Scottish surfers prepare to take on world's best in Biarritz

This weekend the ISA World Surfing Games '“ the nearest thing the sport of kings has to a World Cup '“ will descend on the chi-chi resort town of Biarritz, on France's Basque coast. The place is already an odd mixture of faded glamour and contemporary beach culture, where packs of local surfers pad bare-footed past grand, Belle Époque and Art Deco hotels on their way to and from the waves. But from 20-28 May the town's already considerable surfing population will be swollen out of all proportion as teams of waveriders from around the globe arrive to do battle on its beaches.

Mark Boyd surfing Thurso East PIC: Niall Manson
Mark Boyd surfing Thurso East PIC: Niall Manson

This is the first time the World Surfing Games has been held in Europe since 2008, when it was hosted by Costa da Caparica in Portugal, and the location is notable for being the place where surfing first gained a toe-hold in France. In 1956 and ‘57, so the story goes, the Californian author and screenwriter Peter Viertel was in Biarritz working on Henry King’s big screen adaptation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. As soon as he clocked the area’s surfing potential he arranged for his board to be shipped over, and from that moment on the French never looked at their long, wave-rich Atlantic coastline in quite the same way again.

Scotland will be among the nations taking part in the ISA (International Surfing Association) event next week. Mark Cameron, Mark Boyd, Scott Main and Chris Clarke will compete in the men’s open division, while Shoana Blackadder and Phoebe Strachan will compete in the women’s. As outlined in last week’s column, the Scottish Surfing Federation (SSF) have struggled to raise enough money to cover the cost of sending a team to the Games this year, and ended up well short of their £4,500 target. Last year the Scottish team had to pull out of the World Surfing Games in Costa Rica due to a lack of funds, but this year, Boyd says, the surfers will be making up the shortfall themselves and competing anyway – no small commitment when you consider they are already taking a week off work to fly the Saltire in France.

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The six surfers heading out to Biarritz were selected from the top finishers at the 2016 Scottish Surfing Championships, contested in solid head-high surf at Thurso East and nearby Brims Ness last April. The 2017 edition of the Scottish Champs was held last month – at Thurso again, although in less-than classic conditions. The wind howled onshore for the duration, making the waves at Thurso East uncharacteristically mushy, but with the opportunity to represent Scotland at the 2018 World Games at stake, the competition was still fierce.

Phoebe Strachan

In the men’s open division, George Watt from Fraserburgh found himself standing on top of the podium after winning a stacked final that included Boyd, Allyn Harper and many-times Scottish champion Chris Noble. Watt was unlucky not to make the final of the Scottish Surfing Championships at Melvich back in 2009, after he flowed through a particularly beautiful roundhouse cutback in the semis, so it was good to see him lifting a trophy here, having impressed once again with his uncanny ability to wrap himself back into the wave’s power pocket at just the right moment.

Meanwhile in the open women’s category, Megan McKay from Macduff – interviewed in this slot a few weeks ago – followed up her impressive win at the Nordic Surf Games in Norway in February with another first place finish, and Phoebe Strachan came a close second to claim the other World Surf Games qualifying slot for 2018. In the junior divisions, Tiree charger Ben Larg – still just 12-years-old – blew yet more minds to win the Under-18s, while fellow Tiree local Finn Macdonald took home the Under-16s and Thurso’s Craig McLachlan won the Under-14s. Iona McLachlan topped the Girls Under-18s division, and Oisin Strachan from Dunbar took home the Junior Bodyboard trophy.

In competitive surfing terms, Scotland is still very much the new kid on the block, having only gained official ISA recognition in 2014. The current generation are helping build some solid foundations, however – with or without the necessary funding – and by the time today’s top teens start competing at senior level, they should have a wealth of experience to draw on. Lessons learned in Biarritz in the coming days will no doubt be passed on to Larg & Co for future reference.

Phoebe Strachan