Having bought a Surf Kayak earlier in the year, I decided rather rashly to enter the British Surf Kayak Championships. Besides it was going to be held in Northern Scotland, Thurso, just a stones throw from John O'Groats. I had heard about the world class surf waves often found on the North Coast of Scotland and thought, why not go and paddle them. Not only will there be some Kayak Surfing but it be an adventure too.
Obviously, when I made this decision I thought I'd get plenty of practice kayak surfing before turning up in Thurso. But unfortunately due to a family illness, this was not to be. So, Friday 12th October saw me driving north, having only paddled my Mega Bullitt S surf kayak twice! In fact, I had hardly paddled any boat at all, since the end of July! I made it as far as Pitlochry (360 miles) on the Friday night, parking up in the Pitlochry Dam car park. I stopped there overnight, along with five other camper-vans.
The next morning saw me setting off for Thurso, with only another 200 miles to go!
Arriving in Thurso I made my way straight for the Car park where the river runs into the sea. There were already plenty of surf kayakers there and I met up with a chap named Pete. Pete was talking about getting out on the wave, so I decided what a better way of freshening up after a long journey to join Pete out on the wave. The wave turned out to be called "Shitpipe", due to the fact that it was only after the pipe was put in, some years ago that the wave started to appear. I am not sure if the pipe still discharges, but its probably best not think too hard about that! So off we went. Shitpipe is kind of weird wave as you cannot see much in the way of swell, when suddenly, the wave rears up from virtually no where, creating a big green wave that proceeds to break on both shoulders. I had some good runs on the wave and got well and truly trashed a couple of times. The water wasn't as cold as I had expected it to be or as shitty. Pete appeared to be rather good this surf kayaking lark...
After a leisurely breakfast, I once again headed back to Shitpipe where the wave unfortunately wasn't quite as big as it had been the day before. Standing around chatting to the other Kayak surfer's there, I found out some details about fin configuration and how they affect a surf boats handling. I also found out what the judges look for in a competition. Hmmm... Dynamic moves. Pete was also there and asked me if I'd like to buy his book on surf kayaking, "Sitting in the Green Room - A guide to Surf Kayaking". I did. Turns out Pete has surfed a little bit then!
Sunday afternoon saw registration and scrutineering, followed by the opening ceremony and competitors briefing. As the swell was not going to be as good on the North East Coast, the decision for the "Home Nation's" to be held in Farr bay, about forty minutes drive west of Thurso. The organisers wanted to get all of the "Homes" heats out of the way on the Monday, which meant a very early start for those competing.
As I was not part of the Home's event, I had a nice lie in, followed by a lovely cooked breakfast, fruit juice and fresh coffee. I also spent much of the morning reading Pete's book. Around lunchtime I made my way over to Farr bay to watch and photograph some of the action. The waves were really difficult for the competitors. The heats were ten minutes and in that time the paddlers may only see two really good big waves far out in that time, or they could choose to get multiple rides on lesser waves further in. Some were lucky, or was it skill? some were not. There was a bitterly cold wind blowing across the bay. I looked at where the judges were seated high above the beach watching the action. Sitting there all day in the wind keeping focused on the action took some effort.
After an hour of taking pictures, I too was becoming cold despite all my layers. So I decided to head back to Shitpipe in Thurso, in the hope of getting a wave or two. But when I arrived Shitpipe was pan flat!
It wasn't until I got back to the campsite and started uploading the pictures I taken, that I realised I had taken 588 photos in an hour! There was much sorting/deleting of photos, before selecting a few for Facebook.
Photos from Monday Be warned there are a few!
Tuesday was a rest day as no surf was predicted along the North Coast. I did the tourist stuff, Dunnet Head - the most northerly point of the British mainland followed by tacky John o'Groats. Unlike, Land's End being a headland and the most westerly point of England, I was surprised that John O'Groats was neither the most northerly (Dunnet Head) or the most northeasterly (Duncansby Head) part of the British mainland. It is just a harbour between the two filled with tacky touristy shops, trying to sell you stuff you really don't want to buy. The best memorable bit of being at John O'Groats for me was seeing the Pentland Firth Tide race. This was undoubtedly missed by most tourists there, but for me it was quite a spectacle.
Later that night, whilst nipping out of the van to the loo, I was not only stunned by the stars, but the Milky way was so clear in the pitch black sky. I've never seen the milky way as clear before. My only disappointment, was that the Northern lights were not displaying. Oh well you cannot have everything...
It's competition day for me. I am entered in the Mens Open HP. My slot was for 8:45 so I had to be up early and down to the harbour wall in plenty of time. The slots were 15 minutes and to be honest I don't remember too much about my effort. I know the boat still wasn't handling as I would have liked, with it being rather difficult to turn. Getting off the water at the end of my session, I saw I was bottom of my group. Yay! But what did I expect having only paddled it a total of four times. I do remember though it was all good fun.
My next heat, the Mens Grand Masters HP, was due around 15:00. So at 1430 I changed back into my wet and cold kit, only to find that due to the increasing winds across the bay, the organisers cancelled the rest of the events for the day. Doh! Talking with various competitors about the fins on my boat, a guy called Rob suggested I leave out the centre fin. This seemed like a good idea to me and I planned on doing this for my next heat.
Back down the harbour wall bright and early with nice dry kit, it wasn't long before my Mens Grand Master's heat. With no centre fin I paddled out full of confidence. The hooter sounded and, what's this I cannot get the boat to turn left. Right was ok, but left... nooo! It wasn't until I got off the water after the heat that I realised I had not tightened up the left fin properly and it had slid all the way back in the fin box! Doh! lesson learnt. Putting some spin on the results, I can say I was in the top 10 of the Mens Grand Masters! But I will keep it quiet that there were only 8 competitors! Oooh! Maybe 8th sounds even better? I am 8th. Whoo hoo!
As that was it as far as the competition was concerned, I went off to Dunnet Beach to do some free surfing there. As I was paddling out and getting completely hammered by the incoming waves, I noticed I had been joined by Alex, Liam and Sean from the "Welsh" team. Eventually I made it out beyond the breakers and took some time getting my breath back. I have to admit just before I did make it beyond the breakers, I was very near the point of giving up and surfing back in. The Waves in Dunnet were not exactly being very friendly. With the green wave rearing up and breaking across the whole wave, all in one go. Slam! It was a bit like a bomb going off. I managed a few surfs, inevitably followed by a beating whilst surfing in, as well as another beating or two paddling back out. Liam and Alex headed in, leaving myself and Sean playing in the breakers. I was trying to keep an eye on Sean, but this was practically impossible. It was around the time I was actually quite close to Sean when I was picked up by a huge wave. I can remember looking down at Sean as I sped down the front of the wave, then realising I was not going to get out of the way before it broke. It broke on me like a nuclear bomb going off, with me being spat out in front of the wave. I was then picked up by the foaming pile and managed a couple of spins. That was enough to put a big grin on my face. No middle fin works very well. Sean later said he reckoned it was the biggest wave of the day and well in to double figures (I assume he meant feet and not meters, although it felt like it). Either way, it was one of the biggest wave's I had ever surfed.
Home time - just a 560 mile trip home. setting off around about 9:30am, I arrived back home at around 8pm. Just a little bit tired.
This event was brilliant and my thanks go to the organisers of the event, their sponsors and their band of many helpers. I met lots of great people during the week and learnt loads too. I am looking forward to entering some more of these events in the future and hopefully I will start to improve.