It is just over 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 from everything.”
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 Scottish Highlands.
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 home US$25,000.
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.
Follow the event live on the web on O’Neill TV