So this was it. We had found the perfect wave. The air was crisp, the sun was bright and a light breeze was at our backs as we gazed out over the reef. Thurso East was doing it. As we watched, the sea became corrugated as another set marched in from Iceland. The first wave came in and hit the reef, jacking up to twice its previous height because of the sudden change in depth. The lip feathered in the wind for a few moments, before pitching forward to explode in a foaming mass of white-water. We watched in slow motion as the wave peeled along the reef, as controlled and orderly as you like. It was like watching someone do up a zipper. It was quite simply the perfect wave.
We watched in slow motion as the wave peeled along the reef, as controlled and orderly as you like.
What normally happens at this point is a confused mess of arms, legs, wetsuits and car doors, as everyone scrambles to get into the water, swearing violently at uncooperative pieces of kit and hurling clothes about like wrapping paper on Christmas morning. But this was Thurso and things are different in Thurso.
For a start, Thurso, is on the north coast of Scotland and this was February. It was – not to put too fine a point on it – freezing! It is not unknown for surfers to have to share the line-up with blocks of ice brought down from the hills by the river.
Secondly, there is the wave itself. Thurso East is scary. A set looms and it looks really mellow and you turn your board and stroke confidently into it. You feel the back of your board rise and go to take off when you suddenly find yourself staring with horror down a massive, vertical wall of water, at the bottom of which you can see the kelp being sucked backwards as the wave dredges over the reef. At this point, the water is only a few feet deep and a wipeout risks being pile-driven into the reef by several tonnes of cold seawater.
Often the wave allows further inspection of the fascinating coastal geology of Caithness, by holding you underwater and rolling you along the reef for a few seconds, before allowing you to claw your way towards the surface. Thurso East demands respect.
We looked at each other. Russell grinned and started talking, Carn lit a cigarette, Ed sneered and Al grunted something about not going left. Seamus didn’t do anything. So, we paddled out.
It’s a weird feeling, paddling out across flat, apparently harmless water, knowing that if you’re not alert, or get caught in the wrong place, you could get hammered. You’re so wired that your vision actually slows down and immortalises seconds in your brain, like a camera. This session was no exception. Seeing Leggie come charging out of a barrel and get whacked by the lip so hard that he actually scudded sideways, still fighting to hold his rail in the water, was unreal. And watching Carn taking off on a solid eight foot face as I desperately windmilled my way over the shoulder, then using the massive burst of acceleration to turn hard off the bottom and fly back up the face. The only clues to his position as we watched from behind the wave were periodic curtains of spray as he cranked it round off the lip to scream back into the pit. The boys were ripping!
It’s a weird feeling, paddling out across flat, apparently harmless water, knowing that if you’re not alert, or get caught in the wrong place, you could get hammered.
But the best waves are always your own. I got barrelled. I remember a feeling of incredible speed but without bouncing or wind or anything; it was totally smooth and quiet. The wave appeared motionless to me. The face was vertical and the lip feathering in front of me. It seemed totally unmakeable and it seemed it would never end. But it was makeable and it did end, leaving me about eight miles up in the air. Inside was just a mess of feelings.
Total exhausted excitement; I felt like yelling and jumping around. But it went farther than that; there was this huge sense of self-satisfaction. I had pushed my limits further than ever before and experienced something that only a few people ever will. Above it all was a deep sense of privilege, and looking at my friends I could see they felt it too. The ocean had treated us to a special display of chilling beauty, a gesture of friendship from one of the most powerful forces on the planet.
It was only then that I realised the advert was right – only a surfer knows the feeling.