How To Survive Surfing in Scotland.
Scotland. Not the first place that springs to mind when someone yells “surfs up!”. Yet, deceivingly, it has been heartily shouted from the lungs of several Scottish surfers I have encountered in my time surfing in this mystical land. Not your typical surfer’s paradise, like Bondi beach of Australia or Oahu in Hawaii, Scotland has some surprisingly sound shores hidden beneath the constant clouds of its seemingly eternal winter.
Dismal as it appears, Scotland has some of the best surfing spots for those willing to brave the storm. Whilst Thurso in the north harbours some of the highest waves, coastal towns like Dunbar in East Lothian are perfect for both beginners and experts with perfectly barreled waves rolling along the shoreline.
Hitting the waves is all wet and wild until you come out – freezing, hungry, exhausted, and perhaps wondering if any of the waves you caught were actually any good. So how do you prepare for the best and the worst of what Scotland has to offer?
The most crucial thing to know about surfing in Scotland is that it’s cold; “baltic” as the Scots say. Most beaches have a biting breeze when the sun’s not out, and whilst you’re waiting on a wave the gentlest puff can become the reason you race for your towel.
“After the realisation that I could no longer feel my feet, I waddled back to the beach and tried to regain blood flow… thinking ‘why Scotland, why?’”
Whilst surfing in Scotland it is common practice to wear a wetsuit, unlike in my hometown of Auckland New Zealand, which I relentlessly regret taking for granted. Frankly, you would have to either be very brave or barking mad (perhaps both) to go surfing without one, but even so, some aren’t sufficient to keep the chill off your back.
When on a surfing excursion to Dunbar, I stupidly borrowed a wetsuit that was too large for me – and although it was one of Scotland’s sunnier days, one of the hottest of the summer if I recall correctly, I’m surprised I didn’t lose my tongue for all the chattering! After the realisation that I could no longer feel my feet, I waddled back to the beach and tried to regain blood flow. Within minutes I found myself shaking uncontrollably, swaddled in 2 towels, a hat, lying behind a surfboard (acting as a windbreak) and thinking “why Scotland, why?” Maybe as a skinny foreigner I am less accustomed to the cold than the well-worn Scot but I will stand by my recommendation of at least a 5mm thick wetsuit, preferably one that fits too, for any time of the year in bonny cold Scotland. Hoods and boots would not go amiss, but rash vests and thermals underneath the thinner wetsuits also work a charm.
To avoid wasting time waiting on weeny waves and freezing your butt off, it is always a good idea to check out the surf forecast in the area. One of the best websites is magicseaweed.com, which estimates how high the waves will be, as well as a nifty webcam function to show you exactly what is going on from the comfort of your couch before you set off. Generally, the best time to go surfing is when the tide is going from low to high, or mid tide – i.e. morning and six to eight hours later in the afternoon.
“Drowning is unlikely, considering surf boards are capable of keeping you afloat, but riptides are the silent killers of the sea.”
Though oft surfing in Scotland requires a fair amount of travel to the coast, the countries renown for its breath-taking scenic train routes, and inexpensive, speedy service is not far-fetched. Travelling by car also makes for a stunning journey, especially heading east as all the main motorways wind around picturesque waterfronts, lochs and magnificent landscapes; constantly dipping in and out of valleys, quaint villages and frequently spotting timeless historic buildings veiled in the hills.
Because it does take time travelling, it is worth staying out for a night or two; and after a long day being battered by the deep, all anyone wants to do is to slip into a tent, get roasty toasty warm, and drift off into a peaceful slumber. Well, if this is you, all I can say is REMEMBER TO PACK YOUR SLEEPING BAG. The first time I camped after a surfing trip I forgot everything. Mattress, pillow, sleeping bag, THE LOT. I can guarantee the next day’s surf is nowhere near as fun, for you or for anyone else, after a sleepless night in a rickety tent with only your extra jumper as a blanket.
Warmth and sleep are critical for any successful trip – surfing or otherwise – and although I don’t believe anyone is quite as dim-witted as myself, forgetting all the most crucial components for camping is not a good idea. I will reiterate: it is cold! So make sure to pack a hat, (you lose 30% of your body heat through your head) thick socks and gloves (you lose heat most quickly through hands and feet). Additionally, for those yoga bears out there, doing some stretches after surfing mightily helps relax the shoulder muscles used to paddle out. Avoid those morning groans, and become the person you enviously abhor doing early morning yoga on the beach.
Or for those validated too shy to stretch alone, do it with a friend! Not only does going surfing with friends boost the banter levels, it’s safer to go surfing in groups. Drowning is unlikely, considering surfboards are capable of keeping you afloat, but riptides are the silent killers of the sea. Incredibly dangerous and when colossal waves are making you cart-wheel under water you need to know how to get out safe and relatively unscathed… bar a few mouthfuls of sand.
Riptides can be tricky to identify, but there are a few characteristics of a rip that even the most terrestrial humans would be able to spot. For one the water will be slightly murkier as the rip pulls sand out with it on its way back to the ocean. It will also be distinguishable by choppy white foam, forming a channel of churning seawater, which drags both the water and anything within the vicinity out with it. Riptides are capable of pulling out victims as far as up to 10 feet per second, making it impossible to swim against.
So, if you find yourself caught in a rip, don’t panic, and don’t tire yourself out trying to fight it. Simply swim parallel to the beach, the rip isn’t capable of pulling you underwater only out from the shore. If you’re panicking, wave to one of those nice friends you brought with you – hopefully, they’ll be able to get some help.
One of the best parts of the day, is post surf, sitting around a campfire, warm, dry, and munching. But what to munch on is the real question here. Everyone knows camping food is never quite akin to five-star dining, and dinner can easily become a two-day-old soggy Tesco meal deal sandwich you panic bought for the trip.
Well friends, I am here to share my tried and tested wisdom and brighten your camping meal time. I have come to the realisation, that a portable stove is the only way to go about camping – genuinely one of the best things since peanuts in a jar. You can purchase a lightweight, small, good quality stove for around ten to twenty pounds in any outdoors store. With such a stove come endless cooking possibilities. Fancy a cup of tea? Stove. I feel like some warm soup tonight. Stove. My feet are so cold I can’t feel them anymore. Stove.
I went on a surfing trip a week ago and the first day’s surf was the coldest I have ever been on a trip. It must have been around 5 degrees. There was no swell, and sitting out on the boards waiting for the most minuscule waves – wet, windy Scotland was sucking the life out of us all. But, amongst the pile of broken surfing dreams was our saviour… THE STOVE! And, as quick as you could say peanut butter hot chocolate, hope was restored to our little group of water babies. Warming us from the inside out, the mugs of deliciousness were passed round for warmth – and onlookers with jaded eyes padded miserably around us.
Surfing is a survivor sport in Scotland, you ride or you get hypothermia… The rewards however for your hard-earned fighter attitude is the community and friendship that surfing brings. Hounding down waves, Scottish surfers are probably the most resilient bunch of human beings to grace the surf. I aspire to maybe gain some body fat and join their rigid determination to carve wherever, whenever, and whatever the conditions. And please remember, in the words of The Vaccines, put a (5mm) wetsuit on!