Words and pics: Simon Dunton (SUP North)
If you’re located north of Watford Gap and you’re thinking of going on an epic surf road trip then the obvious choice would be a drive to Devon or Cornwall. After the long journey you’ll probably be presented with 4ft+ swell but the wind will likely be onshore, five people will be trying to paddle into each wave and once you’re on a wave you’ll be dodging surfers like on a slalom course!
NEXT TIME YOU PLAN AN EPIC SURF TRIP YOU’D DO WELL TO CONSIDER THE NORTH SHORE OF SCOTLAND. (Yes I’m shouting!).
You might not be SUPin’ in your boardshorts but what you will be doing is surfing amazing waves, in beautiful clear sea, pretty much to yourself… well, maybe apart from Thurso East, which is a world class wave that even lures surfers from way down in Cornwall (with possibly a 14 hour drive it really must be worth it!).
Let’s just skim over the drive up, it is a long way but it’s worth it. Anyway, I arrived at Thurso East before first light, parked in the farmyard across from the break, ate some carrots and tried my hardest to assess the waves through the darkness. Never having been to Thurso before I didn’t really know how to get to the water, how far away those waves were breaking and if I was looking at 1ft or 6ft. That, coupled with taking a SUP to a barrelling reef break with no idea of what surprises could be lurking just under the water and the likelihood of being surrounded by 20 frothing pro surfers (the pro tour was up in Thurso that weekend) angry at my very presence, I was understandably cautious about putting myself out there.
So I waited, switched up the Starboard 7.7ft to a quad fin setup with some shiny K4 fins… waited… switched my Starboard 7.4ft to quad setup… waited… various vans and cars started to turn up and within no time it was getting light and three surfers were paddling up from the river. First surfer, first wave, drops right into a barrel, lighting up the faces of every surfer watching in the carpark. I knew right away that by the time I was suited and booted so would be most of the pro surfers that were watching. So instead I decided, now it was getting light, to check out some other spots in the area to hunt out some epic waves of my own.
I checked out Dunnet Bay and, although it’s a nice bay, the waves that were hitting the middle were only around the 4ft mark – I hadn’t driven all this way for that, I wanted Thurso East, I wanted epic. So off to the next spot.
Shit Pipe was my next destination. It’s across the river from Thurso East and only a five minute paddle so possible to do both breaks in one session. Pipe is a boulder reef break in pretty deep water – a much friendlier option than Thurso East. It was a fun wave but on this day not what I had driven all this way for.
So I paddled over to Thurso East… wow, what can I say, it was the most perfect barrelling, sucky reef break (slab) I have ever surfed. Unfortunately there was a surf competition about to start so on this session I only managed a couple of waves.
If you do want to surf Thurso East on your SUP (most definitely not a spot for beginners) your best bet would be to park up on the other side of the river and paddle over to Thurso East for first light and hope you can get a quick session in before it gets too busy. Then retreat elsewhere for a few fun ones. This is exactly what I did on my last day and scored some great waves before the crowds turned up.
After a quick stop off for a sausage sandwich and a side order of Wi-Fi (mobile signal is patchy up there to say the least), I drove along the cost to Brimms Ness. It’s not the easiest place to find and parking on another farmyard didn’t feel right – but that’s what Magic Seaweed told me to do! This spot is another slab reef break but, going by the unevenness of the reef you walk over to get to the sea, it’s definitely not as featureless and smooth as Thurso East. This place feels wild, exposed and intimidating with powerful, bowling, barrelling waves. Not for the faint hearted; if you get caught on the inside here on a SUP you know about it. I took one wave on the head and I was dragged about 25ft along the bottom. I saw that as my sign to call it a day.
When I got in there were two surfers but by the time I got out there were closer to ten. No agro, no negativity, just respect. Respect for taking that big paddle board thing out at this break, one said!
The following day was windy and the surf comp took the best of the waves so, in the end, my only option for ridable surf was Strathy. This spot is a beach break, which made a nice change, and it’s super sheltered from east or west wind and also from westerly waves to some degree – which was fine as I was happy for something mellow.
Torrisdale was one of the final spots I visited. I’d heard lots about this wave as it had been recommended numerous times. I’d checked it out the day before but it wasn’t really working. It’s all beach break. There is a right hander in the river mouth (low-mid tide) and then more of a left and other beachie setups going on across the river mouth. It’s a very pleasant paddle out, meandering down the river, light sand, turquoise waters: pretty idyllic really.
It was here that I really experienced Scottish weather. One minute the waves were glassy and not a breath of wind, then it switched 30mph cross-shore and the sea just turned into a whole different beast. The cross-shore wind (from the west) chopped waves up in no time but what really surprised me was that the swell coming from the north pretty much doubled in size instantly. (It was overhead on the occasional set before things went haywire). Definitely time for me to call it a day!
So my point is: If you want to surf epic waves, hunt down barrels or just want to get away from the other 50+ surfers at your usual break, the north shore of Scotland is a great option. The beauty of Scotland is that no expensive ferry ticket is required, just throw your board in the van and drive.