Words and images by Chris Case/Zurf Collective.
It’s not that we didn’t have time, we had plenty. 18 days in fact. 18 days since this swell chart first blipped to life. We had noted it but dismissed with words like: ‘yeah, whatever, maybe’ - we just had to swallow our excitement so we didn't launch another unicorn hunt in Scotland.
And during those 18 days, anticipation rippled throughout the European surfing news feeds. A yoyo of commitments juggled on the fate of an Atlantic hurricane. Larry was on the menu and its reputation had us all salivating at the thought of waves.
The delirium was real. Early signs of dopamine became evident at the start of our journey in Penrith. Hendrix bellowed 'Purple Haze' and we transcended into a kind of 70s psychedelic surf rock road trip.
The 9'1” on the roof fluttered and the board straps vibrated, a side wind confirms our red eye trip is worth it. Soon we were passing the highlands and into windless waves of fog. Our pace dictated by the weather, stopping to let herds of deer pass, a load of anxious excitement.
By 3:30am, we ditched all plans to get to our destination.
“This car park will do. I can handle one night with the midges.” So I lay out an old double board bag on the grass and settle into my bug filled sleeping bag for two hours of ‘meditating’. Not sleeping because the Highland midges don’t sleep.
Dawn broke with relief and red sky. The sunrise silhouetted cliffs and dunes to the east. Sea fog lifted and burnt in the first rays of light. The ocean was glass, black oil. Finally I could see the long stretch of beach and get a feeling for the swell... or, uhhh, lack of.
Uh oh. Driving ten minutes to Thurso East revealed a dot-to-dot of camper vans, a caravan of Larry’s pilgrims. Fish, mid, long, sponge, pro, retro, single, quad. Roof rack stacks let us know the condition of the crowds.
But the swell hadn’t filled in yet.
First light and the dawn patrol was on the main peak. It was mellow, deep blue and glassy. A small north swell was still evident, punctuated every twenty minutes with a single set wave from the north west. The beginning of Larry’s long-range pulse was making landfall.
So we left the morning pack and headed to another spot. Fully exposed and a magnet for swell, there's three waves that we thought could translate the complexities of the swells. Overlapping from alternate directions, breaking on different parts of the reef. Small and mellow was one option, then Boom. The bowl throws up a set of immaculate over head barrels. We chill and wait for another set, rejuvenating our delirium in a warm Scottish dawn and the first swell of Autumn.
Around 20 to 30 minutes pass before the next set arrives. Confirmation there was a solid swell on its way.
A couple of phone calls and a bag of meat pies later, we were passing Thurso again. 20 on the pipe, 20 on the main peak. Beautiful conditions on a beautiful morning.
We knew that our interests lay further East and didn’t hesitate to drive straight past.
I last came to this bay six-years-ago. Immediately awe struck by what I then referred to as ‘slab city’. This time the name was duly apt. Four equally different, heaving, spitting, board breaking slabs of Scottish reef. But also a load of vans, cars, campers, tents and the primal vibe of a solstice at Stonehenge. The atmosphere was peaceful. Calm waking pilgrims, satisfied at the arrival of their messiah. The diversity of waves here mean that people are disbursed with tide and ability.
The slow filling swell and our sleepless delirium removed all aspect of rushing. The air was warm and we sauntered the low tide sand, exhaling haze as the final fog departed.
I haven’t seen ‘Hawaiian blue’ before, but I have heard the term used to describe Scottish water on certain days. Today was a fine example of that .
Flooding tide had opened the doors for Larry to enter the building. Sets of two, lulls in between, but the 20 minute gaps were getting shorter. The better sets being well over head. When this place lights up, it is a true spectacle, a marvel of the surfing world. Perhaps it’s the amphitheatre- like setting allowing you to get close to the shallow breaking waves. Two lefts and two rights, positioned in sequence in a horse shoe bay. Or perhaps it’s the mesmerising shape and power, the sound and sheer overload of negative ions lingering in the bay after every set.
The tide came up and the swell filled in. Constant sets unloaded on all of the four waves. Everywhere boomed together, a symphony of rumbling boulders and imploding spray. We packed up and discussed Nathan’s choice of riding a 9’1” on the right.
Perhaps the 70’s psychadelic nostalgia had been the influence. Or maybe his sleep deprivation was responsible, either way we were all surprised the board hadn’t snapped in half. Heading west, a quick count of Thurso tallied 30 on shit pipe and 25 on main peak. The swell was solid and looked impressive, even from two miles away, we could clearly see the barrels.
A storm front moved through that night. Dawn was fresh, calm, over cast with a diffused light. The wind was slow and variable after a night of swirling depressions.
The coastal air was full of salt mist, a sign the swell was still here. But there was a bit of a kink in the swell, a wobble in the previously groomed lines. Confused but constant, this wobble was enough to upset the fickle idiosyncrasy of yesterday’s slabs.
Too big for the river mouths and the wrong tide. That long period to the swell was still prevalent and we found ourselves in the company of a quaint fishing harbour. The vast kelp beds smoothing out any signs of confusion and making for glassy dark water.
The sets kept building as we shared the right hand point, head high and easily bigger. Long period, point perfection. The four surfers guided by the SUP outback, traded waves and conversation in the most pleasant of conditions. A brief and breathless weather window before the next system pushed through.
The first squall came at 3pm. Torrential. We had been checking the river mouths and westerly beaches, although they suffered from the local winds and felt the wobble of the swell. An end had finally come to our run of waves and we conceded to one last look at Thurso.
A detour en route led us to an unplanned spot check. The light was fading and the air was thick with evaporating sea spray.
Thunder. Cliff-shaking thunder as eight foot sets drained the slab in front of us. Larry’s power hadn’t subsided and that deep water funnelled lumps of dark ocean into thick, wide, ground shaking, mind-altering waves.
With disbelief, satisfaction, awe and fear, I tried to not lose my footing on the wet rocks. The wave drawing so much water off the reef that I felt the ‘sea legs’ and sense of motion sickness. Looking more akin to the right in west Oz, I hadn’t had this close proximity on dry land to such a beast of a wave. I was glad to be behind the lens and free from the decision of surfing that thing.