Thursday, November 2, 2006

Surfing the Hebrides

This article was published on The Times Online on 30 October 2006 on Alex Wade's 'Surf Nation' blog.

Thomas Malthus, back in the eighteenth century, made a name for himself with his “Principle of Population.” The English demographer contended that the population would eventually outrun its food supply. There are many in the surfing world who might find the Malthus world-view congenial. Just as improvements in public health helped fuel an explosion in the general population, so advances in wetsuit and board design are now contributing to the over-population of many of our best beaches all year round. If Malthus is right, the inevitable consequence is that there will be a catastrophic decrease in waves per person. The evidence is persuasive, from the ultra-crowded beaches of North Devon and Cornwall to the once-deserted, and now all too populous, cold-water havens of Easky and Thurso East. Even the Algarve resembles a building site with new apartments being built to accommodate the surf tourists. It is with all this in mind that the Outer Hebrides looked alluring even in late October.

The journey there is one reason that keeps people away. Getting to Stornaway, the main town on the wave-rich Isle of Lewis, is both expensive and time-consuming, taking the better part of a day. The other alternative is to drive up and then take the ferry, weather permitting. Once you’re there, you realise that everything is weather permitting, particularly as you get into Autumn. Just a cursory look at the map makes it clear that Lewis will pretty much be hit by any of the swell which is generated in the Atlantic. However, it’s the wind that matters most on this barren island where the distinct lack of trees provides physical evidence of its ravages. If you’re wanting guaranteed waves and an easy time, this is not the place to go as the surf can be ruined for long periods by the ferocities of the wind. However, if you’re of the view that much of a surfer’s soul is carved in the time waiting for the right conditions - and you’re able to adopt a little of the stoicism and patience of the locals - the rides are all the sweeter for the wait.

The main beach break on Lewis is Europie, on the north-west tip. It feels like the edge of the world but such is its quality that it has seen world class surfers such as Tom Curren and Derek Hynd riding it on a big day. It tends to pick up most of the swell and the sandbanks provide powerful hollow waves on even medium-sized days. Further south, there’s the friendly reef break of Barvas which tends to work on all times of the tide. It sits opposite a point break at Bru and an appropriately-named wave in the middle called Bus Stops. Following the coast further, there’s a long left hander at Braggar and the beach breaks of Dalbeg, Dalmore and Cliff. If the swell’s from the south, then it’s down to Mangestra. If it’s from the north then the east coast might also be working, particularly at the beach break of Tolsta. In addition to these, there is also the inevitable secret(ish) spot or two including an incredible right hand reef break that it would be unwise to describe further.

These world class waves are coupled with a backdrop of truly outstanding natural beauty. The landscape ranges from the rugged moors of Lewis to the Caribbean-style white sandy beaches of Harris further south. Added to this is one of the richest sources of birdlife in Britain where golden eagles soar over the lochs, heron fish the kelp reefs, oyster catchers skuttle from the incoming tide and curlew take their pickings in the marshes just off the coast.

As for accommodation, the west of the island is more convenient for the surf and probably the best located is Rock Villa in Barvas which is a peaceful, surf friendly bed and breakfast run by Mrs Kristeen Macdonald. If you want to avoid the airport staff manhandling your board then you can hire one from local legend Derek McLeod (telephone 07881 435915) who will also act as your surf guide and tutor. This is invaluable given the massive number of breaks and variables in the weather. When the conditions are right there is something for everyone from the most experienced to the near beginner and the feast of quality waves which is served up is enough to leave everyone sated throughout the next inevitable bout of high winds.

To top it all, the locals are friendly – something not always guaranteed given the ever-increasing crowds at so many breaks around the world. While some might expect them to be overly protective of their liquid jewels, this is not the case. As local surfer Rodney “Cheggs” Jamieson says: “We just want to treat people in a way that we’d want to be treated ourselves.” Such generosity of spirit sums up this old-fashioned, traditional and under-stated rural community whose roots are firmly embedded in its Christian history. However, while it still seems relatively untouched by the twenty-first century there are some signs of the encroaching of modernity and the challenges it may have to face in the years to come. Perhaps the most symbolic of these is the debate which is currently raging as to whether wind farms should be allowed on the island. Whilst most might agree that alternative sustainable sources of fuel are a good thing, the idea of packing them into this natural wilderness has sparked heated debate.

Time will tell how the Outer Hebrides copes with its own burgeoning surf community and greater numbers of visiting surfers. For now, this is one place where surfing with just a seal in the line-up for company is still a reality.

The photographs in this article were also published in The Times Online and were taken by and are copyright of my girlfriend Dr Michelle Tempest.


Dr Michelle Tempest said...

The waves are amazing and the landscape is beautiful. The waves can be massive - so choose your waves with care.

Silversprite said...

Alternately, sit on the beach and look at the waves. Safer! Beaches of the Outer Hebrides pictured here