‘Oh tits! I’ve got radiation in my eye!’
‘No, you haven’t.’
‘Yes I have! You’ve killed me! I’ve got a radioactive particle thing in my eye from surfing at that damned wave I didn’t want to surf in the first place; and now I’m going to die and it’s all your fault!’
‘You’ve got pink-eye, you could have anything stuck in there.’
‘But it feels weird, extra sore, worse than a bit of sand or whatnot. I can feel it burning!’
‘If you die by the end of the trip, then I’ll believe you, if not and it’s all better by the morning then you owe me a pint of the black stuff.’
‘No. A pint of Guinness; you crazy, bearded, little, Jerseyite nut-job.’
Three weeks previously, before the nuclear incident, our plan had been simple: Get a crew together and head up to the far North coast of Scotland for a leisurely photo trip to escape the crowds in Hossegor and generally go somewhere a bit different.
Sounds simple. But no. Just like the rest of the year getting any big name pro surfers on the trip was a mission, because they are always already doing something else. Something far more important than getting their photo in Europe’s best surfing magazine. Rob Machado wasn’t coming because it was too cold, Eric Rebiere blew us out because he preferred to qualify for the WCT instead. I ask you, some people have no sense of priorities.
So after much fruitless phoning, emailing and carrier pigeoning our crew was eventually whittled down to Brittany’s Thomas ‘Crazy Bastard’ Joncourt, Jersey’s Ian ‘Steamy’ Battrick, Office ‘Monkey’ Lucas, Kernow’s finest Robyn ‘Bobbin’ Davies and ‘Shakey’ Jake Boex. We had also arranged to hook up with local hombre Chris Noble, he was to be our guide and mentor for the duration. Our preconceived notions of Scottishness i.e. a fiery, red haired warrior, armed with a claymore, wearing a kilt, blue face-paint and not much else were a bit off the mark when we met him, but more of that later.
I’d wanted to go back to the Thurso area for ages, not having been up there for fourteen years, it seemed time to forget all the reasons you don’t go: The wild storms, the even wilder flat spells (outrageous considering the surf comes out of some of the most violent sea areas in the world and home to the lowest low pressure system ever recorded) and the general complete lack of anything else to do.
Oh and not forgetting the sodding great nuclear reactor complex at Dounreay, which had been parping radioactive cack into the environment from a variety of sources for many years now.
Last time I was there it was flat, grey and miserable for the duration and a visit to the out of season wonders of John O’Groats did nothing to lift the spirits.
For all you non-pommies a bit of explanation maybe necessary: John O’Groats is one of the most famous places in the UK because it’s the most Northerly point in mainland Britain. Except it isn’t.
Dunnet Head just to the west is more Northerly, and John O’Groats can’t even claim to be the most Northeasterly cos it ain’t. But this doesn’t stop a never-ending stream of cyclists, walkers and charity do-gooders reaching the fabled spot having done the length of Britain from Land’s End in Cornwall. It’s as far as you can go in our weird little country you see, and doing the route has achieved some kind of mythic status. Thousands upon thousands of pounds have been raised for many charities by people walking, hopping, moonwalking, cartwheeling, crawling and all kinds of crazy shit between the two. So when the tired traveller reaches his goal what awaits him? You’d hope something pretty special, but no, it’s tacky tourist shop central, crap outlets selling the kind of plastic Taiwanese shite that you couldn’t give away and overpriced eateries that are an insult to the ravenous hunger of someone that’s just walked several hundred miles on blistered feet for a good cause.
Suffice to say I wasn’t impressed by the whole place.
So it was with some trepidation (must look that word up one day, I’ve no idea what it means but it makes me sound intelligent) that we departed.
The drive from the Southwest of England is one of the main reasons surfers don’t make it up here that often. It is a bitch on wheels. Twelve hours plus in a vehicle with co-pilots that, like you, are subsisting on a steady diet of horrible, greasy, service-station food which makes them prone to weapons-grade flatulence.
Fearing the worst we just flew instead.
It was a tad over an hour in Easyjet comfort from Gatwick to Inverness and a two-hour drive in a lovely, free-upgrade, Avis rent-a-car hence to Thurso. Total time: around 4 hours. Stress level: very low. Joy at free car upgrade from Corsa to a swanky Mondeo estate: lots. Gaseous airborne emissions encountered: 0. Narrowly avoided fatal head-on-collisions because the driver forgot he wasn’t in France anymore: 1. Nervousness of passengers for rest of drive: 11/10. Cost: probably £20 more each than if driving the whole way.
Who says modern surfers are pampered and don’t know how to really travel?
To make up for all this easy living we roughed it a bit with the accommodation, staying in the caravans overlooking Thurso Bay. Static caravans are always good for a giggle, especially in a force eleven gale.
Not that there was a breath of wind when we arrived. It was a perfect late summers evening; the September weather had been unusually hot and sunny as we found out, at great length from the caravan park keeper.
Chris Noble turned up on cue and much to everybody’s disappointment was wearing a smart pair of slacks, shirt and tie. Not a kilt or sporran in sight. It’s always the same when you travel; your expectations are always too high. Turns out that nobody really wears kilts, carries swords or paints their faces blue very much in these parts. Not the done thing apparently. Except at weddings where a bit of the tribal heritage seeps out.
Of course this area of Scotland owes as much to the Norse tradition as it does the Celtic one. Thurso means Thor’s river, Thor being one of the coolest gods in the Norse pantheon; he was the god of thunder and wielded a feck-off big hammer with which he was apparently quite handy in a rumble.
Many place names in the area are Nordic and this goes back centuries to when the Viking hordes used to come here for their holidays and liked it so much they never went home.
Brimms Ness means Surf Point in Nordic (so the guide books say, anyhow) and that was where our surf mission started.
When there is no swell at Thurso, which is often, then Brimms is the place to head to. It’s not far and if there is any life in the Atlantic at all then odds on you’ll find a wave here. Of course wave is a general term that doesn’t really reflect the evil, slabbing, lurching, gurglebox of a wave that is The Bowl at Brimms.
Our first session there and it’s a just overhead, super-fast right-hand barrel zippering down the shallow slab, which doesn’t look overly makeable to our Brimms virgins. Steamy and Lucas paddle out (the rest of the crew are still en-route) and proceed to get completely confused, pounded, ripped around and generally frustrated. We begin to wonder if the place is a hoax.
Chris turns up, paddles out with a sly grin on his face, paddles past the small pack fighting the rip and sits on the other side of the peak.
‘Going left is he?’ we wonder aloud to no one in particular.
A set marches in, the biggest we’ve seen, and Chris takes off on the chunkiest one of the lot. He free-falls casually and with a single deft movement lands, bottom-turns and sets up his casual tube stance going right, he drives into the barrel from so far behind the peak it’s not really legal and several seconds later exits in a hail of spit.
Local knowledge and time in the water are what counts up here. Chris has that in spades. After this display of utter mastery the cameras come out (sorry I missed that one Chris!) and the boys start to get a groove on following Chris’ example, taking off as deep as possible is the key; behind the peak is the gravy.
We rock up at Brimms the next day and it’s woefully flat. To add to the dour mood it turns out that we aren’t the only ones with the big idea of photo-tripping to Thurso.
Alex Williams is here to shoot Moley, Lee Bartlett, Mike Raven and co for Carve; Rob Keith is here with a U.S Etnies team including the likes of Jarvis look-a-like: Saxon Boucher.
Sweet, we’re stoked, nobody has done a trip here for decades and suddenly there are three crews in town at the same time, all after the same meat. We are still waiting for Rob’s and Jake to drive up from Kernow and for Thomas to arrive from France with his chaperone and all round gaylord chum: Iker (SE’s Spanish Ed). So the crowd is gonna be full on, and there are a healthy amount of travelling surfers around as well.
Bored off our tits we drive around to Thurso East, the classic right-hand reef-break that our collective fingers are crossed for. Just to take a look. In the yard in front of the castle that overlooks the reef a large barn is being built, it doesn’t really fit in with the historic vibe of the place.
Thankfully a couple of Aussie surfers have added their own touch by erecting their tent in the prime viewing spot and sticking up a large blue tarp; using the barn as impromptu support. It has been christened the Tarp Mahal and will be the focus for everyone’s social life for the next few weeks.
It’s one of the beautiful things about being a surfer: the way you can immediately talk to a total stranger; with surfing in common it’s easy. If you try and walk up to someone in the street and make conversation they’re gonna think you are a recently escaped mentalist; sad but true.
The next week is frustrating. The charts showed a corking low and we’ve had bog-all swell. Every day is the same, drive around in vain checking the waves in the morning; go to Safeway and buy Jaffa Cakes; go to the library check the charts and chat to everyone else that’s moping around in there; have lunch; go over to the Tarp Mahal for a cuppa tea and a chinwag with the boys; go for another surf check; have dinner; drink Guinness and go to bed.
The one amusing occurrence of the week happened when we got the rental car stuck down a gravel track. Mondeo’s and off-roading are not a good team. The steep farmers track, which led down to a secret beachie, was probably fine in a 4x4 or a tractor; the Mondeo, however, could only go half way up before losing grip and sliding back down. This was a problem as we were at the bottom and the main road and home were at the top.
On one memorable attempt the front wheels did a turbo spin on some flat rocks releasing a huge mushroom cloud of smoke which also filled the inside of the car and put the shits right up everyone, thinking, as we did, that the engine was on fire. With three people pushing we finally got her out; the tyres were a bit shagged but the new slicks worked a treat in the wet.
Everything becomes a bit of a blur from then on, in the next few weeks: we scored Brimms a few times but it was crowded. The weather charts showed insane swells; that never arrived. Hurricane Isabel was bigged up as a destroyer in the eyes of the American media but pushed over a few bins, spoiled a few rounds of golf and was a damp squib by the time it got to us.
We had some spectacular local storms and sat in the caravan drinking beer hoping that it may tip over, excitement being somewhat lacking.
We missed the only afternoon of good Thurso East because it was flat in the morning and we took someone to the airport in the afternoon. We laughed about that one when we found out, oh how we laughed. Double overhead, light offshore, sunny, not too crowded and it had started picking up about ten minutes after we left.
We went out on the town and discovered a few interesting things:-
- Robyn can drink most fellas (except those stalwarts from the surf media) under the table.
- The Frenchies are really crap at the matchbox drinking game.
- There is a porn ‘spot-the-difference’ arcade game in one of the pubs. You don’t win anything and it’s daft but you put your money in all the same.
- The nightclub in Thurso is actually quite good.
- Getting a phone call from your brother back in Cornwall to say that Porthleven is off the Richter is no way to start a big night out. Especially when you’ve driven the length of the country and spent a wad of cash only to get shonky three foot surf in Scotland ... as Jake had.
- According to a documentary on the pub TV: Tasmanian Devils bum-barge each other when they are aggravated.
- Introducing the term bum-barge to a mildly lubricated bunch of surfers is a recipe for disaster.
- Too much Guinness makes me fart; not in an amusing way, but in an almost corporeal, very nearly thick enough to chew on kinda way; which whilst fun for me; is not for anyone else. Especially in a static caravan.
- Thomas is actually quite good at breakdancing.
- Being a feral, Aussie, travelling surfer living in a tent, with no shower, is no barrier to getting jiggy with the local ladies.
Sacrificing brain cells didn’t work. We had the one clean swell at the East and we’d missed it. Bugger.
Jake made a valid point one lazy afternoon; he came here six years ago and scored it all time. The East was abso-bloody-lutely firing on all cylinders. So now there is little point in coming back: he’s used up all his luck. He’s seen her as good as she gets, just like they say, like Nias. But colder, less malarial and more prone to the odd floating sheep coming out of the river.
We said our goodbyes to Jake, Robs, Thomas, Iker and Lucas as they headed back to civilisation leaving Steamy, water camera dude Nunn and myself for a final few days of purgatory.
We couldn’t really leave without scoping out Dounreay; the old nuke power station has had a fair amount of ink for its crimes and we haven’t got space for ‘em here and of course the only surf spot in exploding radioactive particle range: Sandside, was pretty good.
It’s a weird thing, radiation. Gets a lot of bad press and an awful lot of scaremongering shite is written about it; the energy from the sun that gives this planet life, is radiation; and the residents of Cornwall and Brittany are getting a good dose every day from the radioactive granite they live on, but anyway.
When you have a sign saying Radioactive particles have been found on this beach, it puts things in a weird perspective.
How much do you love surfing?
Are you prepared to get irradiated to catch some waves?
The reef at Sandside was cracking; we cajoled Steamy into going in on the condition that I did some water-shots, it was barrelling nicely, so of course I swam out to take some shots and ... the camera in my water housing jammed. So I swam back, eyes and mouth firmly shut and decided there and then to get the next flight home.
We got back to the caravan after our dance with the invisible enemy; minus any tell tale green glows or extra appendages; but half an hour later Steamy came out the bathroom red-eyed and distraught.
‘Oh tits! I’ve got radiation in my eye!’
‘No, you haven’t.’
You still owe me a pint of the black stuff, Mr Battrick.
With interest that’s a pint and a half by now.
*Originally published in SurfEurope a long time ago... the pic is Oli Adams at TE a few years after, this trip was done in the days of film!