Commitment and grit is a prerequisite to surfing in the far north of the British Isles. Having recently touched down in the heart of the Scottish capital we're joined in our Women In Surfing series by trainee midwife, surfer and fellow cold water soul, Jen Wood.
It’s been a long, exciting winter. Beasts from the east, road closures to the south so we’re cut off like an island. Swell after swell, there’s barely a chance to wolf down a meal and wash the salt off before the next one arrives. Surfing is often an unknown quantity here, with conditions changing so quickly that the fun beachy day stretched in front of you turns into a stinging cold slabby slog. These days have their own type of fun. Distances are long, surf checks could be as far as 60 miles from West to East along the coast, but that’s all part of the experience. It’s far from glamourous; no bikinis here. Permanently wet wetsuits and piles of damp smelly gloves and boots in the back of the van instead. Horizontal sleet, snow, rain, winds from the north and getting changed in remote exposed car parks. But the long days of summer and sunset surfs at midnight – there’s nothing like these northern perks.
This is a remote mecca – visitors come a long way to surf under the careful watch of the northern isles perched just offshore. Local surfers and visitors alike battle to get the waves of their lives against the elements. There is no room for frills, this takes dedication.
I’m training to be a midwife in the nearest hospital, which is 2 ½ hours away. This results in endless drives north after a night shift, cold and exhausted, coming down from the adrenaline and excitement of a busy nightshift - only to drive into town to see the lines standing up across the bay and I know I won’t be sleeping for a while yet. Our house is a bothy, a bare stone cottage standing up to the elements. Living in a house that’s yet to be finished feels like camping, with snow blowing in through the holes in the roof. There’s no heating or interior walls - just a big new window with a view of the surf: a fine temptation for a steady stream of friends to pop in and take advantage of the view. The kettle is never allowed to go cold.
There’s a small handful of women that surf here regularly. We’re close: we’ve travelled together and lived together and surfed together. We’re encouraging one another to push our boundaries: go bigger, go colder, go heavier. We laugh at each other as we go over the falls on big days. I’m proud to see them pushing their limits of what they think is possible. There’s a community here that look out for each other in the water, especially on days where it matters the most.
I can hear it from my bed when it is big. Before my eyes are open I can hear the roar and whoosh of the water slamming onto the reef. From the window, I watch the reef appear and disappear as the tide follows its rhythm. When we get a lot of rain (which is a lot) the water turns amber like whisky as the light shines through it. I wait and hear the crash of the waves on the reef edging closer to the time to go in. I get jittery, chatty, quiet, animated, lethargic. Time to go. Into the water: opt for the keyhole, dicey! on days like today. Somehow manage to squeak out between sets. Its bigger than it looks from the window. The offshore breeze is throwing spray everywhere. I turn and go on a monster that swallows me whole. Come up gasping. Scramble to the channel. Get back to the line-up, get back in the running. See a mound refract off the cliffs on the horizon. That one is mine. Turn and go. This time I’m flying, I feel it underneath and beside me, tall as a building, dark as thunder. It’s all around me and then suddenly it’s all over and I shoot into the channel and what remains of the monster crumbles its way onto the reef behind me.
For this, it is worth the distance, worth the cold nipping at the hands and feet and face, the remoteness and isolation from the rest of the world, the waiting and watching for tide and swell and wind and stars to align for conditions to be right. You give up a lot to be here, but you get so much more in return.
Words by Jen Wood | Images by Malcom Anderson