“You’re a lot more talented than you think you are.” Ben encourages Noah as we continue driving along the coast during one of our ritualistic morning surf checks. “Yeah, well, it’s not your bones bouncing off the reef,” Noah rebuttals, as Pete and I sit silently in the backseat staring out the window with the rugged headlands of Scotland drifting by and out of view. As a photographer, I have exactly the same mindset as our cinematographer, Ben; there’s no harm in paddling out to have a look. But as a surfer, the idea of paddling out with no guarantee of catching a wave is a mental struggle, not matter how dangerous it appears. It’s all or nothing for them. Ben and I know our boundaries, as Pete and Noah know theirs. But our underlying responsibility is to encourage them to push the limits, to go beyond their comfort zone and to embrace the ever constant fear of the unknown. That being said, we can’t push them into something that could very realistically get them hurt. It’s their risk, but our reward. We had already heard stories from locals about a world famous charger who got airlifted out of the same zone, on what was rumored to be only a shoulder-high day…
Pete’s prompting us to watch the final section of ‘Proximity’ for the tenth time, in an attempt to study Albee and Shane’s approach to the sketchy slab in question. As any dramatic masterpiece, this movie plays up the fear factor for the audience and they explain how terrifying it is for only being head high. We watch closely as clips play of two of the best surfers in the world getting sucked up over the falls and rolled onto the reef, but continue to come up laughing. We point out that neither of them are hurt or rattled, even after diving head first into the shallow waters just adjacent to the rocky shelf – not the most effective or persuasive argument. This is my first experience in the country, but this is the group’s third time across the pond. The so-called safety slabs are seeming rather fickle this time around though, we fight against the bone chilling breeze to have a look around every nook and cranny but come up empty handed. It’s almost as if Scotland was begging us to try something different. Ben continues to playfully poke the boys in a Scottish accent about having a dig at our newly discovered slab and I silently agree with him.
In hopes of scoring right off the bat, we point out the forecast flaws for the day. The wind is wrong, the swell direction is off, the tide isn’t high enough, the sets are too small, and the list goes on. Aiming for perfection is pointless since our time here is limited. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got and make the best of it. Finally Pete says the words we’ve been waiting for “I’ll paddle out and have a look, if that’s what you guys want.” We excitedly encourage this proposal while Noah decides to join and keep him company. After several minutes of investigating the take off zone and suspiciously shallow reef, a set comes through and Noah takes the first look. My heart is pounding out of my chest as I watch him paddle into a gurgling one-foot chip shot and stands tall as the the wave reforms on the reef and triples in size over top of him. Our hoots and hollers echo from the top of the cliff as the tension is releasing as they continue to surf alone and find comfort within the chaos.
During the last few days of the trip, Noah may not have taken the beating he originally anticipated, but two of his best boards sure did. They belong to Scotland now. Me though, the photographer, I walk away unscathed with some unique images to write home about. Though I hope they collectively tell a story on their own. The age old battle, risk versus reward. A safe bet so long as you’re aware of who you’re asking.
Filmed and Edited by Ben Gulliver
Photo: Marcus Paladino