Chasing the waves in Outer Hebrides – British Army Surf Trip 2018
Previous blog posts have focused on surf trips and explorations to destinations across Europe and beyond. As part of the Northcore Armed Forces initiative, we supported the British Army Surf Team and their recent adventure much closer to home. This is the story of their trip chasing waves across the beautiful and isolated beaches of the Outer Hebrides – an island chain off the west coast of mainland Scotland.
Words by Alastair Courtney: April 2018 – Ok, the 2018 trip didn’t start in 2018. It was a dream in 2015 that became a reality in November 2016, when a small group of us from Army Surfing went on what turned out to be, for me, the dream trip.
Many thought I was nuts for organising it. “It’s such a long drive!” “It’s so cold!” “Is there any surf there?” Well, my answer to them was this: it would be worth every cramped moment of that drive, there was certainly surf, and it wasn’t “cold”! Anyway, I’m a cold water surf nut job – I would take stormy and cold winter swell environments over a crowded warm water line-up any day. It’s just who I am. I have bodyboarded around the world – Australia, America, France, South Africa, to name a few, but the Outer Hebrides…that was somewhere special to me.
Once that trip ended and we were on our way home, lots of ideas were floated around, one being that it was too short. The thing that struck me the most was how stoked everyone was, and before I had even boarded the ferry back to the mainland I knew I had to organise another trip.
After announcing at the Army Surfing AGM in March 2017 that I was going to do the trip again, preparation started in July 2017. The plan was simple: re-run the same trip with a few alterations. It seemed so simple at first, but things had moved on, and more hoops had to be jumped through. A dream is a dream, but with drive, determination and a few mates behind you, it can become a reality!
Fast forward to March 31st and finally we were off, leaving Plymouth at daft o’clock for a marathon journey limited to 60mph, collecting people en route as we passed through England and Scotland. After completing most of the drive we stopped at the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge in the Highlands near Fort William. I was tired from all the driving by that point, so I pulled out my sleeping bag, found some rough ground and got a couple of hours sleep. I awoke to a frost-covered sleeping bag, but as I glanced over my shoulder I saw a spectacular dawn light behind Ben Nevis, silhouetting the memorial in the foreground. I had a flask of coffee and just sat and watched the sunrise.
After a few last minute ferry cancellations and changes of ports, we were sailing to South Uist and then driving north to Benbecula. The weather was good apart from the wind that had arrived too! We settled into our accommodation in Baile a’ Mhanaich, found the bar and sorted out the following days’ activities. Half the group wanted to head to the Isle of Lewis – it’s one thing I had seriously thought about, but unfortunately for some it wasn’t financially feasible.
The following morning we all met up, got our breakfast and drove to Hosta Traigh stir, a place we had found on the first trip that always seemed to have a swell. The Islands were flat that day, but this is the gamble – you cannot book the surf. Luckily, Hosta did have a wave and everyone got in, and it was all good fun. The group had decided to leave the following morning and head north, so some of us stayed and some others travelled north for 3 days – their story I do not know. I was one of the ones who stayed behind, as the idea of hunting for bigger waves further north was not for me, and I was sceptical that they would exist on that swell. I knew what Hosta could produce, and what came did not disappoint. Day after day of big, solid, super clean surf, big drops, fast rides, long rides and heart-thumping rides.
Now, there is one thing that gets me about the Hebrides – the landscape is just breathtaking. It’s just so remote and spectacular, but the rubbish drives me nuts! I’m a Regional Representative for Surfers Against Sewage and I cannot just leave rubbish laying there, so the following day we did a massive beach clean at a beach called An Ceothan (also known as ‘airport beach’ due to its location). Once we had filled the van full of rubbish from the beach, the local refuse company kindly disposed of it all for us.
This was followed by day-after-day of perfect surf. It made me chuckle that locals from Harris and Lewis were travelling down to Hosta to get some good swell, and they found it funny that half our group had travelled up to where they had come from. Along with the surf came a couple of cultural trips, usually on days we were surfed-out, to places like Barpa Langass – a large chambered cairn. A lot of exploring for other potential surf breaks were also done. Traigh lar near Solas had a lot of potential, along with Traigh Bheireal, Traigh nam Faoghailean and Traigh lar. But Hosta just kept on giving the swell right until our last day, when the biggest swell I think any of us had seen was rolling in. 2-300 meters off the point, huge A frames throwing the lip were looking like slow motion as they free fell to make big barrels. You could feel the impact as the lip landed, and it was spectacular to look at, but it was clear it was not surfable for any of us!
We travelled around a bit, all being blown away by the impressive swell, but for the ones who had come on the first trip in 2016, there was a beach that none of us had surfed – Culla, or ‘Stinky Beach’ as the locals call it. It always looked like it would be awesome on a big swell, and when we arrived on this whim, we were not disappointed. We climbed to the top of the dune to be met by big, long, super clean peeling lines, and, funnily enough, it didn’t take long for us to get changed! The paddle out was horrendous as it just wanted to drive you back to the beach. As the waves closed out they were heavy, but once out-back we were rewarded by a perfect choice of heart-pounding rides.
That, sadly, was our last day. We went back to the accommodation and spent the evening packing the minibus to travel back early the following morning. Funnily enough, as we were boarding the ferry, I had already started formulating a plan for a return trip to those remote islands, the Outer Hebrides.