The chart went from perfect to potential to bust. Disintegration and reshaped expectations. [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] Flat for days. The calamity known as Getting Skunked. The predictable response would be glumness, heavier than usual alcohol intake, headphones and iphones, constant feed refreshment for a Kit-Kat advert and a glimpse of how good it is in Clare, thirteen hours in a van for nothing. Yet this focus on our own desires ignores the spectrum of what surfing is, where it transports you to and the value in that. As we found, north shore flat doesn’t always mean exactly that.

The bank at the river is in good shape. People pay thousands a week to pull on long rubber boots and wade into the black water. My father went with his father in the 1950s. All those knots: Albright, Double Surgeon’s, Clinch. And the flies themselves – Black Boars, Blue Charms, Stoat’s Tail and Flamethrowers. The fight of a salmon is shocking, to paraphrase Ted Hughes: “All this, too, is stitched into the torn richness/ The epic poise / That holds him so steady in his wounds, so loyal to his doom, so patient / In the machinery of Heaven.” Thus entering this same water on eight foot of foam and fibreglass, bobbing downriver in the current, is to enter the world of the salmon. Peeks over the bank at a machine-like right. Waist high delight. Peelers into an infinite sunset, towards the distant scarp of Ben Hope with arms raised high, letting all the burdens and bullshit fall away. Warm as toast in a new suit. The best kind of flat, five fins and flying.

photo by James Bowden
photo by James Bowden
photo by James Bowden
photo by James Bowden

Two locals surf memorably, backhand at Thurso. Mark Boyd with poise, telling a visiting surfer not to overcomplicate matters. “Grab your rail, point your nose at that church and hang on,” he says. Next wave, the guy gets the barrel of his day. Chris Clarke knows when to flip and go, reading the gaps in the knowledge of the crowd, comfortably buried in his own groove. Two local girls share the empty lineup as the tide drains out. It’s not nearly big or perfect enough to lure out the full host of talent. Nomad James Aiken passes through, en route to his boat laid up at Oban, lured north by the same declining numbers. Bowden lasts out the crowd, delighted. I learn by falling.

Twin days are indistinguishable but for 10mph of wind, blowing straight into the slab which turns nothing into perfect something. Noah Lane travels on a three-fin bonzer, with the seeming ability to slow the wave itself down. Sparkling blue apex, surprising heft. Leaning backwards into the wave and incorporated into its guts. Frozen yet racing. Andrew Kidman taught me the grace in economy of movement (through his surfing), I can’t translate it but Noah can. Matt Smith alternates between a Roma 5 fin and a Seadar, 5 foot and 5 inches of Otter-crafted native hardwood. Commitment, you can see Ireland in his surfing, his approach to life. Chris McClean sits in the pit with 15kg of camera equipment. The dogs dance on the slab. Before midday both sessions are over.

It leaves much time for contemplation. We are here to determine the future of Backwash, our contribution to surfing culture. This collective desire is what brought us together from different corners of the British Isles. The ‘flatness’ gives us time and space to discuss, create and weave. Our plan is the same as ever – to shake things up and plant a tree for every issue sold. We’ve got almost zero Issue Ones left, that’s 1500 in the ground. A decision is made to take a slice of the entity and divide it for community ownership, so our contributors are invested in the future of our culture, we’ll tell you more about that soon. Issue Three, in which we focus on our home, the United Kingdom, is now open for contribution. We invite and would welcome yours.

There are stags on the road and a pair of barn owls hunt the frozen night. The temperature slips so low you can feel the air slip down into your lungs. The sheep stand like sculptures and a stray suit is frozen white neoprene armour. The return journey is twelve hours of stiff-legged focus, the rapid decline of solitude, transitioning between schizophrenic lives. And Hughes too finds the perfect words for the spirit of the north, which serve as his epitath at Westminster Abbey: “So we found the end of our journey / So we stood, alive in the river of light/ Among the creatures of light, creatures of Light.”