A Testing Surf Trip to The Outer Hebrides

Who remembers teletext? And more specifically, who remembers the surf report service on teletext? Page 398, if I remember correctly – I must have opened that page every single day of my teenage years.
(If you were born post 1990 and have no idea what I’m talking about, think of teletext as a slow, text-only internet on your TV, with no social features, no web cams, no YouTube. I don’t know how we survived)

Anyway, as I recall Page 398 listed a few surf spots around the country – Newquay, Croyde, Scarborough, Bantham and... The Outer Hebrides. And The Outer Hebrides were always 6ft+ and clean. Even in summer. So it was only natural that during those long summer surf droughts, the Outer Hebrides came to represent something of a holy grail for me and my friends. I always knew that one day I’d go there. And this summer, I finally got to.

A Hebridean Dream

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect either. We have just finished building the much-improved Version 2.0 of Johnny on the Spot, so this was the ideal opportunity to test it one last time. Trips like this are just what we built the Johnny on the Spot for – to record the surf discoveries we make and help us make more accurate decisions about when to go back and surf them. Surf prediction has come a long way since Page 398…

Minkes, Superpods and the Promise of Good Swell

The ferry journey across to the Hebrides is an absolute joy. We must have seen a dozen Minke whales and we passed through 2 huge pods of dolphins. The water was oily calm, with just a small, 2ft swell rolling under the boat, whetting our appetites for some fun surf once we arrived.

Soon after landing we passed by a campsite, where we saw a car with boards on the roof. We ran in and asked the owners - a young couple from Edinburugh - where they’d been surfing, and they gave us directions down a farm track and through some dunes. We followed it and sure enough, we found a small wave breaking on a pristine stretch of beach and absolutely no one else around.
The tide was quite high, making the waves a little too fat for the shortboards, but it was great fun on the SUP. The water here is so clear – between sets I could pick out huge shoals of sand eels darting across the ocean floor.

The swell stayed small and fun for the first two days. There was no need to go anywhere.

It takes a long time to grasp just how late it stays light in the Scottish summer. I got out of the water thinking it was around 8 o’clock – the sun was still high in the sky. It was closer to 10pm. You could surf 5 times a day here and still have time to go to work.

We ended up camping the night in the dunes, and didn’t move from this spot for the next two days. The swell stayed consistent, breaking about 1.5 to 2ft. It was very similar to a popular beach break back in Wales that is renowned for it’s bowly peaks. The only difference was that instead of 30+ people in the water, there was no one.

Aren't The Hebrides Always 6ft and Clean?

Then something strange happened. The Outer Hebrides went flat. Fishermen we met on the beach told us how rare this was – they were used to seeing this beach with mountainous waves breaking way out to the horizon. It turned out that we had timed our visit with the longest heatwave in Scotland for the last 20 years. A high pressure was sitting right above us and keeping the ocean as calm as can be.

Not that we were complaining - there's plenty to do in the Hebrides beyond surf. For the next few days we explored, finding nothing but empty beaches filled with massive surf potential, beautiful coastal scenery, and some other incredible wildlife.

It was right about this moment that I decided I am always going to take the SUP on surf trips.

The home screen on the new JOTS gives you an instant conditions check of all your recorded spots. So I was keeping a close eye on what was happening at 'Spot 1'. We were a long way away from it by now, but I figured it would act as a good indicator for whatever swell was coming in on the west coast.
Sure enough, a few days later I noticed that a swell had picked up. We hot-footed it to the nearest west-facing beach and were greeted with a wedgy right breaking off the cliffs.

I have no idea how he's done it, but Gerrit has managed to build an offline function into version 2.0 of JOTS. So even if you take a picture out of range, the phone will save your all the data and upload it when you're back in range. This was particularly useful in the Outer Hebrides, where phone reception isn't always a given.

That picture on the bottom right was taken on our last day of surf. As you can see from the recorded data, the wind was picking up, and by that night it had swung around to the north. It blew in strong as well. Our last two days on the Outer Hebrides were spent doing everything we could to find shelter. This was midsummer, but it could have been a late autumn day in Wales.

It was a small taste of what we had been fortunate enough to miss up to now - the wild weather the Outer Hebrides is famous for. It felt very raw. But that's the appeal of this place really. As soon as we were back on the mainland I missed it - the smell of burning peat in the air, the light skies at midnight, the cerulean waters, the days hardly seeing another soul, the special sense that we really were in one of Europe's remotest corners. I'll be back.

Partly because I still want to surf the Outer Hebrides closer to their best. Yes, 4 days out of 8 produced some fun, if not epic surf. But the week after we left I know that a 3m swell arrived. It would have been amazing to visit some of the little nooks and crannies along the coast to see what happened then. I'll have a better idea of what to expect then too. Not the 'Indonesia of the Atlantic' like writers on some forums had hypothesised, but a wild and unpredictable coastline, with no guarantees but with huge potential when conditions come together.

With the JOTS recordings I'll have a better idea of when that happens now. Actually, it looks like it happens quite a lot. Every time I look at the Home Screen of my app it tells me, just like Page 398 used to, that the Outer Hebrides is 6ft+ and clean!
The more things change...

Note from Ben: You'll notice that none of the spots here are named. That's intentional. Privacy and the protection of lesser known spots is big on our agenda. Johnny on the Spot has been designed very much as the surfer's private diary. Our promise is that we will never share any of the spots you record. More about this in the coming weeks.

News Flash - The new version of JOTS is super close to being ready. We've got a couple of final tweaks to make, but hope to be putting out a soft launch in the next couple of weeks. Keep a close eye on our social media if you'd like to be one of the first to try it out.