Dunbar surf brings Phoebe Strachan Scotland cap
The image is of sun-kissed sands and tropical palms, beach crammed with bronzed bodies and laid-back surfer dudes with sun bleached hair, eyes fixed for the next big breaker.
Teeth chattering on the shore at Belhaven Bay, desperately trying to change into a wetsuit in a freezing car park, then chucking yourself to the mercy of the North Sea, perhaps sounds a little less enticing.
For world-class surfer Phoebe Strachan however, the bitter cold of the East Lothian coast has been the perfect training ground.
Along with years of high level competition not on the crest of a wave, but at Highland dance contests where she perfected her balance and poise, Phoebe’s unusual approach to conquering the supercool sport appears to have paid off.
For she has just been selected as one of only two women in Scotland’s six-strong international surf squad, now preparing to compete against the world’s best at the International Surfing Association World Games, one of the biggest events of its kind.
It is only the second time ever that Scotland has sent a team to an international surfing contest; the last one was a Eurosurf contest more than 20 years ago.
And the team’s inclusion in the top level contest at Punta Rocas in Peru later this month – where the water temperature peaks at up to 26°c compared to Dunbar‘s chilly 15°C – is being seen as a major breakthrough for the sport in Scotland.
It’s also a massive leap for Phoebe, who has only ever surfed outside the UK once during a family holiday in Spain, is still in her first year of serious competition and whose training regime often involves hours not of surfing, but of skateboarding.
Despite what might sound like a string of handicaps to mastering the sport, however, the 18-year-old former champion Highland dancer is confident that the unusual approach to international level surfing has given her a competitive edge.
She even admits she prefers the harsh Scottish conditions to the idea of surfers’ paradise resorts like Honolua Bay in Hawaii, Surfrider beach in Malibu or Australia’s Gold Coast.
“I don’t particularly want to go to Hawaii or anywhere like that to surf because for a start it would be so crowded,” shrugs Phoebe, who sets off with the Scotland squad for Peru next week.
“I prefer places where there are no crowds. I like to get up to the Outer Hebrides where no one else is surfing and have world-class waves all to myself.
“People don’t realise how amazing the surf is in Scotland,” she adds. “They don’t think surfing is really possible here, but some of the guys who are surfing in Scotland are as good as anyone in Australia or California.
“They’ve just never had a chance to show it off.”
Phoebe, from Newhaven, started surfing aged 12, when teachers at her school, George Heriot’s, organised a string of lessons at Coast to Coast Surf School in Dunbar.
She showed such a natural talent, that instructors at the surf school encouraged her to keep going after the school lessons ended. “The first time I tried surfing, it was March, so I suppose the cold didn’t bother me that much,” she shrugs. “I seemed to get on quite well and found it really easy.
“I had danced since I was two years old and grew up doing all kinds of sport. I think my balance was pretty good because of the dancing and standing on a board felt easy.
“The instructors thought I had a bit of talent and they encouraged me to keep going.”
She juggled surfing with her love of Highland dance until it became clear she needed to concentrate her efforts on just one.
“I was injured a lot last year, I tore the ligaments in my hip from dancing – I was competing at a high level and the training was very intense. I had to ditch something, and it had to be the dancing.”
Once focussed entirely on surfing, Phoebe racked up a string of amazing competition results – putting her in the frame for the Scotland squad.
But unlike the world’s top surf stars who train on huge waves in tropical climates, Phoebe’s training is often at the mercy of the Scottish weather, forcing her to practise her surfboard tricks on her skateboard. “I do a lot of land training, basic cardio and strength building, but I also go skateboarding so I can work on my tricks,” she explains.
“The cold and wet doesn’t put me off, even though there are times it’s so cold it’s snowing, I still try to get out. Wetsuit technology means you don’t feel cold when you are in the water – the worst bit is trying to get the wetsuit on while standing in a freezing cold car park.”
In March Phoebe scooped third place in the ladies and juniors events at the National Championships, her first major competition and a showcase event for the team selectors.
She followed it up in June with first places in the ladies and juniors sections of the Scottish Longboard competition and is now looking forward to the Gathering of the Clans competition this weekend in Fraserburgh, a last chance warm up before jetting to Peru.
She leaves for Lima on Monday – but before then there is a last-minute race for funding to help cover the costs of the Scotland squad. The Scottish Surfing Federation – which is organising the Peru trip – has launched an appeal for corporate sponsors to help fund their first international outing since the Nineties. A crowdfunding website has also been set up to help raise the £16,000 cost of the trip.
SSF President William Watson, says: “We’ve seen the sport go from strength to strength in recent years.
“The help we’ve had along the way from SportScotland has been tremendous and as such after achieving formal Governing Body recognition earlier this summer we’ve now been able to work with the European Surfing Federation and the International Surfing Association to bring the sport to a new level.
“The team we have consists not only of Scotland’s elite surfers but they’re whom I would consider some of the best ambassadors we could ask for on our World Games debut – I know they’ll do us all, the sport and Scotland proud.”
Phoebe, who has just started studying Applied Sports and Exercise Science at Aberdeen University, says she is still reeling from her selection in the squad. “I feel really stoked and honoured to have been asked to be part of the team.”
Meanwhile she’s preparing for an unusual experience – surfing in relatively warm waters.
“I’m so used to the cold that it might be a bit odd surfing when it’s warm,” laughs Phoebe, whose parents Gillian and Alan and sister Emily, 16, will be supporting her at home in Newhaven.
“Although it’s an amazing experience for myself and Scottish surfing it does feel quite daunting travelling to compete against some of the best people in the world, but I am thoroughly looking forward to it and want to make the most of the opportunity.
“I hope to surf well and enjoy the experience.
“And I also hope to show that Scotland can produce surfers just as good as the more established nations like Australia and the United States.”
To sponsor the Scotland surfing team, go to http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/scotland-surfing-team or call 07977867485
Surf’s up in East Lothian
The weather may be slightly more challenging than the warmth of Malibu beach or Australia’s Gold Coast, but Scotland’s waves are among the best in the world.
Autumn is apparently the best time of year to seek out a decent Scottish breaker thanks to a combination of regular swells and a drop in weather pressure, leading to a regular and consistent flow of good waves.
Surfers need to wear good quality wetsuits – costing around £300 – while a surf board can cost £600.
East Lothian is among the top spots for Scottish surfing, with various surf schools which hire equipment and organise lessons for beginners. Surfing is the perfect all-round workout: each element of surfing, from getting on the board to maintaining balance and, some might suggest, even getting into the wetsuit, requires a different set of muscles.