It is less than a month until the world’s northernmost and coldest
professional surfing contest makes its third appearance in the north
of Scotland. With its long, clean, super-fast icy waves, the O’Neill
Highland Open by Swatch attracts a host of the world’s best surfers to
the small town of Thurso in Caithness.
For World Qualifying Series (WQS) competitor and last year’s runner
up, Australian surfer Jarrad Howse, the Highland Open is an event that
stands out from everything else on the gruelling WQS circuit. “I love
the event,” says Howse.
“I think it’s the history of the place and the fact that it’s so
different from everywhere else on the tour. Usually we’re in and
around big cities and festivals but it’s so special that it’s in this
little town of Thurso. It’s just so down to earth and so far removed
It’s not just the location at 59 degrees north that makes the
Highland Open so special. The winner of the event walks away with a
unique prize in contemporary surfing The Chieftain, a double-handed,
limited edition Medieval Scottish war sword. The sword is a replica of
an early Claymore, a sword depicted on ancient grave slabs in the
O’Neill event director Bernhard Ritzer explains that “having the sword
as a first prize means that the event is about more than money and
championship points. We present the winner with the sword as a way of
recognising Scotland’s unique history. It’s a symbol of why we’re here
and why this event is so special.”
His fellow countryman Nathan Hedge might have walked away with The
Chieftain last year, but Howse is determined that he’ll be the one to
wield the sword by the end of the week-long 2008 Highland Open. “I
wanted that sword so bad last year,” he said. “It’s the best feeling
to win a competition, and it would have been all the more special
because it was O’Neill but mostly I wanted that sword.” No surprise
when Howse reveals that “Braveheart was my favourite movie.”
The O’Neill Highland Open by Swatch has been integral to changing the
face of surfing in Europe, putting the icy barrels of Scotland on the
world surfing map. Run by surfers, for surfers, the event ignores the
cold and instead focuses on the world-class breaks that lie along
Scotland’s north shore. This year it is supported by EventScotland
the first time that Event Scotland has backed a surfing event.
As Paul Bush, Chief Operating Officer of EventScotland, says: “With
its dramatic coastline, the North of Scotland is recognised as one of
the finest surfing destinations in Europe.”
In keeping with the adventurous and exploratory nature of the event,
the Highland Open is free to move around the north shore of Scotland
depending on where the best wind and swell offers the best waves for
the surfers. If necessary, the contest will re-locate from its base at
Thurso to other top quality breaks such as Brims Ness, Murkle West,
Nothing Left, Point of Ness and Strathy.
The event is also a top-graded WQS event: a prime 6 star contest with
a prize purse of US$135,000.
There’s more: the first-placed surfer wins a berth on the O’Neill The
Mission France 2008. This unique, fully mobile event takes in the
French coast from Brittany to the Basque Country, with options for a
detour to the Mediterranean Sea. Ten of the world’s best surfers are
invited on The Mission. They judge each other - and the winner takes
O’Neill is also 100% committed to continuing the company’s other
mission, one that has been a constant since its formation over 50
years ago: to raise ecological awareness and safeguard the environment.
The O’Neill Highland Open by Swatch runs from 23 to 30 April. It’s not
for the faint-hearted - but it is the place where you’ll see the best
surfing in Britain this year. The O’Neill Highland Open by Swatch is
organized by O’Neill and supported by Swatch, Red Bull, EventScotland,
Visit Scotland and HIE Caithness & Sutherland.
The History of the O’Neill Highland Open by Swatch
The Highland Open was first staged in April 2006. Thurso had long been
known to hardcore UK surfers as the home of one of the most serious
and demanding waves in Europe, but it took O’Neill’s decision to stage
a major WQS contest to put the town on the world surfing map.
In 2007, the Highland Open again proved a massive hit among WQS
surfers not to mention the people of Thurso. But as well as the
location, its success owes much to the O’Neill philosophy. As O’Neill
event director Bernhard Ritzer puts it: “We aim to provide everyone -
from surfers right through to event staff - with an authentic taste of
life on Scotland’s North Shore. The event is integrated as much as
possible into the town of Thurso, so that everyone mixes freely with
the local community.
We’ve also experienced a number of classic Scottish traditions
including a whiskey tour and tasting session at Old Pulteney
Distillery, and a fantastic dinner at Ackergill Tower Castle. And as
each year goes by, we get to know more of the local characters and
diehard surfers the people who help to make this remote town so
Legends of the Highland Open Chris Noble
Chris Noble isn’t the first man to surf Thurso East, but he might just
have racked up more sessions there than anyone else. Formerly a
fisherman from Fraserburgh, Chris started surfing when he was 13. He
once spent an entire February at sea but moved eight years ago to
Thurso for its surf. He lives in a house overlooking the legendary
reef, never misses a swell and knows the reef like the back of his
hand. Wiry and laconic, Chris sums up the appeal of Thurso East:
“Sure, we get blocks of ice going ‘clunk clunk’ on your board in the
winter the ice floats down the frozen River Thurso and into the line- up but we get seals, dolphins, sea otters and waves that are just
perfect. All I want to do is surf those waves.”
The O’Neill Story: From Ocean Beach to the Highland Open
Jack O’Neill created O’Neill in 1952, after he had moved to San
Francisco and discovered the cold-water joys of surfing Ocean Beach.
As much a sailor, hot air balloon pilot and serial inventor as a
surfer, Jack always knew instinctively what his fellow ocean lovers
were looking for. Among many other innovations, Jack’s pioneering
development of the wetsuit meant that before long surfers were riding
more waves, and riding them better, in large measure because they
could enjoy longer sessions in cold water.
By 1980, Jack’s shop, which began as the classic surfer’s garage
outfit, had metamorphosed into a leading global surfing company.
Remarkably, even now - at the age of 84 - Jack’s energy and passion
for the ocean continue to define O’Neill. The company’s ethos is born
of its Northern California roots, as Jack continues his mission to
pursue and popularise the environmental projects that have become
synonymous with O’Neill.
Chief among them is the O’Neill Sea Odyssey programme, begun in 1996.
In the US, this is a free, educational cruise aboard the Team O’Neill
catamaran that acquaints children with the microbiology of the
Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary. For as Jack says: “The best thing I
have ever done in my life was to bring those kids to the ocean.”
» O'Neill Highland Open, Thurso, Scotland - April 22-30 2008