A lot of planning goes into our shoots. Yet, being surfers at heart, the slightest possibility of waves can derail even the best-laid plans. Such was the scenario that unfolded on our recent trip to Scotland. Ambassador, and self-confessed surf-aholic, Mike Lay, recounts the tale – taking a big risk, and being rewarded with the rare opportunity to surf on the Isle of Skye.
Surfing On Skye
3 min read
Words by Mike Lay
Photography by Abbi Hughes
Skye is the gateway to the Hebridean islands. It is a soaring, roaring place of mountain, loch and weather, and, since 1995 and the completion of the Skye Bridge, crawling trains of motorhome tourists. It lies in the swell shadow of the Outer Hebrides; South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Berneray and Lewis and Harris. The unrelenting storms and long fetch swells of the North Atlantic smash into the low lunar islands of the Uists, the wild cliffs of Harris and the boulder strewn coast of Lewis, rarely making it down the Minch to Skye. So surfing rarely appears on the to-do lists of Skye's visitors, nor did it realistically appear on ours.
Surfing is always at the back of my mind on photoshoots, but more as an added bonus than the goal. I almost always get overexcited in the presence of waves and am often left disappointed. There's so much work to do that the actual act of surfing comes near the bottom of the pile of priorities. Tide and time, as they say, waits for no one, and on many occasions I have watched promising surf deteriorate through swinging wind, swelling crowds or shifting tides. There's always one more scene to shoot on the beach or one more sweater to pull on, one more opportunity to pretend that I know what I'm doing. So after a number of on-shoot, lack-of-patience-induced disappointments, I've trained myself not to expect 'proper' surfs during shoots.
Despite that, in the days prior to the shoot I scoured satellite images of Skye and the west coast, my eyes trained on exposed arcs of sand and the slim possibility of north swells. Old habits die hard. A weak low pressure system was predicted to pass between the Faroe and Shetland Islands on the middle day of our shoot, sending a north swell down the Minch and on to Skye. It was a fleeting swell, one day's worth and unfortunately not the day that was slated for surfing. But it was too late, my heartbeat and my expectations were beginning to elevate.
After a successful first day, and with the forecasted north swell a certainty for the next day, calls were made back to HQ in St Agnes. Emails were sent and locations were re-arranged, the many moving parts of the photoshoot coaxed into the new schedule, shifted on the slim chance of a peeling wave. All that was left was to drag the twelve-strong team on a two hour drive to a beach I had never been to, to see if it might pay off.
The first check wasn't promising. The surf was clean, but as a procession of small, straight lines closing out the bay, my heart sank. I had rearranged the entire shoot for unrideable waves. We decided to hike the nearby Quiraing trail to give the tide time to push in, to hopefully change the complexion of the day…
The crew catch their first glimpse of waves from the mountain pass...
An hour or so later, as we reached the top of the final ridge, we looked out to the mainland and the Torridon Hills where we were staying, the Minch to the north, and the tiny bay below. It was clear that the flooding tide had indeed changed things. The swell had filled in and the waves peeled.
The journey back down was a lot faster than the journey up. My surf brain had taken over, to the amusement of the non-surfers in the crew. We unloaded in the empty carpark and stomped through the wet grass, past curious sheep towards the pebble beach. As we pulled on our wetsuits a light, steady rain began to fall. The water was dark and the waves, though clean, peeled only briefly before closing out. None of it mattered. Steph and I ran down the slick rocks and onto the flat, brown sand, into the cold Scottish sea. We traded waves in the shadow of the Trotternish Ridge, somewhere on the beach were dinosaur prints. We howled with joy.
After sharing waves for a little while we handed our boards to Abbi and Greg who handed us their cameras, a big bull seal weaved between them. Finally, as we were changing in the drizzle, pulling off boots, gloves and our 5mm suits, Pod caught three waves in his board shorts and Amy completed the team surf in her 2mm bathing suit.
We packed the cars, surf stoked and rejuvenated. Alive with the bristling cold and unlikely victory of surfing on Skye.
The Team's Kitlist
Tego Long Sleeve Robe
Women's Vellus Waterproof Parka