Fancy getting wet this summer? Head to the isle of Tiree, in the Scottish Hebrides, for some windsurfing and watersports. TIM SPICER reports.
A sail bursts off a wave and spins quickly into a loop, high above the surf, on a wind that could rip the skin from your bones. Tiree certainly isn’t the best place to play frisbee but it’s every windsurfer’s dream.
As the sick display of aerial activity out at sea reaches new heights, I develop an immediate interest in the sport. After all, windsurfing is what brought me to this speck of an isle in the Scottish Hebrides, where once a year the Wave Classic competition takes off.
About 50 professionals and amateurs, mostly from the south of England, battle for the Triple Crown award and a £2500 prize. Started in 1984 by Andy Groom, the Wave Classic is now a major event on the international windsurfing calendar and expands every year.
As a freestyle heat of the competition winds down, the inky silhouettes of the windsurfers come bouncing out of the sea. John Skye, from Hertford, has been windsurfing for 18 years, competing in the Wave Classic since ’97, and is now ranked in the top 10 worldwide. Skye reckons the conditions today are better than Hawaii.
Tiree is the perfect place for this sport,” he says. “Where it’s an island, you’ve got beaches facing different directions, so no matter what the wind direction, you can find a beach that’s worth a wail.”
Skye says the variety of conditions on Tiree makes it a great spot to learn, because you can progress from beach to beach as you improve. The Wild Diamond windsurfing and kitesurfing school provides beginner’s instruction, and there’s also a practice sail-board spiked into the beach, so you can get a feel for the wind before you get wet.
Skye’s advice for anyone looking to try the sport is to go on a windsurfing holiday. If you go to a nice place with easy sailing and you’re out every day, you learn more,” he says.
It’s certainly a beautiful place to learn. A blip in the centre of a vivid blue sea streaked with turquoise, Tiree’s mossy landscape yawns out, flecked with chunks of rock and the odd white cottage. There’s hardly anything here, just loads of space, some moose-sized Highland cows and a bundle of bleached-out beaches. To put things in perspective: two shops, two bars, 700 people and one solitary policeman to keep them in check. It may have a slightly Wicker Man air, but the laidback vibe comes as the perfect antidote to London. Or at least, it would on any other week.
The afternoon brings several heats of supercross – the windsurfing equivalent of the grand national, with competitors jumping over giant obstacle sausages, winging it round flags and crashing into each other. Off the water, meanwhile, the drinks and stories begin to flow. It’s ‘Big Tuesday’, the legendary party night of the event.
Lifeguard Jamo from the Scarinish Hotel reels off story after story with more charisma than a thousand Hasselhoffs, explaining how he lost two of his fingers in a surfing leash accident, and holding up the stumps for evidence. Dancing on a table on one leg and waving his crutches in the air is competitor Martin Francis, who bust the tendons in his foot in a freestyle heat the previous day. This is the spirit of the Wave Classic.
While the others nurse their heads the next day, I brave the wind and water to try another sport that’s taken off on the island: kitesurfing. Considering that the closest I’d ever come to sailing is hanging my sheets out on a windy day, was I ready for the sea? Yes, it seemed, when the vehicle of choice is a stealth catamaran – one of the lightest and fastest boats known to man.
I soon learn how to tack (sailing into the wind in a zig-zag fashion) and gybe (sailing with the wind behind you). As we pick up speed, the boat tilts way out on one side, and keeping the balance means trapezing out from it on a cable, almost flying out above the salt spray. An amazing experience – particularly when you gaze west and remember the next stop would be America.
An island on the edge of the world, Tiree is special. And with conditions that’d make Maui miserable, you’d be stupid not to lose your inner wimp, brace the wind, grip it and rip it.
• The 2006 Tiree Wave Classic is scheduled for October 14-21, 2006. See www.tireewaveclassic.com for information on the event and a guide to windsurfing spots on the island. Beginner courses in windsurfing or kite-surfing with Wild Diamond start at £60, including all equipment (www.tireewindsurfing.co.uk).
• Flights from Glasgow to Tiree with British Airways/Loganair cost from £65 (www.ba.com) and take 45 minutes. Alternatively, Caledonian MacBrayne (www.calmac.co.uk) runs a ferry between Tiree and Oban (three hours north of Glasgow), from £17.70 return. Car rental is available from MacLennan Motors (01879-220 555).
• Kite-surfing, kayak surfing and coasteering are also popular activities on Tiree, see www.hebrideanpursuits.com.”