Living in an old, unheated campervan for 14 months, including the coldest winter for 30 years, Jonathan Bennett travelled clockwise all the way round Britain, surfing every beach he could catch a wave. In this extract, Jonathan faces his biggest surfing fear: Thurso.
The next day was bright and calm. I woke up on Thurso sea front, and from the comfort of my bed looked over at the reef. A few people were out, but it looked quite small - an optical illusion, I now realise - and the tide almost at high. I was exhausted from the night before so I went off to the library for an hour or two, trying to ignore the Siren call of the wave.
It was hopeless, of course. By mid-day I couldn't stop myself heading back to the farmyard to have a look. And it looked fabulous. Four people out, a long, long interval and not a breath of wind. Conditions you dream about. The waves were coming in at around one and a half times the height of the surfers on them, with some of them twice as high. But it was as clean and clear as a mountain lake. This was my opportunity.
I paddled out in bright sunshine and sat on the shoulder, admiring the power and beauty of the wave. I had never seen such fantastic waves. With such a long interval they seemed to slide in out of nowhere, pushing sinuously up against the mirror-smooth surface of the sea before suddenly doubling, tripling in size, rising into an abrupt peak, rearing up like a bear, toppling over in an explosive curl of force and momentum, a perfect parabola of energy that went spinning and churning along the reef. As I watched, I began to get a feel for the wave: which one to take, where it was peaking. After staying out of the way of the other surfers for a good ten to fifteen minutes - partly courtesy, partly fear - I realised it was time to try and join the party.
Again I waited for all four of them to catch a wave and hare off into the distance, surfing it all the way to the end. It's a long paddle back, so their absence left me alone for a while. As soon as the last one went, I paddled into position. The session the night before might have boosted my confidence, but it had done nothing to quell my nerves. If anything, the perfect conditions were making me more nervous. The waves were cleaner, but they were bigger. And I felt that there was more at stake. It was one thing to mess up choppy waves in the gathering gloom of dusk. Quite another to mess up perfect waves in beautiful sunshine, before an audience of my fellow surfers both in the water and, for all I knew, on the shore.
A wave slipped sinuously towards me. I turned and paddled. Nothing. It slipped off without me. Damn. Must paddle harder. There was a lull. The first of the four surfers was returning. Not good news. I didn't want to miss my slot. Another wave approached, growing alarmingly as it got closer. But I couldn't back down now. I had to go for it. And I had to catch it. I paddled harder this time. As hard as I could, just as the tip of the wave was starting to feather. An immense, sheer slide dropped away before me as the wave started to slip past. But it wasn't an impossible chasm. It was steep, but it wasn't threatening to swallow me up. And crucially, I was paddling hard enough for the wave to pick me up and take me with it.
I'm not sure what happened next. It wasn't instinct, or reflex. It certainly wasn't conscious action. But somewhere along the road from Tiree to Bru to Sango to Melvich, my feet had learned what to do, and when. One moment I was paddling, terrified of what might happen. The next I was standing on my board, flying down a steep expanse of burnished steel, body crouched for balance, mind racing, every nerve, every sinew caught up in survival mode, alert to what was happening.
The screaming slide seemed to plunge at an improbable angle, threatening to pitch me off way before I got to the bottom. Somehow it didn't. I held on, weight on my back foot, until my board had plummeted as far as it would go. Somehow it knew how to steer round into a bottom turn. An instant of unbalance, a moment of teetering, but miraculously I held it together and now I was speeding along the open face, being chased by a gnashing monster hell-bent on engulfing me in its foaming jaws.
I was on my backhand, back to the wave, head turned to see what was going on behind my shoulder. The sensation of the sea's energy impelling me on was utterly unique. The wave snarled and foamed and tried to outpace me, but its eager aggression pushed me onwards, just in the pocket, holding a straight line, as fast as I could, just fast enough to hold my lead as we both, the wave and I, raced along the shoreline. It was exhilarating and nerve-racking and entirely new. Pretty much every other wave I had been on unfurled its energy early on, so its strength decreased as it rolled towards the beach. Here, not only did it not decrease, it seemed to redouble, powering on insistently, with no sign of relinquishing its hold, no question of fading. It was sublime. An awe-inspiring show of nature's power, seen in thundering close-up. I sped along, clinging to my precarious, privileged position in the monster's wake, as insignificant and overshadowed as a butterfly on a rhino's back.
Eventually the beast flicked its tail and pitched me over into the dark water, rolling me around in the gurgling maelstrom, caught up in the swirling vortex of energy and spinning me over and over, no idea which way was up or down, or how long I would be spinning. One arm instinctively went up to protect my head and face, the other stretched out as counterbalance, and to ward off rocks. It duly grazed the rough rock of the reef, a harsh reminder of what lay beneath. The wave rolled on, leaving me to splutter to my feet, waist deep in water, a long way from where I had started. And with a big smile that even the long paddle back couldn't banish. It had finally happened. I could not have been happier.