Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | October 13, 2012

Riding the Wild North Waves

Wow! I’m curled on the sofa wrapped up in blankets and drinking marshmallowy hot chocolate to thaw me out after an extraordinary morning at the Wild North Festival learning to surf with Andy Bain of Thurso Surf School.

The heavy rain clouds swallowing up the sun as I set off this morning did not seem like an auspicious start!

When I set out from home this cold, grey and drizzly morning, I’ll admit I was feeling a little half-hearted about my pending adventure. I’ve sat on these northern shores with my warmest coat and a flask of tea many times watching the little black specks of surfers in the sea as they bob in the ocean, and then suddenly fly towards me on the crest of a wave. I’ve admired their bravery, but from my cosy viewpoint in the dunes, I couldn’t think of a single reason that would entice me into the cold sea.But today was different: my inner anthropologist had convinced me that learning to surf was all part of the Caithness experience after several people have described the excellent surfing conditions as the reason they live here and their most important connection with the local environment, so mixed in with my trepidation was a buzz of adrenalin that I was actually going to do this.

My first surprise was how quickly we got into the water. I’d anticipated loads of talking and health and safety information, but the best way to learn to surf, Andy told us, was by surfing – a teaching style I like! So, after succinctly telling us what we needed to know, Andy marched us down the beach, where we were buffeted sideward by the wind catching our boards, towards the oncoming waves and into the sea…oooooh, and this is where the fun began!

Preparing for the cold waters of Dunnet Bay

Enveloped by cold water up to my waist, I walked onwards, guiding the surfboard over incoming waves, which lifted me gently off the sandy floor before placing me down again. Salty sea sprayed across my face and the wind whipped my hair out of its ponytail and into my eyes. At the nod from Andy, I clambered onto my board and held on tight as he pushed me into the path of a wave. From the corner of my eye I could see the white head of the wave chasing me onwards towards the shore and my mind went blank as I braced myself for the bit I was dreading: over I went, submerged in the salty water, bubbles in my eyes, legs in the air. I felt the soft sand connect with my backside and I popped back up to the surface, coughing up the sea and streaming water from my nose. And, most importantly, laughing. I couldn’t wait to get back out into the sea to have another go and try to remember to attempt to stand up this time.I fell off a lot more times over the next hour and managed some spectacular bellyflops, but on a couple of occasions, I actually got to my feet and rode a wave in to the shore! The kids in the group were far better at mastering this technique than me, but I didn’t mind, and as I paddled in the shallows, with the rise and fall of the sea rocking me, I noticed something else entirely…

Dots of maroon seaweed were suspended in the pale turquoise sea all around me. Ahead, I could see the great, grassy sand dunes of Dunnet Bay, and to my side towered the celebrated cliffs of Dunnet Head. Far out across the steely blue water a ship made its gradual progress along the horizon, and above me the vast skies were heavy and grey and ominous, and occasionally showered me with soft rain. Cormorants dived into the depths at my eye level searching for their lunch, gulls drifted above and the wind whistled in my ears and through my hair and over my wet skin. And here I floated, immersed in the midst of all this relentless activity.

From this perspective, everything changed. Those people I could see hunched up on the shore in their winter coats and woollens, huddled together to protect against the wind, stamping their feet and blowing into their hands to warm up, seemed like the ones missing out. Experiencing the world from within the water lent it an unfamiliar cadence. I probably took more pleasure from experiencing the world from this new and unexpected angle than I did from my achievements on the surf board. I’m not sure I can describe this very well, but that’s not really my point. My point is that I never could have realised that surfing is about so much more than catching the perfect wave without trying it.

Now I’m wondering what other undiscovered experiences await me. I’d love to hear about how you choose to connect with and enjoy the stunning Caithness environment and what that special thing is that you get out of it. And if you’re a surfer, what’s your take on experiencing the world from the water?

Massive credit is due to Andy, our teacher, who was faced with a really mixed group of ages and experience levels, and still managed to keep us all happy and safe and entertained. I think every person that entered the water with him today had a wonderful time and will definitely be back for more. Thanks Andy!



  1. Truly loved this Lou, you write beautifully xx

  2. Glad you enjoyed it.

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