, was probably unavoidable, no matter how many well-meaning outreach initiatives were attempted. Earlier this month, however, for the first time in its history, the event was run by a Tiree native – Willy Angus MacLean, owner of the island’s Wild Diamond windsurfing school and a man who, in various different capacities, has been involved in the organisation of the event for the last decade-and-a-half. One of his stated aims on taking over at the helm of the Classic was to try to get local businesses more involved, and, in spite of the fact the Classic clashed with the Mod in Oban this year, taking many locals off the island, on the whole his efforts seem to have borne fruit, with whisky tastings, meals at local restaurants and family-friendly beach barbecues all helping to make the sailors feel more involved in the island community and the islanders feel more involved in the almighty huck-fest going down in their back yard.

“The level of community involvement was much more significant than in previous years,” says MacLean, “but being based on Tiree probably made that a lot easier than for previous event hosts.”

“We had local people manning the event HQ, interacting with locals as they came in the door, and that made a huge difference in terms of the feel of ownership of the event. Also, we had some local kids involved in the junior side of the event, and those guys did very well – one of them, Finn MacDonald, actually came second in the junior category this year. It’s little things like that which make all the difference.”

Community involvement is all very well, but a windsurfing contest only really works if the essential ingredients of wind and waves decide to show up to the party. Fortunately 2015 was a solid year – not spectacularly good, by Tiree standards, but good enough. The second day of the contest offered light winds and just-about-contestable conditions, which allowed MacLean and his team to run a first men’s pro elimination competition all the way to the final. Then, on Day Five, a solid westerly swell delivered head to head-and-a-half high waves, which, combined with 18-20mph southerly winds, made for an epic, 12-hour day of sailing and a second knock-out contest for the pros. After averaging out the results from the so-called double-elimination Ross Williams prevailed over his Gaastra/Tabou teammate Phil Horrocks to take first place in the pros and the coveted Wave Classic broadsword trophy.

“This year was a little bit flat compared to what we’d like to see in Tiree,” says MacLean, “but by doing a double elimination we did at least as much as you’d expect at a World Cup event in terms of competition.”

MacLean is now starting to think about the 2016 Classic – the 30th anniversary edition – and one of the things he’s keen to do is attract some international names from the upper end of the PWA [Professional Windsurfing Association] rankings. Quite how that will play out remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: next year’s competitors can expect a very warm Tiree welcome.