Thursday, 29 October 2009

Readers of a nervous disposition should look away now

St Abbs is now officially my favourite village in Berwickshire, if not the world. It turns out the harbour toilets have a shower! Washing in a pan-ful of hot water in the sink of a camper van each evening is all very well, but a shower!!!!!!

Readers of a nervous disposition should look away now.

OK, if you're sure. Just don't say I didn't warn you, that's all.

Yes, I know, terrible photo. But I felt I had to document the event, it was so good. Sorry.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

At your convenience

It's all gone a bit flat, which is rather frustrating. After the epic (or epic-ish) evening in Guallane, I had a frustrating surf in North Berwick - weak, all over the place and backing off just when you thought you had it. I thought it was a little chilly, but that clearly wasn't going to deter these mad kids.
North Berwick is pretty, charming and friendly, so I stayed several nights, not least so I could enjoy their award winning public toilets. If you click on the photo, you will see they won awards throughout the Nineties. Then there's a horrible gap, and I can only imagine the dreadful lapse in hygiene standards the poor people of North Berwick had to endure for several years before their public convenience was restored to its former glory. Above the left hand mirror, a certificate claims it won awards from 2001 to 2005, but it's clearly home-produced, and rings very hollow.
Their secret seems to be to make it very clear what you are and are not allowed to do. Particularly, no feet in the hand basins. Obviously.
The following day I went to Pease Bay, where there were decent, waist-high waves, though some of them were backing off too, or worse, doubling up. While in theory this sounds like a good thing, it isn't (as our good friend Julian (I think) in Zarautz taught us all those years ago). Rather than make a double-size wave, they cancel each other out, leaving you paddling for air.
After changing to a bigger board, I had a decent enough session, happy to surf a pretty and iconic bay. When I got out, I bumped into one of the surfers I had met on Friday at Gullane. Inevitably, he told me that the day before, while I had been arseing around in North Berwick slop, Pease Bay had been epic. On the other hand, while I had been having fun in Gullane, he hadn't found anything better and had ended up not getting wet. And thus I win. "It was gash", he said. I shall consult my Scottish friends to find out what this means.

Pease Bay is very pretty if you're sitting on the beach looking out to sea. Looking inland, it's plagued by an outbreak of caravans, like an ugly rash which only clears up with the regular application of torrential rain.
They have their own views about what you can and can't do in the loos.
I don't know why they're worried - you can't fit a whole wetsuit in the toilet anyway. If you want to rinse the salt out, you have to do it a limb at a time and then wait for the cistern to refill, and who has the time for that?

On the plus side, there's plenty to do. If you like bingo.
And if not, there's always Paula.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Mano a mano

Piqued by the insistent criticism of some of my readers, I have to come clean. I've been slacking off a little. I had been hoping to conceal the fact with charming photographs of wild life and young children. Clearly it hasn't worked.

Fortunately, after a week of indolence, open fires and a hot shower in Aberdeen, followed by two days of frantic flat admin, open wine bottles and a torrential shower in Barcelona, I am back on track, going mano a mano with 20 foot rollers in sub-zero conditions etc. Ok, mano a mano with 3 foot rollers in slightly chilly conditions.

But boy has it got cold over the past week. Last night I went in at Gullane, just east of Edinburgh, and really felt the difference. It's not quite cold enough for ice-cream headaches. But you certainly get a gentle sorbet.

Having made the call entirely wrong in North Berwick, which was overhead and messy, I turned up at Gullane just as it was reaching high tide and all the locals were getting out. Not a good sign. But it was too late to look for anywhere better, so I went in anyway, a short way away from three other surfers who stayed in far longer than I did (Mum)/ soon got out (Everyone else).

Protected from the wind, the sea was as smooth as a mirror, with clear lines of shoulder-high swell peeling round the point into the bay. Just a shame they were breaking so close to the beach. They were fast and hollow, and several pitched me off, but the ones I caught were clean and exhilarating, even if they only lasted a few delicious seconds. The beach faces north, and as the sun started to set to the west, the right-hand waves transformed into bright, moving arcs of power and light, reflecting the reds and purples of the evening sky beyond. Not quite Hawaii, but very beautiful. I caught a last wave in as the light was failing, and made my way up the beach in the dusk, with another big smile on my face.

I decided to camp above the beach, but by this morning the swell had died. Instead I headed back to North Berwick, a very quaint town with two long, rocky beaches separated by a harbour. I went in just after low tide, but even with the tide pushing in, the waves were inconsistent and weak, and compared to the power and beauty of last night, rather disappointing. I swapped to the bigger of my two boards and managed to catch a few fun rides, especially when the wave reformed closer to the beach. But it was quite frustrating, with the peak moving all over the place, and after ten days out of the water, two sessions in 24 hours had taken their toll. I got out happy, if not quite as ecstatic as last night.

P.S. Is that better?

P.P.S. I don't know which duck it is, but I think it might have been the white one, if only for aesthetic reasons. And Juli is a boy's name in Catalonia.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Hola, Juli!

This is my youngest reader, Juli.
Hola, Juli!

Monday, 19 October 2009

This is the duck

This is the duck
That laid the egg
That Dr Livingstone collected
For me to poach
For breakfast.

And it produces an egg every 24 hours. Wish I could be so productive.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Falling off the edge

With much regret I left the fabulous north coast and its powerful waves, and headed south via John O'Groats (no relation). It's named, apparently, after Jan de Groot, one of three brothers given permission by James IV to run a ferry service to Orkney in 1496. Whether or not the ferry service cost a groat is open to conjecture.
You have to be careful when heading to the north east tip of Britain that you don't overrun and fall off the end.Travelling down the east coast from John O'Groats, the countryside slopes down towards the sea, so you feel as if you're travelling along the edge of the country and might at any moment topple over. I didn't, though, and made it safely to Sandend where, to my great surprise, there were decent, shoulder high waves. The great thing about paddling out among the monsters at Thurso is that by comparison, shoulder high waves seem small and safe. So I was very happy to fall off lots of them. Which I did.By the following day the swell had dropped a little, but so too had the wind. I foolishly set out to find slightly bigger waves, and trekked from Sandend over to Banff and down the long, steep hill to Gardenstown, a pretty fishing village with a rocky cove that might have an occasional wave, but was as flat as a mill pond. So back the way I came, past Banff again, over to Cullen and ending up, three hours, eighty miles and one delicious pie later, back where I had started.
On the plus side, the sun had come out and a dozen or so long-boarders and learners had all packed up, leaving the peak to me and one or two others. It was clean as a whistle and a lot of fun, and although it's cooler than up north (no gulf stream to warm the water), the sun made it positively Mediterranean!
Though it still takes an hour or two to get feeling back in your toes.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Men in Cars

I surfed Thurso East a few more times but that fateful combination of cowardice, cold and courtesy (plus complete exhaustion) made each session less successful and more frustrating than the last. But it was fun to surf with Team Norway a couple more times. They all seemed to be having a blast (especially Steffen - see comments below - who managed to surf more than just Thurso East, apparently.) This is them, checking on the surf at Thurso East and finding me in my pyjamas. (Well, ok, not literally).
A big hello to Mark a.k.a Snoz, a proper hard-core surfer and fellow vanlodyte, who was full of useful information and encouragement.
And Tup and Billy from Penzance, with whom I shared an appalling, choppy session of slushy on-shore waves (and later a more enjoyable session of 80 shillings and malt whisky).

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Surfing Thor's Wave Thrice

I hadn't planned to surf Thurso East. It would be accurate to say I had planned not to surf it. Thurso is Viking for Thor's River, but it's really Thor's wave, a legendary reef break, regularly cited as "world class". I really didn't think I was good enough. But there's only so long you can stare at a wave before the desire to have a go takes over. And having surfed along the north coast all week, Sunday seemed to be the day: late afternoon, on the incoming tide and just over head high. Not epic conditions. But certainly just outside my comfort zone. With my heart in my mouth, I suited up and headed out to join the four surfers already surfing.

What a disaster.

Windy, choppy and way out of my league. Worse still, the four surfers (four mad but friendly Norwegians) soon headed for shore, leaving me out there alone. The moon rose over the ruined silhouette of the castle, the light faded, and the mermaid fingers of doubt started to shiver over me. I've surfed alone at dusk before, but mostly in Barceloneta. And a Mediterranean beach break lit by street lighting is very different to a renowned, slate slab in Northern Scotland. I made a couple of waves, but they were foaming and broken by the time I was on my feet, and hardly worthy of the name.

The next morning, though, was entirely different. Sunny, with not a breath of wind, and occasional overhead sets coming through.

The hordes surfed it all morning, apparently, locals and visitors alike. But by the time I got there at around one, there were just four art-school students up from Falmouth, having the absolute time of their lives. I joined them (twice their age, half their confidence, quarter of their skill). This was one of them, just before I went in. Click on the photo to see the scale.

I caught three waves. Just three. But the first was probably the most powerful wave I've caught in my life, a voracious, undying monster whose power seemed never to diminish.I caught it cleanly, taking the drop, crouching into a rail-grab on my backhand, not really sure what was happening. And suddenly I was powering along in the seething jaws of the beast, just hanging on, desperate to stay on my feet. And marvelling at the whole experience. Until finally it was all too much, and the beast lunged at me, sending me down to the rocky bottom, where a slightly grazed hand reminded me how shallow it is (and where was all that dam kelp now?)

The second was just as good, if not quite as powerful, the third an inelegant ballet of imbalance before I finally remembered that two legs good, three legs bad. After that, it turned to shit. I stayed in well past my cool-by-date, missing waves and going over the falls repeatedly thanks to a desperate combination of cold, cowardice and courtesy.

But I still got out with a smile. And I'm still smiling today!

Saturday, 3 October 2009

There are warnings of gales in Hebrides, Faeroes, Fair Isle...

It's howling out there again, with 45mph winds recorded in the last hour in Wick (half an hour away, on the sheltered East Coast). It's something of a contrast to yesterday afternoon in Sango Bay.I only caught one wave. But it was this one, clean as a whistle and around head high. Fortunately I managed to avoid that large rock...Earlier, I was standing at the corner of the country. This is where the North Coast and the East Coast of Britain meet, at Cape Wrath. Nothing to do with anger, it's the Viking word for Turning Point, apparently. Though isn't that what Cape means? Cape Wrath, so good they named it twice.
The view north:
The view East:It's a fabulous place, and very emotive being on the top left hand corner of the map of Britain. You get there by ferry, driven by a suitably laconic ferryman, followed by a minibus driven by local historian David M Hird.I've been hanging out with Julian and Anneka from Munich, who generously let me use their shower (this might have been a precondition for their excellent hospitality)
Their holiday cottage came complete with working wind-up gramophone and stuffed curlew, currently my favourite bird. (All jokes in the comments section, please). They even offered me a bed, though I felt compelled to sleep in the van, despite dropping temperatures. There must be something amiss when a bottle of water on the passenger seat is colder in the morning than a bottle of milk in the fridge.

I also surfed with Michael and Roddy, who have travelled up from Edinburgh in possibly the coolest surf vehicle I've ever seen.