First Session Thurso: A Cold Water Nias

Matt Rode

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Updated 23d ago

Our First Session series peels back the legend on the first surfers at various famous spots from across the globe. We've already covered Teahupoo, Waimea, Anchor Point, Cloudbreak, Bali, J-Bay, Puerto Escondido, Mundaka, Hossegor, Jaws, Byron Bay, Huntington Beach, Germany, Tofino, Chicama, Malibu, Maldives and Bells Beach. Let us know in the comments if there is anywhere else you'd like us to shine a spotlight on.

When most of us think of perfect reefs, our minds typically wander to the crystalline, warm-water tubes sculped by fortuitously shaped coral heads in Tahiti or Fiji. What we don’t often think of are cold, dark slabs of water cascading over rocky shelves in Scotland. But reefs come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, temperatures, and materials, and there’s one in then northern UK that would fit just about anyone’s definition of perfect—assuming they own a wetsuit.

The “cold water Nias” called Thurso East is no secret—it has played host to a number of contests over the years, including a high-profile stint by the O’Neill Coldwater Classic. Depending on the size, section, tide, and direction, it can be a perfectly tapered, rippable wall or a grinding barrel. Indeed, if the water were twice as warm and a lot less opaque, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was located in Indonesia, not Scotland. But despite the wave’s prominent status in UK surfing (and surfing in general), it’s sometimes easy to forget that it’s been surfed for nearly half a century. After all, back in the 1970s, wetsuits were still pretty rudimentary.

Forecast: Thurso

Regardless of the cold and the dearth of quality neoprene, Scotland had a fledgling surf population by 1975, when Liverpool surfer Paul Gill decided to head north and see what sort of secrets the UK’s north shore was hiding. What he found blew him away—a perfect, peeling, double-overhead, right-hand reef breaking in front of a castle, with an equally picturesque headland serving as a backdrop across the bay. Gill was concerned his skills weren’t up to the challenge of the dredging reef, particularly on his backhand, and explored the area for other waves until the swell dropped a bit. In the meantime, he met a local kid named Jim, a beginner surfer who had ridden a few waves in Newquay and then brought a board back home with him. Jim told Gill that he’d never seen another surfer in Thurso, and that the waves breaking along the reef in front of the castle were far too dangerous to ride.

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Gill ended up proving Jim wrong the next day, when the swell was smaller and the waves at Thurso East a bit more manageable. But it was Pat Kieran—also from Liverpool—who turned officially turned Thurso into a surf destination the next year, when he moved there permanently after being impressed by the quality of its premier reef break. Kieran surfed Thurso East virtually alone for the next two years, braving frigid water and heaving lips as he reveled in the fact that he had the UK’s best wave all to himself.

But surfing alone gets old after a while—as hard as that may be to believe in this hyper-exposed, hyper-crowded time—and eventually Kieran decided he needed friends to share Thurso’s tubes with. Reflecting the innocence of an era that would prove to be the golden age of surfing in Scotland, he went the anti-localism route and decided to invite people to share in the perfection. In fact, Kieran went so far as to write a letter to the North West Surf Club in England that read, “Surfers wanted to share perfect righthand river mouth break, please come and join me.” The rest, as they say, is history.

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