Surfing the Hebrides

By David Kessler

"As for surfing in Scotland--must've been a bit chilly, eh?  One question: How does one keep their kilt from flapping while riding the waves? ;) "

"Actually I wasn't a bit cold.  The wet suit kept me warm once I had been in a while, but the initial few minutes (in which the wet suit doesn't help) were also fine.  I guess my swim in Lochan Meall an t' a few days earlier had inured me to any cold water for the rest of the trip; But that's another story."

In This Installment: Why the Hebrides.  An offer I couldn't refuse.  Pokémon & the road north.  "Next stop, Canada!" (or, D is for David who was swept out to sea).

I included the Hebridean Isle of Lewis (Leodhas, in Gaelic) in my Scotland itinerary for a very simple reason: I had already decided to spend a week hiking in the Fort William area - home of Ben Nevis, Britain's highest peak - so I decided to compliment that week of mountains with a week of water.  I looked over my Michelin map of Scotland, saw the dotted line running from Ullapool to Lewis that marks ferry service, and the matter was settled.

In Fort William, most people I met said that there was nothing to do on Lewis and that I'd be bored spending 4 days there.  I wondered about this, especially considering how long summer days would each be at a latitude of roughly 59 degrees north (about the same latitude as Juneau Alaska), but decided not to alter my plans before getting there and seeing for myself.  Besides, not everyone I spoke to said I'd be bored.  Four full days of fun and interesting people later, I went to a ceilidh (pronounced "kay-lee", it's a traditional music and dance party - go rent the movie Local Hero if you want to know more) on my last night on the island.  There I met Roddy, who invited me to go surfing with him the next day.  I warned him that I had never so much as touched a surfboard before, but he didn't take back the invitation.  I weighed the chance to try surfing in the Hebrides against getting on the ferry as planned, and quickly decided to throw away my itinerary.

The next morning I checked out of my Bed & Breakfast, and walked to Stornoway's surf shop.  I wasn't worried about having to leave my B&B as there were plenty of them in the town.  As it turned out, the owner of the surf shop also ran the recently opened Fair Haven Hostel, and had room for me.  I dropped my backpack in a corner, changed into my bathing suit, and started off for my first attempt at surfing.

Actually there were a few details between going downstairs and starting the lesson.  There were 6 of us going to surf: Derek, the instructor and owner of Hebridean Surf Holidays; Roddy, the fellow I met the night before; Juliet, the reason I met Roddy and a researcher on the 2-masted schooner Venitofte; Betts, also a researcher on the Venitofte; and a local girl in her early 20's who's name I don't recall.  Of the 6, Juliet, Betts, and myself had no surfing experience at all.  Also along were 3 boys, each about 10 years old, each with a pokémon pokéball.  We filled the van and the jeep with surfboards and wetsuits, then loaded ourselves in.  Roddy, Juliet, and Betts rode in the van, the rest of us rode in the Jeep and the boys talked non-stop about their pokémon the entire way, each only pausing to breathe when the other two were declaring their favorites and explaining why.  They argued over which pokémon was strongest.  One of them thought Bulbasaur was the best and touted a power that the other two didn't know about.  As it happened, the power in question was used during one of the only episodes of the pokémon cartoon I have seen; I was a little tired of the argument and so mentioned that the power was real, just as described, and that the boy therefore had a good argument.  This calmed things down considerably, which was a good trade for only having to answer a few follow up questions on what other episodes I had seen.

We drove north on the A857 toward the town of Ness (Nis, in Gaelic) and the very northern tip of the island, turning west somewhere near Swainbost (Suainebost) onto a packed dirt road.  The road quickly disappeared into a wide and gently rolling field that looked like a meadow except that the constant west wind blowing off the ocean kept everything looking manicured.  The very short grass, nicely green, was speckled by small, yellow and white wildflowers growing everywhere.  The field sloped down abruptly to 50 feet below, where the ocean had eroded the earth away leaving stretches of rocky and sandy beaches.

We put on wet suits and made our way down the slope to the beach for a quick lesson in surfing: lie on the board and when a wave starts coming, paddle with your hands to build some momentum.  When the wave gets to you, do a push-up on the board and try to get your legs under you as quickly as possible, 1 leg forward, 1 leg back.  I asked where on the board we wanted our weight to be once we were standing and Derek told me not to worry about it.  I asked again, and he said not to worry about it, because you don't get that far on the first time out.  With that lesson over, we grabbed our boards and started out into the surf.

There's a reason Derek said we wouldn't get far; surfing is as difficult as it is fun!

I followed John out and tried to mimic his movements, but John had been surfing for around 8 months and I was - literally - out of my depth!  Getting out was a learning experience all by itself, and when I turned the board around to face the shore and tried to paddle, a wave knocked me off the board, pushed me under, and tumbled me around so powerfully that I had absolutely no sense of what direction was up.  Because of the sand pulled up by the wave - no salt stuck to me that day because I was scoured clean every time I went under - I didn't open my eyes underwater, and so had no sense of light or dark.

The first time this complete helplessness and sensory deprivation enveloped me I instinctively tried to right myself against the tumbling force of the wave, and when this proved useless part of me panicked.  Perhaps less than a moment later, another part of me recalled an old Taoist story I once read about an old man swimming under a waterfall: A monk is walking along one day, when he sees a frail old man being tumbled about in the wash beneath a powerful waterfall.  After a long while he is stunned to see the old man happily swimming ashore, so he asks him his secret for surviving the crushing power of the water.  The old man tells the monk that, after trying to fight the churning force of the water for many years, and always losing, he found that relaxing and yielding to the water allowed him to swim without harm.  It's a story that is supposed to be taken metaphorically to teach you about yielding to the power of the Tao, but in this case it was useful on its most immediate level - while part of me was busy panicking, another part said "Shut up, hold your breath, and go with it; You'll come up before long."

It was a very strange feeling to have part of me panicking, while another part was actively rational, with neither side effecting the other; As the former part yelped, the latter part was strong enough for me to relax my body and wait.  A few moments later I came 'round right and broke the surface.

Wipeouts like this happened several times before I realized that the much smaller waves, where the water was only thigh deep, still had enough power for learning surfing.  Of course, before I figured that out, I learned about rip tides.

When I was young I went to South Beach on Martha's Vineyard many times.  The waves there are often taller than I am, but their dynamics are very simple: Waves bring the water in, undertow takes the water straight out again.  Learn to deal with the undertow, and you're fine.  At this beach on Lewis there was no undertow.  In it's place was a rip tide, something I had never dealt with before, and so didn't think to ask about when Derek mentioned it during that introductory lesson.  Waves bring the water in, but the water doesn't move directly out again.  Instead it flows along the beach, until it reaches a certain area where it shoots out to sea with considerable force - that's the rip tide.  He had pointed to where it was located, and said that, if you get caught in it, your next stop would be Canada.  Not understanding how it pulled you toward it sideways down the beach, I didn't give it a second thought and didn't bother to check my position in relation to the shore whenever I came up from a good tumbling underwater.

I didn't realize that I was being carried down the shore with every wave until I came up from a wipeout to find rocks around me.  These kelp-covered boulders were part of a natural jetty formed by the power of the rip tide.  I realized that one good wipeout there and I was likely to have my head bashed in, so I stayed off the board, treaded water, and ducked under the next couple waves while Derek started toward me, waving and shouting "Paddle!"

When I saw a lull in the larger waves, I got on the board and started paddling back up the beach, but the currents around the rocks were so strange and the water roiling so vigorously that I made no progress and was quickly becoming exhausted, and a little worried.  There was a small fenced graveyard on the hill above the beach and we had all joked that it was populated by novice surfers.  In addition, a friend had recently had a dream in which I died (I don't know by what means).  Both these things came to me as I struggled, in vain, to make headway between waves.

Finally, I realized that paddling was pointless.  I lay on the board and grabbed for the kelp growing on the boulder next to me.  Then I pulled myself, hand over hand, along the kelp until I reached the far side, where things were a little calmer, and much more straightforward.  I paddled until I was in calm water and then got off the board and let my exhausted shoulders droop for a while.

The rest of the afternoon I constantly checked my position against the beach behind me with a paranoid zeal.  The surfing was great fun, and although Derek was right about not successfully standing up the first day out, I did get my feet under me 3 or 4 times.  One time I even got higher than a crouching position before losing my balance.  Derek was impressed with my attempts, and when he later saw me practicing Tai Chi, commented, "Oh, that's why."

Anyone want to write a research grant to track a correlation between surfing and Tai Chi skills?

On the plane flight over from Boston, one of the videos shown was a Lonely Planet travel piece on great surfing spots around the world.  Little did I realize as I caught the last 10 or 15 minutes of it, that I would be surfing 10 days later.  Scotland was not mentioned in this video (I know I never thought of Scotland as a place for surfing), so I wrote to Lonely Planet on my return with information on Lewis' beaches and Derek's company.  I like to think that someday the surfer's dialect may include a few words of Gaelic.

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