For the last couple of years, however, the ante has been significantly upped, after the Scottish Surfing Federation was officially recognised by the International Surfing Association (ISA), thereby gaining the right to send a team to compete at the ISA World Surfing Games each summer. So a good result at the Scottish champs is no longer simply an end in itself, although there’s still undoubtedly something very special about that storied old trophy, with some of the earliest names etched in it harking back to a sepia, super-hardcore past when boards and wetsuits didn’t work half as well as they do now. No, these days a good result at Thurso can get you into the Scottish team, and that in turn gives you the chance to represent your country at some truly mouth-watering surf destinations.
In 2014, for example, the World Surfing Games were held in Punta Rocas, Peru, in 2015 they were held in Popoyo, Nicaragua, and this year, in the first week of August, the top four male finishers and the top two female finishers from the Thurso contest will be representing Scotland in Jaco, Costa Rica. Mark Cameron, Chris Noble, Scott Main, Mark Boyd, Shona Blackadder and Phoebe Strachan will be hoping they can improve on last year’s showing, where all six Team Scotland surfers were eliminated in the first round of the competition, but win or lose, they will at least get to enjoy the novelty of surfing in bathwater-warm waves – a real treat for athletes who typically surf all year round in heavy-duty rubber tracksuits.
Funding these appearances on the world surfing stage, however, is easier said than done, with the athletes having to stump up an estimated £16,000 between them to cover flights, transfers, accommodation, entry fees and all the rest. A crowdfunder campaign is now active – find out more at www.crowdfunder.co.uk/scotland-isa-worlds-2016.
For many years now, there’s been a special place in my heart for Costa Rica’s pristine surf breaks. Not that I’ve ever actually been there, although it’s definitely on the bucket list. No, the reason I’m such a fan is because of the dreamy Costa Rica segment of the classic surf movie Endless Summer II, which – because surf films were a rare and an expensive commodity for a teenager growing up in the pre-internet 1990s – I must have watched at least a couple of hundred times before the age of 18.
First, the two stars of the show, shortboarder Pat O’Connell and longboarder Robert “Wingnut” Weaver, get to surf super-fast right-handers at Witch’s Rock – so-called because of the weird, slightly sinister-looking monolith lying out to sea just beyond the surf break. Then, as if by magic, a boat turns up in the channel and whisks them up the coast to another spot called Ollie’s Point. (When I first saw this bit I remember thinking how cool it was that a boat just-so-happened to appear while the Endless Summer crew were out in the water. Now I have a sneaking suspicion that the filmmakers might have planned this all along. The fact that a cameraman is already on board the boat in order to shoot the surfers as they paddle over to ask if they can hitch a ride should really have given the game away...)
Anyway, at Ollie’s Point, the waves are even better – well over head high and smoking down the line as a stiff offshore breeze hurls clouds of spray from their crests. I can still remember director Bruce Brown’s narration to this bit off by heart: “The locals named it Ollie’s Point after Oliver North. Supposedly the CIA had a secret base up the valley that supplied arms to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. It was a big secret. That’s why they called it Ollie’s Point. Everyone knew about it except Congress.”
Next up: Playa Negra, reached by a Second World War seaplane flight which Pat and Wingnut appear to have negotiated with a half-blind pilot in a cantina the night before (yeah, I know – almost certainly set up beforehand, and I bet the pilot could see fine, too). At Playa Negra, we learn, the water temperature is 88 degrees, although Pat and Wingnut “surfed a few spots that were colder – like 82”.
As filtered through the lens of The Endless Summer II, then, Costa Rica seems like the nearest thing to heaven on earth; hopefully Team Scotland will be able to get over the shock of surfing in boardshorts and prosper in paradise.